by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
The problem of “Dirty Hands” becomes especially acute in the Christian era. One recalls that Socrates was a distinguished soldier, and The Iliad and The Odyssey drip with blood. The Hebrew Scripture presents us with the God Yahweh who commands his people to battle and to conquer. The Old Testament is red and tooth and claw, as is the Muslim Quran.
But the Christian gospels and epistles change our understanding of what is morally permissible by insisting on a perfectionist ethic (“be ye perfect as I am perfect”). The “dirty hands” problem is heightened by the advent of Christianity, which demands an ethic that is both purist and absolute. For anyone with a “realistic” assessment of political life, an understanding that necessity might require us to do unsavory things, the Sermon on the Mount is an enormous challenge. We are left with either accepting it whole or finessing the radicalness out of it. How can a politician pray for enemies, turn the other cheek, offer cloaks, and so forth? How can any of us run an economy when, considering the lilies of the field, we give no care for the morrow? How can a politician agree to sheathe the sword (which we are told by St. Paul that the magistrate does not wield it in vain)?
Too often we regard the era between roughly 500 and 1500 AD as “the middle ages,” a prejudicial term that makes it sound as if nothing important happened during that millennium. In fact, it was a fascinating and fecund time for exploration, careful and precise thinking, and a practical working out of the relationship between Christianity and political life. Once adjusting to the fact that Christ’s return was not as imminent as supposed, Christian thinkers and politicians had to turn their attention more to the demands of this world. How did the transformation by faith affect the roles that we played socially? Could we, for example, be both a Christian and operate a bordello (which was an issue discussed)?
The most troubling issue was Christian participation in military life, which on the one hand was considered an essential political task and on the other the most morally compromising task imaginable. This was not only because of the taking of another man’s life, but also because people serving in the military were required to take oaths (the importance of oaths could easily be the substance of a separate essay) of loyalty that would divide their allegiances.
But divided allegiances were baked into the Christian message, rendering unto God that which was God’s and unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s. Christ coming to separate husbands and wives and parents and children. The Christian call certainly upset the order of the Roman Imperium, but it threated to unsettle all social order. As mentioned above, this tension proved both intractable but also remarkably productive. Throughout the Christian millennium the balance between the exercise of worldly authority and a purified faith was constantly recalibrated. The collapse of Medieval Christendom brought with it the collapse of this tenuous fine-tuning. In any case, no one can be said to have “gotten it right.”
So how do we deal with the problem of dirty hands? It seems to me there are four basic approaches we can take: the purified Christian one, the Machiavellian one, the one we will associate with the German thinker Max Weber, and an as-yet unnamed fourth one.
We’ve already discussed the purified Christian one, most fully articulated in the Sermon on the Mount. This ethic still has its contemporary representatives in Anabaptists and Quakers, among other groups. (Because Quakers would not take oaths, Article II, section 1 of The Constitution requires that the incoming President “take the following Oath or Affirmation… .) John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas are examples of thinkers who work with this kind of ethic. I’ve published a long-form article critical of Hauerwas, but the shortened version of my argument is that his thinking fails not only as a political theory but also as sound theology.
Neither do we need to rehearse Machiavelli’s view that political leaders must learn not to be good. It is necessary that they appear to be good, and he adds that it is good for them actually to be so, but in the main he recognized that political actors were always in a struggle with necessity, the claims of which could never be ignored.
The crisis facing both modern man and those who seek to understand that condition is raised to an even higher level of clarity in Max Weber’s famous “The Vocation of Politics,” a speech given to university students at the close of the First World War. Weber traded off on the old religious notion of a calling, but recognized that somehow the nobility of that idea had been perverted into a mere occupation. Modern state-based forms of political association resulted in relationships of authority that were rational and bureaucratic in form. Participants in such political regimes could live either “from politics” or “for politics.” To live from politics meant to make your living as a functionary within the political apparatus. Such persons do not deliberate about ends or purposes, but simply “do their job” without considering larger questions of “value” and meaning. Politics for them is merely “an enduring source of income.”
On the other hand, were those who live for politics; that is, those who lived their lives in service to a cause, for whom political activity gave them a sense of meaning and purpose. With the development of massive bureaucratic states, political battles become essentially about who had access to the instruments of coercive authority, and thus could reward friends and punish enemies. The fact that we become so passionate about the person selected to be chief executive of the federal bureaucracy means that we have taken an otherwise passive instrument and used it to purposes that are significant for us.
