“Dirty Hands”: the Spots on All Politicians’ Hands
In reading Walzer’s “The Problem with Dirty Hands,” I became captivated by the use of morally wrong actions to pursue a greater good. So I beg the question: Is dirtying your hands inherent in the job description of politician?
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands, the Communist leader Hoerderer asks, “I have dirty hands right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. Do you think you can govern innocently?” My answer would be an emphatic NO. I would argue that it is impossible to maintain complete innocence while engaging in politics. However—and this is a big however—I would argue that with dirty hands, it is possible to govern not only correctly (and serve as a good leader and protector), but also to govern rightly.
In my opinion, “dirty hands” is a concept that’s rooted in the idea of politicians making hard decisions to pursue what they know to be right. Torturing someone to gain information that will save lives, stooping to negative campaigning in order to get elected and enact positive reform—the list goes on and on of deeds that taint a politician’s conscience while attempting to do good. In acknowledging that all politicians have “dirty hands,” they become interesting figures in our eyes. Tortured, even. By taking on a life that is littered with internal conflict, forced to constantly examine their guilt, they knowingly enter into a life of sacrifice. And consciously pursuing this lifestyle is something that deserves our respect. It’s the stuff dramatic TV is made of…
In its romantic portrayal of politics, the West Wing centers around the theme of the emotional toll that governing has on one’s conscience. For example, President Bartlett abandons his personal beliefs of Catholicism to uphold a Supreme Court ruling to put a murdering drug dealer to death. Doing what he knows is constitutionally right conflicts with his personal convictions, and this is seen in the powerful last scene of the episode in which President Bartlett gives confession to his priest, stating “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”
“There are certain decisions I have to make while I’m in this room. Do I send troops into harm’s way? Which fatal disease gets the most research money? It’s helpful in those situations not to think of yourself as the man but as the office.”
But if we are to accept that politicians have “dirty hands”—and often respect them for the conflict that accompanies them—how do we keep their conscience and actions in check? How do we ensure that once one is disposed to dirty their hands, one isn’t disposed to corruption? I would argue that it becomes our duty to scrutinize politicians. To contradict Hobbes, just because we have authorized a leader to protect us does not mean that we blindly accept whatever they do to protect us as just. Instead, we have the obligation to constantly question their actions. Yet we must question with respect, because we don’t stand in their shoes, making these incredibly difficult decisions.