Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reflections On “Dirty Hands”—A Précis

Dirty hands involve a violation of a person, principle, or value.

'…[B]ecause we tend to think of morality both as forming a coherent whole and as dominating all other reasons for action, there are at least two different ways of stating the “dirty hands” thesis. We may state it as the view that political reasons sometimes legitimately override the most serious moral considerations, or as the view that morality is divided against itself, with the virtues required by political life incompatible with what we think of as normal (or ‘private’) virtues. There is a third option, but it is less a formulation of the dirty hands challenge than a way of sanitizing its confrontation with morality. This is the option of treating the apparent clash between political and ordinary morality as reconciled by some overarching moral principle, such as the principle of utility.'—C.A.J. Coady

'Politics has always posed threatening questions about the scope and authority of common understandings of morality. It is politics that Thrasymachus has foremost in mind in Plato’s Republic, when he challenges Socrates to refute his startling definition of justice as “the interest of the stronger.”'—C.A.J. Coady

'In thinking about this issue, it is important to distinguish self-serving opportunists from those who suffer corruption from their sincere efforts to govern well. Self-serving opportunists often rationalize their dubious measures to themselves through self-deceptive references to “the good of the whole,” claiming that group loyalty demands moral sacrifice or that “the end justifies the means.” Egocentric opportunism, however, differs conceptually from dirty hands. The question before us is whether corruption in the political realm might arise as a result of the very nature of governance and morality. Do rulers simply have more opportunities for temptation and therefore succumb more often than do private citizens? Or does good governance sometimes require the sacrifice of moral standards?'—Laurie Calhoun

'Those who refer to the necessities of politics have, at least since Machiavelli, often thereby signified not only necessary risks of an apparently immoral kind, but necessarily even lies, cruelties and even murders. Taking their lead from Sartre’s play of the same name, modern philosophers tend to talk of the necessity for “dirty hands” in politics, meaning that the vocation of politics somehow rightly requires its practitioners to violate important moral standards which prevail outside of politics.'—C.A.J. Coady

'For politics, the Machiavellian thought, at least in its most challenging form, is…the idea…that it is sometimes legitimate for political rulers, to deceive, cheat, betray or even torture or murder, where these acts are clear violations of the moral code that seems to bind us all.'—C.A.J. Coady

'Machiavelli’s position appears to be simply that principle must sometimes be sacrificed in order to succeed as a leader: if one wants to be an effective ruler, then one must be prepared to forsake morality. In this reading, Machiavelli is neither a moral relativist nor an immoralist, for he does not claim that leaders are immune from the dictates of morality, but that they must flout morality in order to lead well. Whether he is correct in his realism about dirty hands depends, then, on the nature of morality.'—Laurie Calhoun

'…[A]lthough he has in mind the need to override Christian morality, [Machiavelli’s advocacy of ‘necessary immorality’] has wider application to moral codes and virtues that are recognized in secular and other contexts beyond Christianity. When Machiavelli says, “a man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not so good. Hence it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good and to use this knowledge or not according to necessity,” he is genuinely challenging a very deep and compelling picture of morality. According to this picture, we can understand what it is to lead a good life and/or the duties of a moral code, and such an understanding provides us with final, authoritative guidance on how to act. Moral reason may not always have something to say about our choices and decisions…but when it does intervene seriously and relevantly, it must carry the day against all competing considerations. This picture is challenged by Machiavelli because he thinks that there are powerful reasons which can and should override the moral reasons.'—C.A.J. Coady

'In Pocock’s wording, Machiavelli “enters the realm of moral ambiguity” by making use of the polysemy that attended the term “virtue.” To the Greek eudaimonists, arete connoted moral excellence based on commitment to the actualization, conservation, and defense of certain objective values, and implying strength of character. To the ancient Romans virtù connoted the strength to deal effectively and nobly with whatever fortune might send. In Christianity under the influence especially of Augustine and Boethius, virtue becomes purity, understood as absence of defilement by the world, and submission to Fortune, which is now understood as Providence. “Virtue” in Machiavelli retains the idea of strength in the Roman meaning, but undermines the Greek idea of objective goodness by associating strength with effectiveness and expediency. In Pocock’s words, “Virtù took on the double meaning of the instruments of power, such as arms, and the personal qualities needed to wield these instruments.'—David L. Norton

