[Revised question]

Is there a name for expressions or sayings such as "the end justifies the means?"

After searching online I found that this expression is defined as consequentialism. But what I'm asking is whether there is a name for this types of phrase. At first, I thought it was an idiom, but by definition it is not an idiom because one can deduce the meaning from the words of the expression.

Also, after reading the many excellent comments and answers, I looked at the term proverb and maxim, but these don't seem to quite fit either because "the end justifies the means" doesn't seem to be a "general truth" in fact it is more of a moral rationalization that many people do not believe to be true.

Just to clarify, I'm not asking for definitions of "the end justifies the means" or "consequentialism"; I'm asking what are phrases such as this called, where their meaning, unlike an idiom, can be deduced from the words in the expression or saying, and where it is not a general truth (i.e. adage, maxim, proverb, etc).

  • 22
    Try adage, axiom, proverb, old saying, old saw, aphorism ... there are probably a few others in the list as well.
    – Robusto
    Nov 27, 2017 at 22:09
  • 7
    Also, apothegm — "A terse, witty, instructive saying; a maxim," according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2010).
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 27, 2017 at 22:59
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    @Robusto Those are all very apt for the second one, which is also a "truism". However the first does not in my view qualify as a proverb, nor any of the other things you mention. A "proverb" states a generally accepted principle, often moral e.g. "a stitch in time saves nine", or "the early bird catches the worm". However "the end justifies the means" can be employed just as easily in criticism as in endorsement. Equally one often hears "the ends do not justify the means".
    – WS2
    Nov 27, 2017 at 23:27
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    @ws2 good point! The two phrases I used are not the same type. Thanks for pointing that out. I'm interested in "the ends justifies the means."
    – Devil07
    Nov 27, 2017 at 23:56
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    Just to be clear, "consequentialism" has no connection to "a penny saved is a penny earned." Consequentialism is the brand of normative ethics that subscribes to the moral philosophy that "the ends justify the means." As WS2 pointed out, this makes "the ends justify the means" a very different kind of phrase from "a penny saved is a penny earned." You could probably get away with calling the former a "saying," but even that seems like a stretch for a brief phrase that describes a moral philosophy. Nov 28, 2017 at 1:32

11 Answers 11


Another option is aphorism:

a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation, as “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton).

- dictionary.com

  1. a concise statement of a principle
  2. a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment : adage the high-minded aphorism, "Let us value the quality of life, not the quantity"
  3. an ingeniously terse style of expression : aphoristic language
    • These are dazzling chapters, packed with perfectly chosen anecdotes and pithy with aphorism. —John Keegan

- Merriam Webster

(in British)

a short pithy saying expressing a general truth; maxim

(in American)

  1. a short, concise statement of a principle
  2. a short, pointed sentence expressing a wise or clever observation or a general truth; maxim; adage

- Collins

  • 2
    This seems to be the closest answer, except I don't like the dictonary.com definition that refers to it as a general truth. However, definitions #1 and #3 from Merriam Webster seem to be spot on.
    – Devil07
    Nov 28, 2017 at 17:14
  • @Devil07: FWIW, Collins uses the same phrase (added) Nov 28, 2017 at 17:35
  • 1
    I think this is now the best answer since the question has been clarified, as it encompasses "sentiment", "principle", or "observation" and not simply "general truth". Nov 28, 2017 at 17:47
  • We could forever debate on these definitions, but in my native language (French), it is not spiritual or paradoxal enough to be considered as an aphorism...
    – Jonathan
    Nov 30, 2017 at 10:13

I think the word you're looking for is maxim.

1 : a general truth, fundamental principle, or rule of conduct. Mother's favorite maxim was "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."
2 : a proverbial saying. "marry in haste, repent at leisure"


It's not just the name of a magazine.

