Political Ethics and Dirty Hands

July 11, 2017

This paper is a summary and discussion of Michael Walzer’s article by the title “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands” (Walzer, 1973)

This paper is a justification of ‘dirty hands’ in politics despite admitting that the action of ‘dirty hands’ is immoral and could lead to punishment. His argument is that the way a politician would act when he finds himself in a dilemma of choosing between acting immorally and furthering his political agenda or not acting at all. According to Walzer for a successful politician ‘dirty hands’ is inevitable. Dirty hands described in his own words “a central feature of political life, one that are arises not merely as an occasional crisis in the career of this or that unlucky politician but systematically and frequently” (Walzer, 1973).

According to Walzer a politician will definitely one day find himself in a paradox. Then he will have to act immorally intentionally and heroically feeling the guilt for it in order to achieve a greater good and hence his choice of dirty hands is a sacrifice. Although the situation looks similar to that of Machiavelli’s philosophy of ends justifying the means, Walzer conditions ‘dirty hands’ by feeling guilt and accepting consequences. He describes two categories of politicians those “who ignore the demands of morality and make decisions based on the demands of expediency; and absolutists, who live strictly according to their moral principles.” (Dovi, 2004) But Walzer neither endorses consequentialists nor absolutists. The politician he wants the citizens to support is the one who acts immorally for the sake of the pressing political cause but feels guilty about his immoral action. As if this feeling of guilt or admittance of violating moral integrity is the condition for a politician to act immorally. This is clearly expressed in the following quote from his article:

“His willingness to acknowledge and bear (and perhaps to repent and do penance for) his guilt is evidence, and it is the only evidence he can offer us, both that he is not too good for politics and that he is good enough. Here is the moral politician: it is by his dirty hands that we know him. If he were a moral man and nothing else, his hands would not be dirty; if he were a politician and nothing else, he would pretend that they were clean” (Walzer, 1973)

With the admittance of committing a moral violation and feeling the ‘guilt’ for it the politician action becomes a moral one or at least he is identified as one who cares about morals.

The motivation for one to accept politics despite the expected dilemma is power and glory as Walzer argues. Thus it would be appropriate to argue that politics is not the ‘vocation’ for everybody. It is only for those who are willing to sacrifice, heroically or otherwise, by committing immoral actions when they come across the paradox. However, this is not how Walzer sees politicians different from other entrepreneurs. He points out that they do not merely cater to our interests, but act on our behalf and even in our name. He also acts for a purpose that would benefit not only individuals but all of us. An example he illustrates is that of a politician who finds himself in the dilemma of choosing between torturing one person or failing to prevent an explosion of a bomb in a heavily populated area. What is required from the politician here is to permit the torture of the individual and feel guilty even admit it to the extent that he accept punishment, e.g. resigning his position.

The other point is that politicians cannot serve us without serving themselves, as success in his political career brings him power and glory. And here he accepts that the politicians we elect can be deceptive and corrupt: they can lie, cheat and even steal. Consequently we citizens are urged to accept immoral actions from politicians if it serves public interest and the politician feels guilty.

He discusses the question of whether one could ever face a dilemma and find himself choosing between two courses of actions but both are wrong to undertake. He cites the argument of Thomas Nigel that this could happen when one is forced to choose between “upholding a moral principle and avoiding a looming disaster” (Walzer, 19973). The opinion of R.B. Brandt is that the dilemma could not take place since there are “guidelines and calculations to follow in order to make a decision. In Walzer’s point of view the politician who wants to remain innocent does not only “fails to do the right thing but also fails to measure up to duties of his office.” However, to Walzer the dilemma and the choice are judged by the politicians who have a confidence in their own judgement. “The politician has, or pretends to have , a kind of confidence in his own judgement that the rest of us know to be presumptuous in man” (Walzer, 1973). In this way Walzer is asserting that politicians possess the capacity of the right judgement or at least are confident that they possess. I wonder if in all situations the politician’s choice will be the right immoral choice. That is to ask do all choices necessarily lead to the assumed good for all of us. Dovi questions this in the following quote:

Walzer’s description of the problem of dirty hands is to some extent reassuring both to politicians and to citizens. For it represents political actors who face the problem of dirty hands as knowing what is the right decision. But in doing so, Wlazer overlooks cases in which politicians are unsure about the effects of their decisions or operate with misguided moral assumptions” (Dovi, 2004)

For example, in his example where the choice is to torture the individual in order to acquire information that will assist in preventing the disaster of a bomb exploding in a residential area, no one can ensure that the torture will definitely result in preventing the disaster. The possibility is open that the individual is tortured and the disaster takes place. And here the confidence of politicians in their judgement is questioned.

