Academic journal article Independent Review

The Problem of "Dirty Hands" and Corrupt Leadership

Academic journal article Independent Review

The Problem of "Dirty Hands" and Corrupt Leadership

Article excerpt

   "Be sure, gentlemen of the jury, that if I had long ago attempted
   to take part in politics, I should have died long ago, and
   benefited neither you nor myself. Do not be angry with me for
   speaking the truth; no man will survive who genuinely opposes you
   or any other crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and
   illegal happenings in the city. A man who really fights for
   justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to
   survive for even a short time."

   --Socrates, in Plato's Apology, 31d-32a

   "You should therefore know that there are two ways to fight: one
   while abiding by the rules, the other by using force. The first
   approach is unique to Man; the second is that of beasts. But
   because in many cases the first method will not suffice, one must
   be prepared to resort to force. This is why a ruler needs to know
   how to conduct himself the manner of a beast as well as that of

   --Niccolo Machiavelli, Il Principe e altre opere politiche

Successful political leaders have often been of questionable moral character. A persistent image in the political sphere is that of the active and powerful man willing to do whatever is strategically important in attaining his desired ends even though doing so may weigh heavily on his conscience. Is excellence in governmental leadership somehow incompatible with moral excellence? Does doing what one ought to do in one's capacity as a leader preclude the possibility of doing what one ought to do as a human being? "The problem of dirty hands" refers to the alleged necessity of compromising or abandoning moral principle in order to play the role of a government official effectively.

"Dirty hands" are said to result when a leader encounters a conflict of duties or values and must choose between alternatives, none of which is entirely satisfactory. In Jean-Paul Sartre's play Les mains sales (Dirty hands), Hoederer explains the view to Hugo (who refuses to "dirty" his hands):

   You cling so tightly to your purity, my lad! How terrified you are
   of sullying your hands. Well, go ahead then, stay pure! What good
   will it do, and why even bother coming here among us? Purity is a
   concept of fakirs and friars. But you, the intellectuals, the
   bourgeois anarchists, you invoke purity as your rationalization for
   doing nothing. Do nothing, don't move, wrap your arms tight around
   your body, put on your gloves. As for myself, my hands are dirty.
   I have plunged my arms up to the elbows in excrement and blood. And
   what else should one do? Do you suppose that it is possible to
   govern innocently? ([1948] 1986, 193-94, my translation)

In thinking about this issue, it is important to distinguish self-serving opportunists from those who suffer corruption through their sincere efforts to govern well. Self-serving opportunists often rationalize their dubious measures to themselves through self-deceptive references to "the good of the whole," claiming that group loyalty demands moral sacrifice or that "the end justifies the means." Egocentric opportunism, however, differs conceptually from dirty hands. The question before us is whether corruption in the political realm might arise as a result of the very nature of governance and morality. Do rulers simply have more opportunities for temptation and therefore succumb more often than do private citizens? Or does good governance sometimes require the sacrifice of moral standards? When corrupt governmental agents are detected, society tends toward leniency in its "punishment" of them. Might this leniency reflect a recognition of the problem of dirty hands, which leads people to forgive and forget so easily the crimes of their governments?

"Realists" maintain that dirty hands are inescapable. In contrast, "idealists" hold that the so-called problem of dirty hands is merely an excuse adduced by those who lack the moral fiber to do what they really ought to do in governmental contexts. …

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