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The Ends Don't Justify The Means

The year is 2020. You're the official responsible for redistricting your state. Let's say you're a Democrat*, and you know that you can use this power to skew elections in your state for a decade. Maybe more, if your gerrymandering can influence the party in power in 2030. So do you gerrymander?

No, a lot of you are saying. Gerrymandering is immoral and unfair.

Or Is It?

According to a study associated with Harvard University, 45000 deaths annually are linked to inadequate healthcare coverage. Democrats are commonly in support of increased healthcare coverage; ideas like Medicare-for-All are mainstream.

In 2016, 38658 Americans died from gun-related maladies. That's, on average, 773 in your state. Generally, Democrats support background check, red-flag, and other gun restriction laws. Clearly such laws would reduce the number of gun deaths.

And most importantly, the climate crisis** is an existential threat to the human species, and we need to make radical change if we want to fight it. This xkcd does a great job illustrating its importance. So it's imperative that we legislate it right now. Sidenote: if you want to fight the climate crisis yourself, the #1 thing you can do is to eat less meat.

So, now that we've established that Democrats in power save lives, clearly gerrymandering in that direction is not only good, it's imperative to do.

But this is horribly wrong, and let me tell you why.

The original gerrymander, drawn by then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry. An artist thought it resembled a mythological salamander, so they created a cartoon adding legs and wings. This is public domain, I think.


I'll get back to that in a minute. Before I do, though, welcome to my blog. Today I'm talking about the ethics of gerrymandering, and, more generally, whether the ends justify the means–i.e., the problems with the above arguments. I'll be using something called Rawlsian Justice to demonstrate this.

Extending the Argument to its Logical Conclusion

Now, let's imagine that a Republican is considering doing the same gerrymandering. Now, obviously, that's immoral. They don't have human lives on their side. In fact, they should be gerrymandering for us.

In other words, the ends justify the means: things that are generally immoral become moral when they have positive consequences, such as saving lives.

Rawlsian Justice

Pioneered by philosopher John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice****, the basic idea behind Rawlsian justice is that you should make decisions about life as if you didn't know what position you are in. For instance, if a policy would make your life substantially better, but make the lives of many other people substantially worse, you should act as if you didn't know whether your life would be made better or worse.

So doesn't Rawlsian Justice support the idea that the ends justify the means? After all, what if you are someone positively affected by liberal policies? But let's look at it in a different light. How does gerrymandering in favor of Democrats affect Republicans? Quite negatively. And arguably, it also has negative consequences on some Independents and moderates who like to have a legitimate choice between the two parties.

Empathizing with the Other Party

It's easy to dismiss this and say, "I would never be a Republican, as liberalism is better because of those arguments above. The human lives!" However, among participants of a study in the American Sociological Review who could correctly describe their parent's party affiliation, 73% generally agreed with it. It's clear that the experiences a person has been exposed to changes their party affiliation, so it's not completely ridiculous to use Rawlsian justice to empathize with other political views. Plenty of people have the partisan affiliations that they do because it was convenient for them.***

I recently read an article on FiveThirtyEight, written by Maggie Koerth-Baker, on the topic, which I'll just quote:

"One man’s vandalism is another’s political dissent. Back in 2012, researchers from Kent State University presented survey respondents a hypothetical news story: A partisan political group has been caught swiping yard signs and defacing campaign ads. Then they asked respondents to rate both the seriousness of the crime (which, technically, it is) and how justifiable it was to break the rules. The overwhelming response: It’s not that big of a deal and it is reasonably justifiable — at least, as long as the party affiliation of the group doing the vandalism matched the affiliation of the person answering the question. If the other guys are doing it, well, by jove, Geoffrey, that is just not how things are done. Drawing squiggly moustaches upon an opponent’s face is fine for me … but not for thee."

A vandalized lawn sign for Ted Cruz. Image credit: ABC13 Houston.

Interlude: Impeachment

In the wake of all of this news about impeachment, impacting people from Joe and Hunter Biden to Adam Schiff to Mike Pence to Joseph Maguire*****, it's easy to assume that the Democrats are inculpable and the Republicans are all entirely culpable. That's not the case. There are plenty of Republicans who have done their best and plenty of Democrats who are taking this too far and trying to get Trump on every trumped-up claim.

The Ends Don't Justify the Means

Anyway, getting back to the main topic, it's easy to use "the ends justify the means" to say that every unfair thing that a member of your party, of your tribe, of your school of thought does is cool. It's also easy to use it to say that everything that someone who opposes your party, your tribe, or your school of thought does is not cool.

LessWrong, this great website about decision theory, has an Eliezer Yudkowsky piece on the subject that was largely the basis for this article. It states that "the reflective observation that it seems like a righteous and altruistic act to seize power for yourself—this seeming may not be be much evidence for the proposition that seizing power is in fact the action that will most benefit the tribe." In other words, just because you believe that the ends are good, doesn't mean that you should act as if they are.


If you have the option to gerrymander or use generally for a party that you consider to be morally better, you shouldn't. Using Rawlsian justice, imagine that you could have been of the other political party, which you consider to be morally worse, since you could have been. If you were of that party, you would consider gerrymandering unethical. The same principle applies to generally unethical means for "ethical" ends.

Even if you believe that these ends aren't "ethical," they're straight-up ethical, you shouldn't. That's because, in an alternate universe, you believe that these ends are unethical. And it might be hard to imagine. But it exists.

The ends don't justify the means.


Next: Addenda

*The same argument works if you're a Republican if you change some details of the argument.

**I like the phrase "climate crisis" as opposed to "climate change" since it serves to remind us that it is, in fact, a crisis that we need to combat, as opposed to a background thing.

***Similarly, many people have the religions that they do because they're the default–so people who change religions are often more committed by making an active choice.

****Which I've actually never read; I learned about Rawlsian Justice from debate as a possible weighing mechanism, or scale to weigh which side has won.

*****Fun fact: during the hearing, Maguire, the Acting Director of National Intelligence, referred to himself as the "most famous" person in America. For the record, about a third of Americans have heard of him.


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