Dirty Hands: A Dilemma of Politicians and Public Administrators
Right and Wrong - Not Always Clear-Cut
According to Michael Walzer, politicians should be willing to get their hands dirty in the public interest as they are of a unique position to use the power vested in them that the general public does not have. Walzer argued that political leaders must be willing to break the rules because their line of work frequently involves dilemma for which there is not always a moral solution (Walzer, 1973, p. 162). At times, leaders may need to defend their cause against acts of corruption committed by others (Thompson, 1990, p. 15). Bernard Williams and Machiavelli discussed the concept of political morality, where having “dirty hands” is ethical so long as it is for the general welfare, not for personal gain (1982, p. 41; Thompson, p. 12). Max Weber claimed that to ensure the smooth functioning of an organization, followers should be willing to carry out the orders of the leaders, and so administrators should be willing to get their hands dirty if necessary to ensure the best outcome the public.
Walzer claimed that no matter what politicians do, their hands are clean so long as they have done their best to act in the public interest after considering all alternatives (Walzer, p. 169), though they will likely still feel guilty if they do have to break the rules even for good reason (p. 174). No rule can determine the best outcome in every situation. Nonetheless, just because rules are not followed does not mean that they are cancelled; most people, including regular citizens, should still follow the rules (p. 171). We choose our leaders because we believe in their judgment; not everyone should be given the option to determine whether or not to follow the rules.
Dennis Thompson did not agree with Walzer, arguing that the level of “cleanliness” depends on if politicians gain the consent of the public for their actions; there is more dirt and the action is more unethical if a leader does not have public approval (p. 11). Also, moral culpability depends on one’s distance from the execution of an act; a politician may give the order to break the rules, but the administrator would likely be the one to carry it out directly, and so the administrator would therefore feel more guilt as the public perceives him or her as more unethical (pps. 19-20). Unfortunately, administrators do not always have the power to choose whether or not to get their hands dirty and may be given an order to commit a wrong for a good reason. However, if they are unaware of the nature of the decisions being made by political leaders, then there is an additional level of “dirtiness” that the leaders achieve but the administrators do not (p. 22). In that way, the hands of supervisors or oversight committees also are dirtied when a rule is broken because they have responsibility over the actions of politicians and administrators (p. 29-30).
Just because a politician or administrator acts in the public interest does not mean that committing a wrong should go unpunished (Walzer, p. 179). However, this is a sacrifice that both politicians and public administrators make in serving the people; they should be willing to get their hands dirty and consequently suffer a sense of wrongness if necessary to ensure the best for the public (Thompson, p. 13). When leaders feel guilt after breaking a rule, the public is assured that they are still suitable leaders with good judgment. There are two elements involved in cases of dirty hands, one deontological where the motive behind the act should be noble, and one consequentialist where the outcome is worth breaking the rules when the public benefits.
- Walzer - Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands (1973)
Political action: The problem of dirty hands M Walzer - Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1973 Publicly available: http://www.duke.edu/~nrt/Walzer2.pdf "The actual topic was whether or not a man ca... by ianm.phil in Politics, realism, and Humanities
- Why Dirty Hands Are Not Necessary In Politics
- The Problem of Dirty Hands (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Should political leaders violate the deepest constraints of morality in order to achieve great goods or avoid disasters for their communities? This question poses what has become known amongst philosophers as the problem of dirty hands.
Thompson, Dennis F. Political Ethics and Public Office. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987. Web.
Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2.2 (Winter 1973): 160-180.
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