Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals. Means vs. ends

(Part 5 of a 5-part series this week about Alinsky)

From Rules for Radicals.

He says the eternal question of does the end justify the means is meaningless and the real and only question is, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He has little use for those who sit on the sidelines and moralize.

They are passionately committed to a mystical objectivity where passions are suspect… They can be recognized by one of two verbals brands. “We agree with the ends but not the means” or “This is not the time.” The means-and-end moralists or non-doers always end up on their ends without any means.

Also, by constantly urging no action, they are actually siding with the Haves, not the Have-Nots. Plus, sometimes doing nothing is the height of immorality and shows a total lack of ethics. And cowardice as well.

Alinsky’s rules about the ethics of ends and means. (9 is my favorite.)

1. One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.

2. The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment.

3. In war the end justifies almost any means.

4. Judgment 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.

6. The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.

7. Generally, success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.

8. The morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.

9. Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.

10. You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments.

11. Goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.”

From the Gaping Void newsletter
From the Gaping Void newsletter

One comment

  1. I’ve been involved with several debates on ethics during my work in Sri Lanka, starting (in 1993) with the question: is it ethical to invest in the stock market while arguing that the market economy oppresses people? The organization could have used the money, but we decided we couldn’t do that. It gave us a vested interest (real or perceived) in NOT changing. Should we get involved with party politics while arguing that the system is rotten (1994)? No, even though there was a fair chance we could have fielded a winning candidate– but that would have married us to a system we fundamentally opposed.

    If you’re in it for the long haul, you have to look at consequences beyond immediate success or failure. Those include precedent, example, and organizational culture.

    As an analogy, look how difficult it was for the LTTE to even consider transforming to democracy after they’d committed to violent and oppressive means. There was a small window in they expressed an interest in transformation, about 2004-2005. But once you sacrifice your ethics, it’s pretty hard to get them back.

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