Before I began writing this post, I googled "the ends justify the means" and got 204,000 results. The volume of philosophical discourse that's gone into analyzing the implications of the phrase is staggering.
Frankly, I think it's all a bunch of pseudo-academic crap. It's never acceptable to breach moral, ethical, or legal boundaries to achieve some perceived greater good. But I didn't always think that way.
When I was young and full of myself, among other things, I believed the answer was yes, that the ends can, under certain circumstances, justify the means. At the time, my youthful pursuits included such virtuous goals as completing chip designs on budget and on schedule, achieving personal happiness, and some not-so-virtuous quests we won't discuss here.
I know I shouldn't be so hard on myself, but I was indeed full of it back then. The ends never justify the means. Rather, the concept is nothing but an excuse for people to get what they want. And while many are young and stupid, some are narcissists and sociopaths who behave reprehensibly in the name of personal issues that can never be resolved.
Consider the past decade of tech industry scandal and fraud: Trillions of dollars of investment capital down the tubes in the dot-com bust; rampant conflict of interest between Wall Street's top investment bankers and telecom research analysts; stock-option backdating scandals; and a mountain of accounting and trading fraud.
Just ask convicted executives from Adelphia, Cendant, Comverse, Computer Associates, Dynegy, Enron, Enterasys, Homestore, Imclone, Impath, Monster, Network Associates, Prudential Securities, Qwest, Refco, Tyco, and WorldCom, what made them think they could get away with it?
Their answers may be disguised a hundred different ways, but they will always boil down to a dillusional belief that what they did was somehow justified. For example, at his sentencing in 2005, John Rigas of Adelphia said, "In my heart and in my conscience, I'll go to my grave really and truly believing that I did nothing but try to improve the conditions of my employees."
I guess the part about his employees and shareholders losing their jobs and retirement savings because of his actions must have slipped John's mind.
So, when you see an executive stretch ethical, moral, or legal boundaries for what he or she perceives to be the greater good, be wary. Better still, run the other way.