'Machiavelli makes it clear that one of the situations generating the need for the rule to act wickedly is the fact that with whom one interacts cannot be relied upon to act morally, and hence conformity to morality is foolish and dangerous for survival. We might call this the problem of moral isolation. As befits someone who puts survival at the heart of morality, Thomas Hobbes gives an even clearer account of this then Machiavelli. Hobbes thought that the laws of nature gave us a valid moral code and associated virtues, but that they obliged in foro interno and “not always” in foro externo. He meant that we ought to want the laws of nature to be obeyed, but that we would be stupid to practice morality unilaterally. Hobbes did not think the point applied solely to politics; rather, he thought it an important feature of life in a state of nature, but, as Sidgwick noted…and as Hobbes would certainly have insisted, rulers often stand in relations to one another that resemble a state of nature. Hence the sphere of international relations is one that naturally lends itself to the dirty hands story.'—C.A.J. Coady

'For many years, it has been impossible to make moral arguments about international relations to its American students without encountering the claim that moral judgments have no place in discussions of international affairs or foreign policy. This claim is one of the foundations of the so-called realist approach to international studies or foreign policy.'—Charles R. Beitz

'According to Realism, the nature of international relations precludes morality in that sphere. And because morality is not operative in the international sphere, a moral theory of international law is an exercise in futility. [….] In its purely positive variant, Realism is a descriptive explanatory account of the nature of international relations. …[H]owever, Realists typically draw a meta-ethical implication from their descriptive-explanatory theory: broadly, that morality is inapplicable to international relations.'—Allen Buchanan and David Golove

'…[A]mong the dirty features of dirty hands are people being wronged, they and their trust, integrity, and status as ends are violated, dishonoured, and betrayed: innocents are killed, tortured, lied to, deceived. Dirty hands can also involve other sorts of harms and wrongs—e.g. the destruction of a holy place or a great work of art. They sometimes involve the violation of a principle rather than a person: e.g. agreeing not to prosecute terrorists in order to end a highjacking.'—Michael Stocker

'I think it difficult to overestimate the importance of the rule of immorality in creating situations which necessitate and justify acting with dirty hands. In at least many cases…were it not for the immorality, there would be no need or room for dirty hands. The issue is important enough to stop and show that the immorality of the circumstances can provide the specific differences between cases of dirty hands and other cases. [For there are instances when an agent is] immorally coerced to take part in, perhaps even to implement, an immoral project. [In such cases, what sets them apart from other kinds of conflicts where one is unable to avoid doing wrong] is that they involve being coerced to help implement another’s evil project.'—Michael Stocker

'[O]ur acts are not fresh moral starts, their moral nature depends sometimes not only on us and what we can do at the time of the act, but also on what we have done previously. It can also depend on others and what they do.'—Michael Stocker

An act is one of dirty hands if from some vantage point or perspective (i.e., of the ruler, the politician, those in situations of highly constrained and momentous political choice) it is understood as somehow right or even obligatory, but from another perspective (e.g. the individual’s personal moral code, traditional religious moral codes or virtue ethics) it is nonetheless known to be clearly wrong, shameful, and the like. “So, in Walzer’s case of torturing someone to compel him to reveal where his group has planted a bomb among innocent civilians, the torture can be justified, even obligatory, but nonetheless wrong and shameful” (Michael Stocker).