Yet the confession of the politician of his guilt, being put out for public scrutiny may indeed give the action some legitimacy or makes the politician in a way honest since he is accepting accountability and admitting guilt.

Therefore, in his two examples: the one who accepts a bribe during elections in order to win with support of who is giving bribe; and the one who orders torture to prevent a bomb disaster, it is assumed that once the political goal is achieved and the politicians admit and feel remorse, they are heroes of ‘dirty hands’. However, I could not imagine how the one accepting bribe would justify his decision later.

On the other hand Dovi (2004) offers an alternative to the justification of Walzer. Instead of looking at the problem from the individual perspective, i.e. one person facing a dilemma he think if it is looked at from a broader point of view where we think about the public a politician is leading, we may accept the purity of absolutists in addition to the compromisers of Walze.

“Walzer approaches the problem of dirty hands from the perspective of the individual decision maker. But viewing the problem from a broader perspective, one that attends to the situation of the polity as a whole, reveals that a morally healthy polity, in fact, needs absolutists, and not just Walzerian compromisers, in the political arena. I will argue, in particular, that absolutists play two crucial roles in the life of a morally healthy polity. First, they serve as moral exemplars who, by living out their commitment to moral principles, strengthen other citizens’ commitment to their moral beliefs. Second, absolutists can provide political cover that improves the negotiating positions of those who compromise their moral integrity for desirable political ends” (Dovi, 2004)

In this approach which he calls ‘the division of moral labor approach’, Dovi sees that absolutists can “ help instil and strengthen moral commitment within a polity.” So he further illustrates the pedagogical role of the absolutists in our lives or ‘in the life of polity’, as he puts it. He points out that those who are absolutists can make greater sacrifices for the choice of not violating moral obligations, which may go as far as hurting oneself. He gives the example of a slave in Toni Morrison’s story ‘Beloved’ who had to kill her child because she did not want her to grow as a slave. I would subscribe to the point of view of Dovi here:

“For our purposes, it is especially crucial to see that absolutists can serve as moral exemplars, inspiring others by example to resist the temptation to abandon their moral commitments. By living according to their moral principles, absolutists can prevent our capacity to feel guilt from being dulled—in other words, they can stave off the problem of moral corruption.” (Dovi, 2004)


It seems that the political arena where people are attracted by power and glory, there is always the danger of facing a dilemma which puts the moral integrity of the individual at stake. Then there is the difficult choice of adopting one of two choices which very often seem to be wrong. While the choice is between two courses of action which seem to be two difficult alternatives, the matter of choice extends further at a personal level to the politician. The choice becomes a personal one when he considers political success or his moral integrity. However, it can extend further to be an issue that also concerns the public or the people who elected the politician. Should he become a pedagogical leader and give an example of morality or should he violate his moral integrity and then puts his case out for public scrutiny, expressing guilt and exposing himself to punishment.

The other point to conclude is the question: is politics the vocation of everybody. In other words can everybody be qualified for politics. I think it is not the vocation of everybody though the division of labour above gives the chance for two types of people. In addition to other qualities required for a politician he should be the type of person who can tolerate the consequences of choices when faced by a paradox, whether it be the absolutists or the compromisers.

One important question that, I see it, needs further research and though is whether ‘dirty hands’ is inevitable in politics or can we practice politics without it.

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Dovi, Suzanne (2004) – The Problem of Guilt: Rethinking the Problem of Dirty Hands – downloaded on 14 November 2006

Walzer, Michael (1973) – Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands – Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2 pp 160 -180

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