We’ve all heard the saying “the ends justify the means.” Taken at face value, this pragmatic truth suggests that, if the end result is good, any and all of the means used to get that result are deemed acceptable.
At first glance, we might agree. But a deeper look shows that any result achieved through evil means cannot possibly be the highest good that could have been accomplished if we had employed only good means. Ethically, we are better off phrasing it as “the end must also define the means.”
Aristotle, the father of ethical discourse as we moderns know it, had a lot to say about “means” and “ends.” In fact, his ethical system was built entirely on the notion that there had to be a “highest” good.
In every field, be it medicine, war, commerce, politics religion, or art, Aristotle argued the best actions were those that moved the person toward the highest good. Throughout his writings, this concept of the highest good provided the constant measurement of the virtue of all things.
That which brought about the highest good was determined to be of the highest virtue.
And so ethicists and regular folk like you and me have engaged in the argument about what constitutes the highest good. Practically speaking, most naturally believe the highest good is personal happiness – or at least it appears that way from the way they conduct themselves.
But hedonism has never had staying power, even among those who appear to have the most happiness. Look around at those you think have the greatest resources and opportunities for happiness and you will find they suffer the same amount of discouragement, fatigue, tragedy and sadness as the rest of us.
Wealth is often seen as the highest good, particularly by those who don’t have it. But again, wealth is never really the highest good, for even those who attain some measure of financial security do so not for wealth’s sake, but so they can use that wealth to attain whatever they believe is the higher good.
Other contenders for highest good status are fame and power, but these also are regularly compromised, often morphing into fountains spewing pain and injustice. As Lord Acton warned us, “power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.”
Usually about this time in the argument the thought arrives that the highest good can never be determined by our individual desires. The highest good must lie somewhere outside of us, outside of our natural tendency to selfishness and self-driven manipulation of our world. The highest good must have something to do with the welfare of others.
Most of the ancient philosophers came to the conclusion that the highest good had everything to do with what was best for society. This lies at the base of most political systems, at least overtly. Democracy holds that the highest good of society is created and preserved by the ongoing participation of the governed in the governing.
And while we would all agree that societal benefit is a higher good than personal benefit, it is still the case that we usually are swayed by our sense of personal benefit in declaring what is best for society. We see it all the time. We want those political and governmental actions that will make us happiest. Once again, the highest good has been hijacked by our innate desire to feel good.
It appears that, arguments and logic aside, the chief end of mankind by nature is personal well-being. And yet we all know that such self-centered focus can never achieve the very happiness we crave.
In the late 1640’s the Westminster Divines gathered and contemplated the question of the highest good. I believe they got it right when they said, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” That puts the highest good where it belongs: in God.
But their wisdom is especially evident in the second part. They realized true happiness in man can only be found as a byproduct of man’s submission to his maker. The enjoyment of life and love that we by nature crave will only be found as we live beyond ourselves in submission to Almighty God.
As John Piper has so eloquently stated, “We will be most satisfied when God is most glorified.” And that is my nomination for the highest good, all around.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. Ethically Speaking” runs Saturdays in The Signal.