'One of President Kennedy’s advisers in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Dean Acheson, proudly records that, when the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and much else stood in the balance, “those involved…will remember the irrelevance of the supposed moral considerations brought out in the discussions,…moral talk did not bear on the problem.” This seems to have been largely true of Acheson’s own contributions to the crucial debates, but his view did not prevail and some of the other arguments put to the President had a moral flavor, such as Robert Kennedy’s belief that the aerial attack upon the Cuban missile bases, a course favoured by Acheson, would be a Pearl Harbor in reverse. Characteristically, Acheson thought this a mere obfuscation and part of an “emotional or intuitive” response. Nonetheless, if moral considerations were not irrelevant, they were surprisingly lacking in weight when compared to other factors of a more obviously political or even personal kind, such as the need for President Kennedy to regain prestige, demonstrate his courage, and eliminate the prospect of impeachment, as well as the necessity to avoid Democratic Party defeats in upcoming Congressional elections.'—C.A.J. Coady

'[O]ne may readily concede that some areas of life lead to more frequent clashes between moral and non-moral values but we need to recall both that precisely which areas these are is a matter of historical contingency, and that frequency of confrontation need not correlate with frequency of justified overriding. Politics may be very bland as, I imagine, in Monaco, and private life can be a maelstrom of agonizing conflicts, as in a black ghetto or an Ethiopian village during famine. Moreover, where politics is morally perturbing it doesn’t follow that decisions against morality will necessarily be legitimate. Some area may be morally dangerous than another without being less morally constrained. Politics may often be sleazier than housekeeping without this fact licensing fewer moral constraints in politics. On the contrary, the more frequent temptation is, the greater, we might naturally suppose, the need for stern attachment to moral standards and virtue. (This was indeed the view of Machiavelli’s famous humanist contemporary, Erasmus, in his The Education of a Christian Prince).'—C.A.J. Coady

'[T]he values which politicians find themselves driven to promote, and others find themselves driven to endorse, may be the product of degraded social circumstances and arrangements.'—C.A.J. Coady

'We concentrate upon the particular act that will require dirty hands and ignore the contingency and mutability of the circumstances that have given rise to it. Yet it is precisely these circumstances which often most deserve moral scrutiny and criticism, and the changes which may result from such criticism can eliminate the “necessity” for those types of dirty hands in the future. This suggests that philosophers and other theorists have in fact been too complacent in their acceptance of neutrality and immutability of the background circumstances which generate “dirty hands” choices. Robert Fullinwider once remarked that we need politicians just as we need garbage collectors, and in both cases we should expect them to stink. But, once upon a time, we needed the collectors of what was euphemistically called “night soil” and, in many parts of the world, human ingenuity has eliminated the need for that very malodorous occupation.'—C.A.J. Coady

'[A]ccording to Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics, “habits build character,” so a person who sacrifices his own principles one time becomes more likely to do so again in the future. Agents who set aside what once were their moral views become progressively desensitized to the sorts of violations that formerly elicited their moral indignation. Agents learn, and they become habituated to accept what once seemed unacceptable, no longer feeling compelled to object to what once seemed objectionable. In clinging to some goal while neglecting, even temporarily, his moral beliefs and principles, the agent thus metamorphoses slowly into a corrupted image of his former self. In this view, those who renounce moral standards and principles for the prudential interests of a group thereby transform themselves (albeit gradually) into persons who no longer embrace those standards and principles. Some might claim that they know where to “draw the line,” insisting that they will not sacrifice certain fundamental beliefs. Still, if habits build character, then even the act of sacrificing less-fundamental beliefs renders one more likely to sacrifice other, perhaps more-fundamental beliefs in the future. Corruption may be a long, irresistible journey down a very slippery slope.'—Laurie Calhoun

Michael Walzer and other contemporary writers on the topic of “dirty hands” do little to elaborate or clarify their basis for distinguishing private and public morality or what Stuart Hampshire calls “a conflict between two ways of life.”

'[It is a] common contention that there are two levels or types or standards of morality, one for the individual in his private life and in his immediate surroundings, the other for political life and collective conduct. This standpoint has been stated plausibly over and over again, from Aquinas to Maurras, Kautilya to Tilak, Jowett to Niebuhr. Prudentia politica or niti is held to be the charioteer of other virtues, and adapts the natural law or dharma to raison d’état or artha. Politics may be subordinated, but it must not become subservient, to morals.'—Raghavan Iyer

