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Means and ends: a moral dilemma

One can’t help but be bemused at the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau’s travails over his stumbling efforts to manage the difficulties that SNC Lavalin ran into. Particularly when they acted like many other G7 based international engineering firms, mining companies and military arms dealers.

The political field has been deeply plowed into the public’s awareness of the tragically inept way that the matter has been handled. The loss of a minister of justice and attorney general, president of the treasury board, clerk of the privy council and the prime minister’s private secretary seems unacceptable.

Bereft of these advisers, our prime minister has evidently relied on the advice of Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB, Secretary to the Cabinet, under British Prime Minister Sir James Hacker, since appointed Baron Hacker of Islington KG.  While in office, Appleby wrote in his diary, which he entitled Yes, Prime Minister, the following:  “If a ‘cockup’ becomes public, three public statements should be released:

1) it was a breakdown of communication

2) all concerned acted in good faith, and

3) the matter will be dealt with by internal procedures.”  

Sir Humphrey also pointed out that this really meant:

“1) people didn’t do their jobs properly,

2) when they thought they’d been found out they avoided veracity and

3) we’re not going to do anything about it.” We are at phase three.

The fact of the matter is that we are watching a Canadian version of that proverbial statement ‘the end justifies the means’. The prime minister’s response to the ever-hovering press and breath-holding public of the Ethics Commissioner’s condemnatory report was that he fully accepted the responsibility for what happened but his job was to “stand up for Canadians and defend their interests.”

Usually, in Western society, we view rather darkly the sacrificing of means to achieve a desired end. The blame for this statement being considered pejorative is commonly laid at the feet of a controversial Italian diplomat, historian, philosopher and Renaissance writer Niccolo Machiavelli. He is often said to have coined this phrase in Chapter VIII of his book, The Prince, which he devoted to Lorenzo de’ Medici seeking reinstatement from exile and a Florentine government position. This is a manual on how a political leader must behave in order to hold onto power. Not should behave. While the actual words are not found in the English translation, the sentiment is clearly there.

Indeed the original author was probably the Roman poet Ovid in his saying ‘The result justifies the deed.’ This was restated by St. Jerome in this heroic Latin version of the Bible (The Vulgate) where he wrote of justifying the means by the end. In this he referred to Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac at the command of God. The ultimate test of loyalty. Isaac was spared at the last moment, replaced by one of Abraham’s lambs. And then what of God, Jesus of Nazareth, and Pontius Pilate?

Personally, I am more comfortable with the Hippocratic Oath – ‘Cause no harm or hurt’.  But then I am not a politician.  

Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.

 





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