My Turn: America’s means must justify the end

For the Monitor
Published: 10/30/2020 6:20:16 AM

Robin Wright wrote in the Sept. 8 New Yorker, “Today, America is still conflicted about its values.”

At first examination, there would seem to be little conflict over the many shared values among American people. There are several sources authorizing those values. The signers of the Declaration of Independence understood that the authority for the endowment of “certain unalienable rights” (values) was the “Creator.”

The philosopher Plato believed in the authority of some existential source implanting ageless steadfast values in the conscience of human beings. Other philosophers insist the source of values is individuals and groups themselves. These philosophers believe that human beings create the values that will authorize actions necessary for survival in a competitive world.

The authority and source of values is still debated. However, for many, the wisdom of ancient philosophers, like Plato, and the words of the American Declaration of Independence have articulated values acceptable to many Americans.

Plato recognized existential values of “truth, good, beauty, and justice.” The Declaration of Independence invokes “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In addition to these sources, many people choose the long-tested values of the Abrahamic faiths: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. They include values such as humility, generosity, love of God and neighbor, the practice of forgiveness, and truthfulness.

Of course, it’s never that simple. During this month of October, many Americans have been interviewed by the media to explain the reasons for their votes. Some of their answers expose a sardonic set of values that may explain Wright’s observation that “America is conflicted about its values.”

For example, one person named his choice and said: “He may be rude and crude, create confusion and brag, and be a deceptive deal-maker. I’m not comfortable with these traits. His actions and methods are against my values. But, he gets things done that matter to me.” Therefore, this person feels he must temporarily sideline his values because they are not effective enough to ensure his personal well-being. Instead, he concedes to the values of coercive strength, righteousness, deceit, manifest destiny, wealth, winners.

This concession, which we find all too common in the current climate of fear, demonstrates a lack of trust in the values of Plato, the Abrahamic faiths, and the Declaration of Independence. It chooses instead the debatable value, “the end justifies the means.”

The trouble with this old controversial saying is it contains a fallacy. It suggests, for example, that building border walls to keep out criminals, labeling peaceful protestors “violent and unpatriotic,” militarizing police to seek out and punish “losers,” and repeating lies until they become true will somehow result in liberty and justice for all. These actions contain no seeds of democracy. They are a mockery to tried and true wisdom.

The 17th century French moralist Francois de La Rochefoucauld wrote, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” We learned from our history that the methods of aspiring dictators and the accompanying oppression do not suddenly change for the better. A return to preferred values cannot be expected after oppressive values have become the norm. The “means” we choose today will become the end result tomorrow.

The challenge for Americans in this disruptive political and social climate is to hold steadfast to the moral compass of equality, democracy, justice for the oppressed, and hospitality for the asylum seeker.

Civility, empathy, and truth-telling must be embedded in the method and means to the country’s future. A compromise with narcissistic values of coercion, environment degradation, lies, racism, and white supremacy will fail.

Let America be known, worldwide, as a democratic community that is home to its indigenous people, immigrants settling here for over 400 years, those whose ancestors were forced to come as slaves, asylum seekers, and people with a diversity of cultures, beliefs, and traditions.

We shall be known by the values we choose today.

(John Buttrick of Concord can be reached at


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