‘It was absolutely and continually fundamental to Gandhi to reject this dominant doctrine of double standards, with its varying sources of support, types of formulation and methods of justification. It is not that Gandhi failed to distinguish between fact and value, or even between what men must ideally do and what they can practically achieve. He recognized that in politics as in life, we continually search for a middle term in our attempt to mediate between the desirable and the possible. Nor did he fail to see that politics, like medicine, requires immediate action based upon incomplete knowledge. Every act according to the Gita, inevitably contains an element of error in this imperfect world. This may be truer of politics than of personal life, though this is by no means self-evident. What Gandhi denied was that in politics we must make more allowances, or even need more elbow room, than in the personal moral quest in the company of men of varying and even conflicting human aspirations. It is because Gandhi took very seriously, and regarded as highly complex and dilemma-ridden, the process of moral growth, choice and decision, for the sensitive individual, that he regarded politics as altering the sphere, but not the moral value or validity or culpability of human action.'—Raghavan Iyer

'[Gandhi held that] political and personal morality must coincide and extend to all human beings in all walks of life. The purification of politics requires the removal of the taint of double standards by men of courage and integrity. [….]. Gandhi’s only view is that politics is inherently impure and involves pollution and could never be ideal in any sense, but that it can and must be purified, and this requires, as a first step, the repudiation of any distinction between public and private, political and personal, morality. [….] Gandhi’s moral notion of pollution refers to the contagion of power-seeking that hampers man’s relations with his fellow men in politics and society.'—Raghavan Iyer

'Socrates and Machiavelli are rarely regarded as ideological allies, but both qualify as realists about dirty hands. The salient difference between them is that Socrates exhorts (by his own example) those who would avoid corruption to eschew public life [cf. Plato’s Apology, 31d-32a], whereas Machiavelli exhorts those who wish to be leaders to accept corruption as the price that they will have to pay. Nowhere, however, does Machiavelli exhort anyone to become a leader. He claims, most realistically, that if one wishes to be a successful leader, then one must be willing to forsake morality. No one is forced to become a government official, and no official is forced to be a superlative one.'—Laurie Calhoun

References & Further Reading:
  • Beitz, Charles R. Political Theory and International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999 ed.
  • Brecher, Bob. Torture and the Ticking Bomb. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Buchanan, Allen. Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Buchanan, Allen and David Golove. “Philosophy of International Law,”in Jules Coleman and Scott Shapiro, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002: 868-934.
  • Calhoun, Laurie. “The Problem of ‘Dirty Hands’ and Corrupt Leadership,” The Independent Review, Vol. VIII, No. 3, Winter 2004: 363-385.
  • Coady, C.A.J. “Politics and the Problem of Dirty Hands,” in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991: 373-383.
  • Coady, C.A.J. “Dirty Hands,” in Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit, eds. A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1993: 422-430.
  • Coady, C.A.J. Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Coady, C.A.J. Morality and Political Violence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Coady, C.A.J. (Tony), “The Problem of Dirty Hands,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
  • Elshtain, Jean Bethke, ed. Just War Theory. New York: New York University Press, 1992.
  • Ginbar, Yuval. Why Not Torture Terrorists? Moral, Practical and Legal Aspects of the ‘Ticking Bomb’ Justification of Torture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Hampshire, Stuart, ed. Public and Private Morality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1973.
  • Khawaja, Irfan. “Do We Have to Get Our Hands Dirty to Win the War on Terrorism? And What Does that Mean, Exactly?” History News Network: (May 17th, 2004).
  • May, Larry. Crimes Against Humanity: A Normative Account. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • May, Larry. War Crimes and Just War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Norton, David L. Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Sharp, Gene. “Ethics and Responsibility in Politics,” in Sharp, Gandhi as a Political Strategist. Boston, MA: Extending Horizons Books/Porter Sargent, 1979: 235-250.
  • Stocker, Michael. Plural and Conflicting Values. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1990.
  • Tanaka, Yuki and Marilyn B. Young, eds. Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History. New York: The New Press, 2009.
  • Thompson, Dennis F. Political Ethics and Public Office. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2 (1973): 160-180.
  • Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books, 2nd ed., 1992.
  • Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Please note: The publicity photo above for the front cover of Bombing Civilians is different in several respects from the cover that appears on my copy of the book, including the order of the editors' names, thus I cited the book with Tanaka's name first, as appears in the hard copy of the book before me.


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