Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Dirty Hands Part 2

by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Last week we introduced readers to the political concept of “dirty hands,” by which we mean the use of ethically dubious means to achieve morally desirable ends. Conceding the point, how do we calculate which ends justify which means? Are there some ends of such moral consequence that they would justify any means? Are there some means that are simply off the table, no matter what? Some might argue, for example, that torture is never permissible, while others might imagine scenarios where it is a morally permissible last resort both as a way to save innocent life and to express care for those in one’s charge.

The problem is made more complex by the fact that we can’t always agree on which ends are morally desirable. We can probably all agree that the protection of innocent life is a morally desirable end, but politics seldom gives us such black and white options. Are “reasons of state” of sufficient moral significance? How about the maintenance of a fully functioning economy? The pursuit of happiness? Even some purposes that seem obviously immoral to some of us – slavery, racial purity, eugenics, sexual subjugation – will have their defenders. After all, it’s not as if Nazis and communists thought they were doing evil things. Politics rarely gives us a choice between good and evil; more than not it requires us to choose between competing goods, which means we might be preventing an advancement of something good. Of course, it also frequently presents us with having to choose between “the lesser of two evils,” meaning we have to choose something evil.

The number of people who think they’re doing evil is vanishingly small. So whatever explanations we offer for moral and political action must account for the sometimes enormous gap that exists between our actions (and intentions) and their effects. To square that circle we need to engage in acts of justification, by which we can justify to both ourselves and others why we did what we did. Oftentimes such justifications amount to little more than denials or weak excuses For example, “I didn’t mean to hurt you” is a lame excuse in no small part because a) it assumes that we are fully cognizant of our motives; and, b) it matters little to the other person you harmed what your intentions were. Likewise, our excuses might involve obscuring the action itself; the use of the passive voice, obscurantist language, jargon, weasel words are all ways by which we try to hide our actions from one another and ourselves. That last part might be the most important because we all struggle by the dissonance created by the fact we believe we are good persons forced to acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that we do bad things. Thus we refer to dead innocents as “collateral damage.” We can have an argument about whether something is right or wrong, but only after we have clearly identified what it is.

The moral dilemma is a problem in part because doing the bad thing is rarely required of us. In our everyday lives the advantages gained by deception and the use of force are slight, and more likely to damage our reputations and our moral sense than enhance them. But in abnormal circumstances the advantages of deception and the use of force might be extraordinarily beneficial and could enhance our reputations more than damage them. To espy the difference in circumstances and respond accordingly requires no small amount of prudence, which is one of the four cardinal virtues. Machiavelli might have even called it “cunning,” but he leaves no doubt as to the glory and honor attendant to the person who does it well and for the right reasons.

“Dirty hands” are a problem for us because they threaten the assumed coherence of the moral universe. We typically think of moral injunctions as universal in scope: they apply to all people at all times in all places. We might not agree on the source of these moral commands (scripture, natural law, history, community standards), but we don’t operate without them. We might try to convince ourselves we can operate without them precisely at a time when we have lost our capacity to explain and defend them, such as answering Nietzsche when he wondered why we shouldn’t be cruel to others when it gave us so much pleasure to do so.

When we think of moral absolutes we don’t think of them as prescriptions so much as prohibitions. It is difficult to command virtue but it is not difficult to restrain vice, at least at the level of moral theory. “Dirty hands” bring into question both the nature of those moral absolutes and the judgment of those who believe they can be suspended, and that questioning necessarily makes us uneasy. We recognize that we are on a slippery slope and will typically think it best not to get on it. History and literature are replete with examples of figures who, believing they were doing a good thing, soon found themselves overwhelmed by the dark power they unleashed and then accepted. “Only but for a bit” is an act of self-deception.

Not knowing how we can get along without politics, and not knowing how politics can operate without power, we tend to regard all politicians as being in some way morally compromised. How else could they have gotten in office? And once in office, how else could they exercise the power placed in their hands? So we simultaneously appreciate them for allowing us to think that our hands are clean while we have contempt for them for their moral weakness. This paradox introduces an element of madness into our politics, and almost certainly a healthy dose of hypocrisy. We can’t help but wonder how we can trust a person who is willing to get his hands dirty and worry about how that willingness might ultimately be turned against us. But worse would be placing those powers in the hands of someone we can’t trust. Our electoral politics always operates in the middle of this moral conundrum.

The problem deepens when we place so much hope in the outcome of elections, a hope belied by the objectionable tactics politicians will use to gain office. And mark this well: this is a bipartisan problem. If you think the other party plays dirty politics and your party plays it straight (“When they go low, we go high”) then you have engaged in some delusional machinations to manage the otherwise distressing cognitive dissonances politics produces. People might support a candidate because they think he or she is a good person, and that candidate will do everything in his or her power to maintain the deception, but the sad truth of the matter is that candidates who try to stay always above board are almost certain to lose.

A candidate can rescue his reputation and ameliorate our dilemma only by embracing the immorality of his actions. In other words, we can be confident a politician is doing right only because he knows he is doing wrong. Willing to accept the guilt, the politician will confess to making a pact with dark forces only out of necessity. One of the finest examples of this I can think of is President Obama’s remarkable Nobel Prize Address, where he tries to steer a path between pacifism and Machiavellian realism. Even though he was morally inclined toward pacifism, he recognized this was not an option he had in his official capacity.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their (Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr.) examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

As an admirer of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama was especially struck by irony and tragedy in the historical story. “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”

He accepted the moral compromise, the willingness to get his hands dirty so others can keep theirs clean, as the price he had to pay for what he believed was an essential public service. This, too, is a problem for us, because we will happily accept a person sacrificing wealth or power or even relationships, but not morals. Again, our dilemma is that we must entrust enormous power into the hands of a person willing to endorse ethically dubious actions. We will not give that to a person we can’t trust, and we can’t trust a person who will accept it.

Next week: our final installment on the problem of “dirty hands.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Given the above, is distrust actually a useful thing in politics? Why did Madison think it was?
  2. How can a politician represent the best of what we are when he must engage in the worst that we can imagine?
  3. What sorts of moral compromises do politicians engage in during campaigns? Give examples.

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