The cases are different, but the underlying principle people on both sides of the aisle have appealed to is the same: The ends justify the means. Or, more specifically: Our ends justify the means.
The problem is with the “our.” Whether we are talking about your ends or my ends doesn’t just affect whether we think the ends justify the means; it also affects how we view the means themselves.
We’re all familiar with our tendency to evaluate ourselves more leniently than others when it comes to our moral failings. We are able to rationalize all sorts of questionable actions for ourselves that we would condemn in others.
Well, this hypocrisy doesn’t stop at ourselves. We also extend this hypocrisy to members of our ingroup and to those who benefit us in some way through their transgressions. We judge their behavior less harshly than identical behavior by someone who is not in our ingroup or someone who doesn’t benefit us. What’s even more troubling is that this isn’t something we just pay lip service to; research shows that when another person’s morally questionable behavior benefits us, we actually trust them more than if their behavior doesn’t benefit us and we are less likely to remember their bad behavior. In other words, our interest affects how we see things and how we process information.
This is a problem. Not only do we have biased views of what the right ends are, our different ends can actually lead us to have a biased view of the means themselves.
What do we do about this?
We need to try to separate our judgment of the means from our judgment of the ends so that our judgment of the means is not colored by our desire for the ends. We can try to minimize our conflicts of interest by having a neutral party evaluate the case. If that is not possible, we can try to evaluate the case from a different perspective by imagining how we would view an identical situation if the transgressor was someone from our outgroup. How would we feel about their behavior? How guilty would we think they were? What kinds of punishment would we think they deserved?
This doesn’t mean that the ends will never justify the means. It just means that we should at least have an accurate, unbiased evaluation of the means before we decide that the ends justify them.
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Also published on Medium.