Do the ends always justify the means?

By | April 19, 2007

A blogger, Fearfully Opinionated, tried to offer new insights into the ministerial salary issue, claiming that related blog posts so far were “unoriginal, recycled and boring”. He goes on to say that “perhaps in being so eager to voice discontent, we fail to think. And when there is mass-unthinking on the plogosphere [sic], this is not progress, but regress”.

Before I address some of Fearfully Opinionated’s (hereinafter abbreviated as “FO” for easier reading) more salient observations, let me just say that critics who spend the most time shouting about “critical thinking” are often the same ones who refuse to consider information that conflicts with their point of view. They tend to be biased and polarised in their way of evaluating information and simply discount as propaganda anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their paradigm.

FO also noted that another blogger, Mr Wang, made a good case why being a minister (in Singapore) might not be an attractive option:

b) Being under constant scrutiny and public attention, and that means constant criticism. True for all politicians (and celebrities), but perhaps especially true in Singapore’s case.

Here I beg to differ. I believe part of the problem stems from the fact that the PAP strives too hard to be beyond reproach, to the extent that it is unable to accept constructive criticisms without resorting to browbeating.

And if the selection process for ministers is self-serving, in the sense that the PAP eliminates those who do not conform to their mould, obviously attracting real talent would be a problem. Or as critic Robert Ho puts it: “Truth is, LKY only wants dog-like obedience [sic] cronies and most people have no stomach for crawling to him on bended knees. That’s why he cannot get really good people, only dogs.”

d) The burden of being responsible for the welfare and the lives of over 4 million people. This compared to the burden of being responsible to only the bottom line of a company.

Again, I will have to disagree with this. No single individual, not the prime minister, certainly not the run-of-the-mill minister, is directly responsible for the welfare and the lives of over four million people in Singapore. This would be the collective responsibility of the government, including members of parliament (MP). Each MP, in theory, is directly responsible for the welfare of constituents in his/her ward. In this sense, the burden is not much heavier than that of a typical CEO of a private company, except that in the case of Singapore, ministers do have the “benefit” of switching portfolios every now and then if they are not performing well.

Furthermore, this “burden” will only manifest itself if the burdened individual is subject to some kind of rigorous performance review, like quarterly earning calls and annual reports filed by companies. In the case of ministers in Singapore, they only face their moment of truth (i.e. election) once every four to five years. How’s that for a comparison against CEO of a company?

And, to quote from the compliant mainstream media, Lee Kuan Yew highlighted the difficulty of persuading private sector achievers to sacrifice their lucrative salaries to join politics, “with no guarantee of success“. I can’t understand the perverse logic of this, like I always do whenever Lee Kuan Yew opens his mouth. In which profession is there “guaranteed success”? Is Lee trying to say that we should (over-)compensate wannabe ministers for taking risks? If that’s the justification for further salary increases, it’s hard to imagine anyone already earning millions of dollars needs more incentive to be motivated to do a better job. But if they do, what does it tell you about their mindset and moral calibre?

Of course, if you share the same Machiavellian view as Lee Kuan Yew, the ends justify the means. Which brings us to the question raised by FO: Just because an action is necessary, does it make it fair?

FO conveniently separates those who said “Yes” and “No” into the consequentialist and deontological camps of applied ethics and notes that “criticisms on deontological grounds carry little weight if the government is going to make a decision on consequentialist grounds, especially where the potential consequences are very grave.”

Again, I take a dim view of this. Consequentialist and deontological theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. While moral breaches are a matter for conscience only, there may be a political price to pay for perceived lapses of moral judgement. Furthermore, each level of regulation of human conduct connotes some sense of duty and it is necessary to consider the nature of duty, to whom it is owed, its relationship with responsibility, and moral decision-making.

To some, the idea of duty may have a quaint ring to it. After all, concentration camps abound more than 100 years after the Boer War, where internees were encamped in brutal conditions by those who later asserted that they were only doing their duty. The debasement of the term in this way has diminished its currency. This seems to be the reason why Kant described duty as either categorical, which he speaks of as an uncompromising obligation, or hypothetical, which addresses the results or consequences of the action.

Since holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public, the power that operates in politics is in constant need of moral critique. If such critique is absent, self-serving interests will achieve their own kind of tyranny and the common good is victimised.

In this case, it is no longer a question of whether the action is fair, but whether it is necessary.

Related stories:
Are Top Global Companies Really Dying to Hire Our Ministers?
Have your cake and eat it
Lee Hsien Loong: Modern day Robin Hood?

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Excellent points Stephen! But do you think the gahmen is willing to listen and consider whether this is necessary, despite all evidence presented on the contrary?


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