On November 6, “[v]oters in Colorado[,] Missouri and Michigan overwhelmingly approved ballot measures calling for nonpartisan redistricting. These measures seek to end the practice of gerrymandering or at least limit it.” [“Voters In 3 States Pass Non-Partisan Redistricting Measures”, National Public Radio, Morning Edition, 11/7/2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/11/07/665112546/voters-pass-non-partisan-redistricting-measures.] Gerrymandering is, of course, the practice of “manipulating the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class.”
Steve Inskeep interviewed “Dave Daley, who is a senior fellow at FairVote, which advocates for nonpartisan redistricting. Daley said, “[O]n the eve of a 2020 Census in which this process is likely to become even more sophisticated and more surgical, creating districts that are even more extreme, it is wonderful to see that there is one thing that still unites voters in red states, blue states and purple states, and that is they all hate gerrymandering.” [Ibid.]
When I heard the interview, it occurred to me that, to the extent they care about doing the right thing, parties could only justify creating these wildly irregular voting districts that favor themselves on the ground that they will do such a better job of governing than the other party would. I thought again about the age-old ethical conundrum that is constantly with us in everything we do: “Do ends justify means?” I wrestled with that question in an ethics class and afterward, without ever feeling I had arrived at a satisfactory answer. Some form of division, of line drawing, is required in our way of voting. But on its face, doesn’t it feel wrong to manipulate districts so extremely to disadvantage the other side? Wouldn’t we all be better served if we focused on a fair, or at least non-partisan process in creating voting districts? Encouragingly, at least three states have recently said we would.
Maybe I should not feel too bad about my confusion on whether ends justify means; many philosophers have also wrestled with that question. And they do not agree on an answer. Agreeing with the statement that “ends justify means” puts one in the consequentialist camp, whereby the consequences of an action determine whether it is right or wrong. A deontological approach emphasizes that ethical behavior depends on following moral rules or duties, not outcomes. For instance, we must not engage in torture because of the pain it inflicts on another human being. But, in the classic example, what if torturing a terrorist might yield information to prevent the loss of innocent lives?
I do not have these answers. All I think I know is that consequentialism seems the more dangerous of those two approaches. Many of the worst horrors we have inflicted on each other have been justified somewhere by someone on the ground that the ends justified doing “what we had to do” to achieve them. In my own ordinary, everyday life, doing something now that feels wrong because it will bring about what I think is a better result later almost never feels right, even in the end. Extreme cases aside, I don’t think ends justify means. Frankly, I wish more people would doubt that they know what the best outcome would be and so would refuse to take intermediate steps that strike many of us as wrong.
If we do not focus on the rightness of the intermediate steps to a goal, I think we may lose the ethical battle anyway. That is because of the damage we do in the process to our own characters. That ethical approach is called virtue ethics, or aretology.
One of the aspects of Unitarian Universalism I value is that I believe, for the most part, we focus on process, on what seems right to do now. Like not deliberately drawing voting districts just to favor the result we would prefer, tempting as that is. It is not that we UUs do not have goals, preferred outcomes. But we pay attention to the means we use in pursuing our goals. If the means to an end are wrong, we tend to reject them on the basis that they cannot justify the end or the injury to our characters.