Q. Do the ends justify the means?
A. As a general rule, no. On the verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20), Bachya ben Asher says that the doubling of the word “justice” indicates “Justice, whether to your profit or loss; justice, whether in word or action; justice, whether to Jew or non-Jew”. Others say that the verse identifies both the mitzvah and the means, i.e. “Justice – by just means”.
But why should it matter how we get to the right goal? If the destination is correct, why worry about the route?
The issue arises in halachah quite often, and the decision is almost always that means matter as much as ends. If we want to pronounce the blessing over the lulav (an admirable aim), it is not acceptable to steal the lulav in order to make it possible. If we want to benefit a charity it is unacceptable to embezzle the money to make the good deed possible. The Talmud remarks that “He who steals a measure of wheat and says a prayer over the bread is a blasphemer” (Bava Kamma 94a).
How about what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “moral man and the immoral situation”? May the moral individual ever act immorally – for example, is it permissible to be gonev min haganav, “one who steals from a thief”? The Torah seems to allow it. For example, Jacob gains the birthright from his unworthy brother by using some guile. But the commentators are uneasy and are not all convinced that he has acted correctly.
It does, however, seem that an emergency can be an exception to the rule that ends and means must both be upright, but only if it is clear that the whole enterprise is in jeopardy, that no other option is viable, and whatever is at stake is of the utmost seriousness (Norman Frimer, in “Tradition”, vol. 13 part 4/vol. 14 part 1, 1973). Normally, though, just means and just ends are both required.