Dirty Hands

… a core topic in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M

AbuseofAuthorityConcept description

“How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid are you to soil your hands?… Well, I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently?”

– Jean-Paul Sartre, Dirty Hands (1948) 

The problem of “dirty hands” as it was termed by Michael Walzer in 1973 captures the dilemma faced by politicians and civil servants when the correct or necessary course of action in a given circumstance permits or requires one to commit what is largely seen as a grave moral wrong.

A number of hypothetical examples are frequently used in the realm of political ethics to illustrate the dilemma of dirty hands. One such example is the “ticking time bomb”: in this example, many people will die in an impending explosion if a bomb is not disarmed in time, something which can only be accomplished by torturing the bomb’s creator for some piece of key information (the bomb’s location, the disarming code, etc.). Another such example is a variation of the “trolley problem” in which an out-of-control train hurls towards a large number of people who will certainly perish upon impact; the dilemma faced in this case stems from the choice to throw someone sufficiently heavy to stop the train in front of it before the train can derail and cause a large number of accidental deaths.

In each of these cases, we are left with what John M. Parrish calls three “unsavoury options”: either torture or murder in the examples above, or some grave prima facie immoral act, is actually not immoral or even criminal when committed in the pursuit of the greater good; or they are immoral, criminal acts yet we are sometimes justified in committing them; or they are immoral and wrong, and should never be committed regardless of the outcome for the greater good. According to Parrish, once we eliminate the third option as “not morally serious”, politicians and other actors facing the dirty hands problem face an intractable dilemma: they must either admit that some things which we believe to be wrong are not actually wrong in some circumstances, or they must admit that sometimes it is right to do the wrong thing.

Different schools of ethics view the problem in various lights. Utilitarian ethics – which generally holds that what is ethical in the circumstances is the course of action that benefits the greatest number of people (or imposes the cost on the least number of people) – views this type of problem with suspicion, since according to utilitarianism no moral wrong results from an action that benefits the largest number of people. By contrast, Kantian/deontological ethics – which is generally characterized by categorical imperatives – would hold that such immoral acts as murder and torture can never be justified, regardless of the potential impact on the “greater good” that may result. Value pluralists – who generally would hold that what is “right” depends on roles and circumstances – would challenge the core assumptions that lead to the problem of “dirty hands”, particularly the premise that in the circumstances of such thorny problems of governance, what is wrong and what is right collide.

See also: Normative Ethics; Consequentialism; Deontological Ethics; and Virtue Ethics.


Martin E. Sandbu, Review of John M. Parrish, Paradoxes of Political Ethics: From Dirty Hands to the Invisible Hand, Cambridge University Press, 2007, 283pp., at https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23795-paradoxes-of-political-ethics-from-dirty-hands-to-the-invisible-hand/, accessed 31 May 2016.

C.A.J. Coady (2014), The Problem of Dirty Hands, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dirty-hands/, accessed 31 May 2016.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Ends, Means, and Cost-Benefit Analysis (core topic) in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M Ethics.

Page created by: Dave Marshall, last modified by Ian Clark on 12 March 2019.

Image: Max DIY, How to wash hands, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq-o5jIoY0E, accessed 31 May 2016.