The Ends Justify The Means? Objection!

Hey, folks. I’m playing through Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies right now. For the uninitiated, Phoenix Wright is a video game series that focuses on the life and career of the titular Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney. Over the course of five games (and two spinoffs that focus on his rival prosecutor), players get to see a rookie lawyer develop into a courtroom veteran, eventually becoming a mentor to a new generation. These text-based games are famous for their humor, wacky characters, stunning twists, and an expansive, intricately-crafted storyline. Think of it like Perry Mason, but with crazy courtroom antics, supernatural entities, and truckloads of snark. Dual Destinies – released this past weekend on the 3DS – is no exception, so expect a review for it soon.

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One of the series’ most prevalent themes is the search for truth. Phoenix (and eventually his rival) must use logic and evidence to uncover lies in witnesses’ testimonies, stubbornly enduring and unraveling counterarguments put forth in the cases. However, it’s no longer so simple. As the story progresses, the legal system slides deeper and deeper into amoral territory. It’s not about seeking truth, but how you get that result. False claims, baseless accusations, and forged evidence become huge, destructive plot points in not only individual cases, but Phoenix’s career as well.

Dual Destinies takes this to the next logical step by giving the player a glimpse into an in-universe law school. Promising up-and-coming lawyers are not taught to seek the truth, but to achieve the desired result – a conviction or acquittal – through whatever means possible. The head professor flat-out states that “the ends justify the means” and encourages his students to follow that philosophy. It results in murder, potentially ruined careers, and innocent people come within inches of wrongful sentencing. To the game’s credit, the implications of “the ends justify the means” approach are made abundantly clear; not only does the player character understand how badly it hinders the judicial system, but actively fights against it through proper legal means. Given how the Phoenix Wright series is a satire of the Japanese court system, you have to wonder how much of this issue is strictly plot-based.

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My problem is with the phrase itself. We’ve all heard “the ends justify the means” so much that it’s become a mainstay in pop culture. Not only is it used in novels, movies, and television, but in real life as well. A lot of shady policies are lazily explained away by these five words, often without anyone reflecting on their meaning. Most people know that it’s a quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince, an Italian political treatise written in 1513. What most people don’t know is that the phrase is never stated anywhere in it. Going back to the original text, the exact quote is ”si guarda al fine”, which roughly translates to “you should look at the end”. Put into context – it’s in Chapter XVIII if you want to look it up – it’s a reflection of how a ruler maintains his kingdom. A prince must reflect on how best to keep control while still be judged honorable and praised by his people, lest he push things too far and gets his head impaled upon a pike. The same holds true for anyone who wants to adapt Machiavelli’s opinion to his or her own exploits; in reaching your goal, you have to carefully consider how to reach it.

Pragmatism, anyone?

Here’s the funny thing. If the phrase “the ends justify the means” were to be taken at face value, then Machiavelli would have vehemently opposed it. The man really cared about the means; the entire function of The Prince was to advise rulers on how best to maintain their rule! With brutally practical, but intelligent ways. Thus Machiavelli’s defining teachings are perceived by modern audiences in the opposite way he intended.

Let that one sink in for a while.

Oh, and one last thing. “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” Yeah…try reading the rest of the chapter. Machiavelli states that it’s very important to avoid hatred. You know, by not always achieving your goals via blatantly dubious and tyrannical means? Just saying.

…I’m going back to my video game.

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