Weber wasn’t naïve or cynical enough to believe that political choices didn’t matter, that politics was simply some “frivolous intellectual game.” Passion and judgment had to be brought into play, along with attendant virtues such as modesty, objectivity, a sense of service, and a cool head.
In this context, Weber introduced his famous distinction between an ethics of responsibility and an absolutist ethics. The latter is of the type we find articulated in The Sermon on the Mount: it is unyielding, decisive, all-inclusive, universal, unconditional, and (importantly) unconcerned with consequences. Such an ethic, Weber seemed to suggest, could in no way serve as a political ethic, which must attend to consequences and the ambiguities and nuances and uncertainties associated with action in the world.
A political ethic, Weber argued, attends to the peculiarity of circumstances and is willing to trade off in some evil to gain a larger good. This meant that a person who wanted to act in the world as an economic or political actor had two fundamental problems to address: 1) they would have to sort through the fundamental confusion about ends; and, 2) they would have to figure out what sorts of ends will justify what sorts of means, and this is a shoal on which most ethical reasoning would crash. Anyone who wants to live in the world of modern political economy must “make a pact with violence” which leaves them “at the mercy of its specific consequences.” Weber fully realized the risk involved in this venture, for we would involve ourselves with “diabolical” powers.
We are faced, he argued, with having to choose whether to live purely from conviction and adopt an absolutist ethics, or to take a chastened ethics that will help us live more responsibly in this world. And here’s the key point: there are absolutely no criteria or standards that will help us judge which one is best. We must be actors within the world, we must be occupied, but we have no way of determining whether that occupation ought to be formed on the basis of otherworldly convictions or inner worldly ones. Weber’s own preference was rather clear: he found people who hold to an otherworldly, absolutist ethic to be little more than “windbags.” That, however, would leave politics in the hands of the worst of us. For this reason, Weber believed that “what lies immediately ahead of us is not the flowering of summer but a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.”
Weber’s politician is a tragic hero, much like St. Augustine’s “melancholy solider” who, having killed in a just cause, must nonetheless bear the burden of that task. But note that even though Weber refers to politics as a vocation, he robs that term of its meaning as having been called by God; and since the politician is not called by God, neither can he be justified by Him. He has exchanged his salvation for … what? Riches? Power? A sense of duty? Glory? Because the politician operates out of a sense of responsibility the assessment of moral rectitude must be left to individual conscience. I find this conclusion unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, not the least is that it separates out the politician from the community.
The problem of dirty hands must engage us in the difficult questions of moral limits. We know from both history and canon that transgressing those limits always results in death. According to the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus, it was impatience with limits that led to the catastrophic bloodshed that marked the 20th century.
Impatience with limits, the rejection of their double life, despair at being a man, have finally driven them to inhuman excesses. Denying the real grandeur of life, they have had to stake all on their own excellence. For want of something better to do, they deified themselves and their misfortunes began; these gods have had their eyes put out. Kaliayev, and his brothers throughout the entire world, refuse, on the contrary, to be deified in that they refuse the unlimited power to inflict death. They choose, and give us as an example the only original rule of life today: to learn to live and to die, and, in order to be a man, to refuse to be a god.”
But Camus didn’t believe that one could accept limits without accepting its attendant risks. The battle against evil certainly took place in the soul, but not only in the soul. This meant that the fight against evil had to be externalized, and only by accepting that could we accept that we are not gods, but messy creatures mucking our way through the world.
For Camus, there was always the effort to do good and fight evil and then to accept the moral compromises that came with it. But not only acceptance. Though not a believer himself, I think Camus was nodding in the direction of believing that since God has called forth the political leader, God has the capacity to also offer that person forgiveness. And since the community also calls for its leaders, it too can offer forgiveness, but – mark this well – only after having required its penance.
Probably a better way to think of this, and a way to restore the moral well-being of the community, refers back to my last essay. The politician who has made his hands dirty can only make them clean again by accepting the punishment the community must impose upon him. Just as conscientious objectors accept the punishment that attends their resistance, so too the politician must pay a price. And this too, as we said, creates a problem for us because there is no way for us to clean dirty hands without getting our hands dirty in the process. Thus, politics is ultimately a tragic and ironic enterprise, not a heroic one.
- How do these essays make you think about the limits of political action? What are legitimate and illegitimate uses of power?
- Are the four options offered above the only way of approaching the problem of dirty hands? Which one strikes you as best, and why?
- Is it ok to think of politics as primarily a tragic and ironic enterprise, or should we think of it in more elevated terms?