we have all heard of the old axiom "the ends justify the means." I evaluate it according to moral, not ethical, standards. For example, if the ends are valid, but the means are immoral, then I consider that route to the desired end invalid. However, if the means are simply unethical as opposed to immoral, then I would have to seriously evaluate whether the cost-benefit of achieving the ends at that expense if favorable or unfavorable, on a case-by-case basis. And I may well choose wrongly.
Complicating issues are of course the non-fine line between morals and ethics, the impossibility of ever knowing the true cost-benefit analysis, and the possibility of bias in your estimation of the desirability of the end in question.
However, suppose for the sake of argument that you have wrestled with the issues above and concluded, however reluctantly, that the desired end (in the specific case, removing Bush from office) is enough of an imperative that the unethical route is neccessary to achieve it (for example, rewarding the politics of special interests and anti-Democratic power-mongering by the Party elites, by voting for their candidate). Then the means chosen to achieve that route will influence the ends.
What I mean, in the context of my specific example, is that rescuing our country from the failed domestic and economic policies and the blatantly anti-self-interest foreign policies of the Bush Administration will take a form directly related to the means by which the present Administration is evicted (itself, remaining a desirable end). If Dean wins the Presidency, then there are concrete benefits to a Dean Presidency in terms of healing the national (and artificial) political divide of Left-Right in this country, and of pursuing domestic policy that can be influenced by factual analysis rather than power-play. With President Kerry, we will probably end up with a status quo of political special interests balanced by public and democratic institutions, but it still will not be the actively harmful policy that is promoted by the Bush Administration.
Some purists reject the latter scenario because they are comparing a Dean Presidency to a Kerry Presidency, and concluding (rightly) that the latter is inferior. Thus they are "casting a vote" against the Kerry scenario, a protest rather than an affirmative choice. But the problem is that the real choice is not between Dean and Kerry in November. It is between Bush and only one of them. To rationalize their protest, they will argue that there is "no real difference" between Kerry and Bush. However, this is as demonstrably false as it was during 2000 when Nader argued that Gore and Bush were of the same coin.
There basic problem is that "special interests" are not the sum total of the political problems we face. We have the attempted social takeover of our culture by the extreme religious right, the blatant assault on the fabric of the New Deal by clever Trojan Horse legislation (the Medicare Bill comes to mind) that actually undermines the net further, and the gross fiscal mismanagement that arises under Republican rule when the party rewards its natural constituency, large corporations and mega-wealthy people (>$1M/yr) with allocation of resources in excess of their proprtion to society, at the expense of the middle class (and the poor, whom no one really seems to pay much attention to).
By any intellectually honest evaluation, there are basic differences between conservative and liberal ideologies, and there is real value in having a national debate on those differences, because that can drive informed policy. A complete capitulation does not serve the public interests., Of the two spheres, only the conservative one has attempted to impose by outright deceit and fiat their supremacy, whereas during the past periods of Democratic rule there was a much more diffuse response to obtaining power. This is partly ecause conservatives have spent the better part of two decades cultivating an integrated system of media message distribution across Internet, television, radio, and cable. National Public Radio is inherently moderate, not liberal; the liberal attempt to emulate the conserative media is still in its infancy, but it will grow. Its impossible to tell if, when the liberal media matures, it will provide detente and balance to the conservative on or heighten and accelerate the political division of society. As an avowed conservative on many issues myself, I want to see a more fair atmosphere for discussion of the issues, out of simple self-interest.
Arguing that there is no difference between the intellectual positions of liberal and conservative is a self-delusion. It is the expression of "perfection is the enemy of the good", whose corollary is that in any human (ie, flawed) endeavour, perfection is unattainable. A Kerry Administration will bring hundreds of good and principled public servants back to government, who will view their positions as extensions of their professional pride rather than instruments for political pressure. There is no liberal media echo chamber that can amplify ideology across governmental partitions and branches the way that the conservative message has been.
To argue that Kerry would be equal or worse to Bush is a fallacy of cynicism. I am not that cynical yet. Rather I want to learn from recent history - and Nader's influence on the 2000 election, where his campaigning in swing states actively tipped the balance from Gore to Bush and thus delivered the election to the loser of the popular vote, remains the most formative political lesson of our time.
The perfection is the enemy of the good. The means influence the ends. But this particular end does indeed justify the means, and I intend to vote ABB, not ABK, in 2004.
I actually Vote-swapped my vote with a principled Nader supporter in Oregon, since my Texas vote was rendered effectively meaningless by the winner-take-all system.