Ends and Means

It would seem that James Fagan, a defense attorney and Massachusetts lawmaker is a monster embodying all the most horrifying qualities of a legal shark. A couple of weeks ago, he was being vilified in the press for what appeared to be utterly evil sentiments spoken on the floor of the Massachusetts legislature.

At issue was the attempt to pass a version of “Jessica’s Law” which would put rapists of children under 12 away for 20 years. Who could not applaud this? Does anybody want such creatures walking among us? Of course not!

Then, Fagan rose to attack the bill. Shockingly, he declared that if he had a client who was being tried for breaking Jessica’s Law he would “rip apart” any child who testified against him. He declared that he’d grill young victims so mercilessly that, “when they’re 8 years old they throw up; when they’re 12 years old, they won’t sleep; when they’re 19 years old, they’ll have nightmares and they’ll never have a relationship with anybody.”

There was, not surprisingly, a massive outcry in both the Massachusetts and national press against Fagan. Understandably, victims of such crimes were the most offended and blasted Fagan for his heartlessness. The basic tenor of the reaction was “All people want to do is protect children from evil and people like Fagan only want to add to their trauma.”

Now it could be that Fagan is a devil in human form and is, inexplicably, jeopardizing not only his political career, but every relationship with normal people, simply for the glee of fantasizing before a shocked nation of his ardent desire to destroy the hearts and minds of innocent children.

However, I think, after looking at his remarks, that the far more likely explanation for his words is this: he was pointing to the actual effect this law will have on defense attorneys when it is passed. He is saying to the Massachusetts legislature, “If you pass this law, this is what defense attorneys will very likely do in order to win acquittal for their clients—which is, like it or not, their job.”

In short, I think the guy was basically saying, “You’re dreaming that your new law will do what you want it to do. I’m telling you your new law will do what you design it to do.”

The distinction between what our systems of order are designed to do and what we wish they would do is something that plagues us every day.

We create computers that we wish would flawlessly multi-task and save us tons of work. But they drive us crazy with blue screens of death and General Protection Faults because they do what we designed them to do, not what we wish they would do.

We create vast welfare and social support networks. We wish they would help poor people get over a rough patch and then find gainful employment. But we design them to keep poor people poor and middle class people taxed to support a huge parasitic network of bureaucracy.

We create a huge entertainment industry to amuse us. We wish it would pour out great art that would both delight and move us. But we design it so that it pours out vast quantities of dreck designed to manipulate people into coughing up huge amounts of money for obscenity, inanity, and inhumanity. Result: 50 million TV channels with nothing good on any of them.

In these and many other cases, the system is doing what we designed it to do, not what we wish it to do.

No small part of the confusion is that we don’t much grasp the relationship between ends and means. We think that if we are trying to achieve a good end, whatever means we choose to get there is therefore good too. But that’s not true. Using a bad means to achieve a good end will get you, not the end you want, but the end you designed your system to reach. People who point that out, be they James Fagan pointing the out the real world results of Jessica’s Law or Jesus—pointing out that Pharisaic Judaism was producing whited sepulchers and not holy men—tend to be unpopular. Can’t these carping critics see that we mean well?

No, they can’t, because you can’t ultimately mean well when you use bad means. You can, to be sure, have good ends. Everybody—including every scoundrel and fool in the world—has those. But good ends are not enough. If you rob a bank to pay for college, you had good ends, but you didn’t mean well. Good means have to be employed to reach our ends or they will lead to bad ends. The tree is known by its fruit, not by its wishes.


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