Do the ends justify the means?

It seems to me that a very prominent theme in the the Sermon on the Mount is that it isn’t enough to do the right thing, but you have to do things for the right reasons. Doesn’t it follow from that, that you can’t do the wrong thing for the right reason? Maybe.

What about value neutral behaviors? I’m thinking about filibusters or other parliamentary procedures. Specifically, I’m thinking about efforts to win the presidential elections by restructuring the allocation of electoral college votes in a particular state. In 2004, the Democrats were hot to do it in Colorado. This year, the Republicans are trying the same thing in California. Basically, the technique goes like this, find a state that typically goes to the opposite party. Then suggest a more “fair” way to allocate electoral college votes so that your party get a portion of the votes.

I thought the Colorado measure was obnoxious, but secretly hoped it would pass. I am now, and have always been a partisan. I find the California measure obnoxious, and am not publicly hoping it will not pass. But at the hear of it all, it seems the energy should be spent arguing one’s case for how to run the country.

Should we be uncomfortable with these types of measures, or is it just part of the game like Get Out the Vote (GOTV) or negative advertising?

[BTW, ‘The ends justifies the means,’ seems to come from Matthew Prior, 1701, although everyone from Leon Trotsky to Orrin Hatch has put his own spin on it.]

One reply on “Do the ends justify the means?”

I share your concern about proposals whose ends are intended to justify the means, mostly because I think the lesson of history is that once one group of “reformers” opens up a previously illegitimate means of reform (such as a particular legal doctrine) the means becomes available to anyone who wants to use it. The original proponents can’t control the means to keep its use only for the benefit of their ends, and in the long term such strategies don’t work. So the short-term end you’re after had better be so important that you’re willing to run the risks of undesirable ends in the future. And maybe some short-term ends are really that important.

But my reaction to the electoral college proposals is completely different from yours. The effect of the way in which electoral college votes are allocated in almost every state is that whoever gets the most popular votes in that state gets every one of the electoral college votes. I cannot support the massive disenfranchisement of voters with a minority position in putatively national elections – an effect that is particularly harsh in very close states, where lots and lots of voters are completely disenfranchised by this method of allocating votes. So I support the reform proposals not because I am a Democrat and I think we really need to win the Presidency, but because I think they bring a fundamentally flawed system of electing the President closer to a fair process. (They still don’t get rid of the equalization of smaller states with larger ones, but they can at least be done on a state by state basis without constitutional amendment.) And I recognize that the new, fairer process won’t always bring about the election of the candidate I would choose – but at least we’d be trying to win a fairer fight for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens.

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