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10 Rules for the Ethics of Means and Ends, from Saul D. Alinsky

So, in structuring a strategy in seeking a desired end, one should first frame their ideas of what they are willing to do in order to achieve those ends in an ethical framework so as to keep their means defensible to others and, to a greater extent, themselves. Here are Alinsky’s 10 rules:

  1. One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.” — When we are not directly concerned, our morality overflows. One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s distance from the scene of conflict.
  2. “The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgement.” Eg., the Declaration of Independence as a glorious document, affirming human rights to us, whereas to the British it was deceitful and full of omission to the benefits the empire provided: food provided during famines, medicine during times of disease, etc.
  3. “In war, the end justifies almost any means.” — During WWII, when Winston Churchill, a staunch anticommunist, was asked how he could reconcile being on the same side as the Soviets, he replied, “I only have one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
  4. “Judgement must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.”
  5. ”Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.”– If one lacks the luxury of a choice and is possessed of only one mean, then the ethical question will never arise; automatically the lone mean becomes endowed with moral spirit. After all, what else could be done?
  6. “The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.” — Mostly a reiteration of the first rule; with more distance from a problem, the less important the problem is.
  7. “Generally, success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.” — There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds, he becomes a founding father.
  8. “The morality of a mean depends upon whether the mean is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.” — The means employed with victory seemingly assured may be defined as immoral, whereas if they had been used in more desperate circumstances to avoid defeat, the question of morality would never arise.
  9. “Any effective mean is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.” — Francis Marion, a war hero of the American Revolution from South Carolina was immortalized as “the swamp fox,” for his guerrilla tactics used against the British. Cornwallis and the British Army were made harried and disorganized by Marion’s tactics, denouncing him as a criminal. They said he lacked ethics and morality for his revolutionary guerrilla means.
  10. “You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments.” — Availability of means determines whether you will be underground or above ground; whether you will move quickly or slowly; whether you will move for extensive changes or limited adjustments; whether you will move by passive resistance or active resistance–or whether you will move at all. As many upstarts have alluded to in their speeches and theses– when they have the guns, we are for peace and for reformation through the ballot; when we have the guns then it will be through the bullet.

A bit more on number 10, even Gandhi alludes to this principle in his Declaration of Independence from January 26th, 1930. His fourth indictment against the British reads:

“Spiritually, compulsory disarmament has made us unmanly, and the presence of an alien army of occupation, employed with deadly effect to crush in us, the spirit of resistance, has made us think we cannot look after ourselves or put up a defense against foreign aggression, or even defend our homes and families…”

This statement, centered on disarmament by an alien occupation (The British), implies if the means for more violent means had been available, they may have been used.

Source: 10 Rules for the Ethics of Means and Ends, from Saul D. Alinsky