by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
[Note: we hold learning seminars with our Forum Fellows, the most recent of which was on the problem of “dirty hands.” Herewith some reflections related to that seminar.]
In a democratic polity such as ours we have strange and frequently paradoxical expectations of our leaders. We expect them to be like us but also better than us. We expect them to be uncommon people with a common touch. We expect them to be compassionate but also tough. We expect them to be both partisan and non-partisan (or at least bi-partisan). We expect them to do what it takes to attain office but not to abuse the power that comes with it. This latter one points to the essential paradox of our politics: we want our leaders to be trustworthy persons of integrity, but also to be willing to suspend some moral expectations should the circumstances require. In the words of Machiavelli, we expect that effective leaders can learn how not to be good.
This is a hard truth of political life, because politics must always deal with the threat of violence. Despite the controversies of the past few years involving the police, most people recognize the police power as a legitimate government function. This power involves both the use of force to prevent crime and the use of coercion to punish crime. Behind both force and coercion stands the threat of violence.
In a democratic system such as ours we choose those who rule over us and put in their hands the tools of the legitimate use of violence. We trust them to use those tools prudently and, more importantly, not to use violence in turn against us, who have largely given up any claim we have to it. Even though we select politicians as our agents, the fact remains that they can’t serve us without, in the process, serving themselves, if for no other reason than that they acquire power and, if they use power wisely, vouchsafe for themselves the even more precious commodity of glory. We witness the subordination of power to glory when we consider that presidents will obsess over how they are judged by history, and that such judgments are only secondarily moral judgments. The “judgments of history” primarily reflect whether the president used his power well and to the “right” ends (typically as judged by historians).
Granted, politicians can’t afford to be indifferent to moral standards, particularly in an elected system. In the playing out of normal politics in relatively stable times we expect our politicians to live by a communally agreed-upon set of moral rules (even though we might disagree on the source of those rules) that set the parameters of acceptable behavior. But in extreme circumstances we recognize that certain moral prohibitions may require suspension, while we also recognize the dangers inherent in such suspension. Once the rules are broken, they can be hard to repair; and any rule broken once is more easily broken a second time. So politics often comes down to a conflict between “purists” or “absolutists” (those for whom any moral compromise is condemnable), and those who operate out of a sense of expediency, acknowledging that the responsibilities attendant to their roles might require the choice of ethically dubious means.
In political thinking we refer to this as the problem of “dirty hands,” taken from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play of that name. The play cleverly contrasts socialist ideologues who want to maintain the purity of their movement, with a good-willed and decent politician who believes in the socialist cause but also is willing to compromise and create alliances with opponents. For the purist, any kind of negotiating with “the other side” is a negotiation with the devil. Purists abhor any kind of compromise, moral or other. In this instance, the non-purist politician defends his compromises, telling his eventual assassin “How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Why did you join us? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your sides, wearing kid gloves. 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?” [emphasis added]
An example more familiar to us than Sartre is Christopher Nolan’s popular Dark Knight Trilogy. (I don’t care for that many movies, but I am an admirer of that trilogy.) Having been unwillingly given the task of protecting Gotham from its enemies, the philanthropist Bruce Wayne adopts the persona of The Batman, the Dark Knight, so that he can perform the morally compromising but necessary acts to protect the people for whom he has become responsible. Nolan dramatically captures the dilemma Wayne faces: once having made some peace with the forces of darkness, they might soon overwhelm him. But his moral center holds so long as he acts as a Caped Crusader not for his own glory or power, but to serve the people of Gotham.
