This quote (which is variously attributed to Sophocles, Ovid, Machiavelli and others) is usually meant to imply something sinister. In particular, it is used to condemn someone for being willing to do something evil or harmful in order to reach some goal.
But is this willingness really sinister? It's not clear that it is, because there are all sorts of instances where we think it is justified to do something harmful in order to achieve some greater good.
- we subject children to painful vaccinations or terrifying (to them) trips to the dentist in order to prevent them from suffering much greater harm in the future;
- we often judge it acceptable to give some petty criminals immunity from prosecution in exchange for information that will lead to the capture and conviction of more dangerous criminals;
- while we oppose police corruption, we don't take it as a reason to disband police forces, because they usually prevent far more criminal behavior than they produce;
- in World War II, the U.S. and Britain allied with Stalin, a brutal totalitarian dictator, because the believed they had to in order to defeat Hitler, who they believed was an even more brutal, more dangerous totalitarian dictator.
So, there is nothing wrong (in principle, at least) with believing that the end justifies the means, because there are at least some occasions where committing or allowing some smaller harm or injustice does seem to be justified, particularly if it is the best (or only) way to avoid a much greater harm or injustice.
Choosing an End Over a Means is Inevitable
In fact, this appears to be inevitable, given that moral dilemmas are inevitable. When moral considerations conflict, we must choose one over the other. The one we choose is the end, the one we give up on -- and therefore the injustice or wrong or harm we put up with -- is the means.
This is not to say that any goal whatsoever justifies any means whatsoever. Though avoiding some great harm or injustice may justify inflicting or allowing some small harm or injustice, avoiding some small harm or injustice does not justify inflicting or allowing a great harm or injustice.
However, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding which harms and injustices are great, and which are small, and which are worse than which others generally. That is, there is disagreement regarding what moral considerations outweigh other moral considerations. So there will also be much disagreement about which end justifies which means.
But there certainly some occasions and circumstances in which the ends do justify the means.
So, when someone uses the phrase "the end justifies the means" (or "the ends justify the means") in order to disparage their opponent, ask them to clarify their assertion: what counts as "the end" and what counts as "the means"?
It is only once these terms have been clarified that we can decide whether or not the one is worse than the other.
EXAMPLES AND ANALYSIS
But my appreciation of [Bill and Hillary] Clintons' strengths doesn't blind me to their weaknesses, including entitlement, mild paranoia, and an ends-justify-the-means mentality. Nor does my criticism mean that I hate them.-- Pundit Ron Fournier, May 20, 2015.
Comment: Everybody believes that the ends justifies the means in some circumstances, why is it wrong for the Bill and Hillary Clinton to do so?
"It has been a remarkable news day today, lots to get to. Today something truly rare happened. We got a look at the inner workings of a pre-meditated, politically calculated, ends justify the means lie. It involves candidate – and then president – Barack Obama knowingly, willfully misleading the public. Now, no one died, it is not a case of corruption. It is politics at its most elemental and morally treacherous. And it comes courtesy of Barack Obama's longtime advisor, David Axelrod, in his new book. The headline: "Obama Misled Nation When He Opposed Gay Marriage in 2008. A striking admission of political dishonesty." Of course, many suspected at the time that candidate Obama was just pretending to oppose full marriage equality in his first presidential race, because he thought the country wasn't ready to vote for a presidential candidate who supported it. Some even believed he never would have been elected president in 2008 if he had supported gay marriage. … Quoting Time Magazine, "As a state senate candidate in 1996, Obama filled out a questionnaire saying, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."" … Bear in mind that President Barack Obama didn't voice support for same-sex marriage until 2012, 16 years later."-- Pundit Chris Hayes, February 11, 2015. Hayes is referring to David Axelrod, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, who Axelrod claims misled Americans regarding his position on gay marriage.
Comment: Hayes is saying (or, perhaps, is passing along a claim from Axelrod) that Obama didn't simply flip-flop on gay marriage, but that he lied about his position on gay marriage. Hayes is saying that the lie was a means justified by the end of getting elected president.
"Shariputra, suppose that … there was a very rich man [who, looking at his house, sees] a fire suddenly broke out on all sides, spreading through the rooms of the house. … he was greatly alarmed and fearful and thought to himself, I can escape to safety through the flaming gate, but my sons are inside the burning house enjoying themselves and playing games, unaware, unknowing, without alarm or fear. The fire is closing in on them, suffering and pain threaten them, yet their minds have no sense of loathing or peril and they do not think of trying to escape! … My sons are very young, they have no understanding, and they love their games, being so engrossed in them that they are likely to be burned in the fire. … I must now invent some expedient means that will make it possible for the children to escape harm. … And so he said to them, 'The kind of playthings you like are rare and hard to find. If you do not take them when you can, you will surely regret it later. For example, things like these goat-carts, deer-carts and ox-carts. They are outside the gate now where you can play with them. … At that time, when the sons heard their father telling them about these rare playthings, because such things were just what they had wanted, each felt emboldened in heart and, pushing and shoving one another, they all came wildly dashing out of the burning house."-- Gautama Buddha, the Lotus Sutra, recorded c. 100 BC - 100 AD.
Comment: Is this an example of Gautama being willing to "say anything" in order to win people over, advocating that the "ends justifies the means"?
"Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings."-- The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 1st century AD.
Comment: Is this an example of Paul being willing to "say anything" in order to win people over, advocating that the "ends justifies the means"?
(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)