  • 1
    I think this is the best answer so far.
    – Devil07
    Nov 27, 2017 at 23:51
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    Now that the topic is out there - what the hell is the difference between a "maxim" and a "proverb" or "saying" .. ?!
    – Fattie
    Nov 28, 2017 at 18:00
  • I would say that a maxim is more likely to be a personal method or rule of conduct (motivation), while a proverb is more a tendency, applied to anyone (result)
    – JPhil
    Nov 28, 2017 at 23:13
  • 3
    To be clear, it doesn't have to actually be generally true to count as a maxim; it just has to be held to be generally true by some. Calling "The ends justify the means" a "maxim" isn't a claim about the validity of consequentialism, just about how the sentence is used. Nov 29, 2017 at 15:18
  • The question specifically says they don't see their example phrase as being true, so suggesting a word that means "a general truth" seems to not actually answer the question. Nov 29, 2017 at 16:05

proverb; a short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice.

aphorism; a pithy observation which contains a general truth.

saw; a proverb or maxim.

All definitions from Google.


If the sayings are well-used (or better yet, over-used), you might refer to them as clichés:

1 : a trite phrase or expression; also : the idea expressed by it
2 : a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation
3 : something (such as a menu item) that has become overly familiar or commonplace
definition from m-w.com

  • 1
    Or, as you called them yourself, a 'saying'.
    – MMAdams
    Nov 28, 2017 at 17:01
  • The nice thing about cliche is it doesn't speak to the truth or falsehood of the phrase in question. Nov 29, 2017 at 16:06

It is a proverb.

Definition of proverb

1 : a brief popular epigram or maxim : adage 2 : byword 4



While aphorism and proverbs do describe what you are asking, another possible word to describe them would be adage.

noun, a proverb or short statement expressing a general truth.


What aspects of the phrase are you seeking to illuminate with the name? If it's the general nature of all such sayings, then maxim, aphorism or proverb may fit, as described in other answers.

But if you are interested in the controversial or morally dubious ground of this specific saying, "the end justifies the means", then you can consider calling it Machiavellian, after Niccolo Machiavelli who was famous for his writings, including "The Prince".

A common theme of his writing is the political necessity for a leader to sometimes doing bad or immoral things (such as going to war) to ensure a good outcome (such as preventing a larger war or many deaths from an opponent committing genocide).

I see other answers have mentioned Machiavelli by name, and consequentialism - "consequentialist" may fit in an academic context, but I think Machiavellian would be more widely understood, indeed your exact phrase appears in the Wiki section headlined "Machiavellian".

It's an adjective, so you can say "the end justifies the means" is a Machiavellian saying or a Machiavellian doctrine.

  • Machiavelli never uses this phrase in this wording.link is accurately attributed to Ovid, Heroides (2,85).link Finally, to answer the initial question, word proverb is probably the best word to describe the category within which the phrase fits. Nov 29, 2017 at 20:54
  • @SteveKinzey "Machiavellian" just means that it expresses the kinds of opinions attributed to Machiavelli, not that he actually said it. It's like calling many dystopian stories "Orwellian".
    – Barmar
    Dec 4, 2017 at 19:23
  • Correct but many people attribute it to Machiavelli which is not accurate. Dec 4, 2017 at 21:05

I disagree. The phrase has its origin in Sophocles and Machiavelli -- and in my estimation is more akin to an excuse for morally improper behavior than an axiomatic or self-evident truth. It has been used to attempt to excuse a great deal of suffering put upon humanity by overbearing governments and any time that people are made to suffer unnecessarily.

It is a tenent of consequentialism in my opinion.

  • 2
    Please note the question is not about whether you agree with the statement "the end justifies the means" or what sort of idea it expresses.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 28, 2017 at 21:02

I'd call it a rubric or paradigm. You're assessing a rule or means of judgement for evaluating a moral situation. The converse would be the deontological "the means justify the end".

If you wanted to be funny, you could call it a Facebook relationship status.


I am not native English but I would like to note that in French it is not contested as an Adage!

  • it is not a maxim because it is not a general rule of conduct.
  • it is not an axiom because it is not obvious
  • We don't consider it a proverb because the wisdom is in controversy
  • We don't have really the word 'saw' in French or we would come back to 'Adage' as a translation
  • it is not spiritual or paradoxal enough to be considered as an aphorism

"The end justifies the means" is something people say to justify their behavior so I would categorize that simply as a saying.

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