He is called on in their moments of crisis, whether the city is the threatened by the ideological purity of The League of Shadows (Batman Begins), or the nihilistic violence of the Joker in The Dark Knight, or the revolutionary Jacobinism of Bane acting in the name of “the people” (The Dark Knight Rises). The Batman comes to the rescue of the people of Gotham by taking upon himself the dark powers associated with violence (even though he acknowledges limits with rule of “no guns”). In The Dark Knight he resorts to torture and mass surveillance in order to save the lives of innocent civilians from a madman who simply “wants to see the world burn.” As The Batman, Wayne can deal with the tension of “good” people needing protection against people who aren’t. The reason they need that protection is precisely because they are good. In other words, by being unwilling to get their hands dirty, they will never do what is necessary. Wayne bemoans the fact that he has seen “what I would have to become to stop men like [The Joker],” but also that “he can make the choice that no one else can make.” In other words, his willingness to make his hands dirty will allow the people of Gotham and their appointed agents to keep their hands clean. Ra’s al Ghul, leader of The League of Shadows and the man bent on destroying Gotham, as Wayne is about to kill him, tells Wayne “you have finally learned to do what is necessary.” The Batman replies: “I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”
In order to maintain our purity, however, we need to hold him who is morally compromised accountable. It is almost impossible for us to do that without morally compromising ourselves, that is, by resorting to some form of violence — punishment always involving violence. Since the compromise with violence has already split the community apart, the community can only restore its lost unity by scapegoating the person who accepted the moral compromise. “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” the Batman says. “You’ll condemn me, you’ll set the dogs on me, because it’s what needs to happen.” After peace was restored, Commissioner Gordon realized that the Batman was the “hero Gotham deserves” but “not the one it needs right now,” meaning the police would have to hunt down the Batman and punish him. The drama plays on the tension of maintaining political order in the context of trying to maintain moral order. The hero Gotham needed, Harvey Dent, the prosecutor who had been the paragon of virtue until he himself had been the victim of violence, came to reject the very idea of a moral order that could govern our political actions (thus leaving life and death decisions to a coin flip). Dent: “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. You thought we could lead by example. You thought the rules could be bent but not break… you were wrong. The world is cruel.”
Gordon realized that in lying about who was the real hero, to keep “the people” from losing “all hope,” he too had become morally compromised. (Gordon had also lied to Dent in order to save his son.) Blake, an idealistic young officer, recognizes that Gordon has morally compromised himself and accuses him accordingly. Gordon replies:
There's a point. Far out there. When the structures fail you. When the rules aren't weapons anymore, they're shackles, letting the bad get ahead. Maybe one day you'll have such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did. To plunge his hands into the filth so you can keep yours clean.
Blake: “Your hands look plenty filthy to me, Commissioner.” But later, when dealing with fellow officers who were zealously enforcing the rules that would certainly lead to the deaths of innocent children, Blake realizes the wisdom in Gordon’s position and quits the police force so that he can take Batman’s place. (‘What you said about structures. About shackles. I can’t take it. The injustice.”) Gordon, meanwhile, admonishes us not to “apologize for believing the world’s in better shape then it is…just fight to make it true.”
All of us understand the moral imperative involved in trying to keep our hands clean, and we also recognize that once we make our peace with demonic forces they may easily overwhelm us. We know it profits us not to gain the world if we lose our souls. But we also suspect our moral culpability when we deputize someone else to do our dirty work for us, or if we let evil have its way in the world. We sense the tragic irony involved in using the weapons of the children of darkness against the children of darkness, and wonder about those that have taken this tragic choice upon themselves (or have had it thrust upon them).
While in a pit of despair, Wayne is visited by the ghost of Ra’s al Ghul, who carefully instructs Wayne on the paradoxes involved in using morally dubious means for morally desirable ends. “You yourself fought the decadence of Gotham for years. With all your strength and resources, all your moral authority. And the only victory you could achieve was a lie.” But the true victory was still ahead. Only after having been reborn in pain and hardened by suffering was Wayne able to rise out of despair and make the climb to his new-found freedom. He was now free to act fully as a moral agent, and that freedom was what made the defeat of Bane and the forces of evil possible.
This diversion into the Dark Knight movies helps set the scene for the analytical work yet to be done, which will be the subject of next week’s essay.
- What moral compromises are acceptable and which never so, and why?
- Take an act we would all agree is morally objectionable, such as torture. Ask yourself if there are any circumstances under which you would resort to torture, either yourself or in the commission of another? How would you justify it?
- What’s the difference between justifying an action and making an excuse for one?