Skip to content

Cleansing Ones Hands-Or At Least Accepting the Dirt

January 30, 2011

When hands become dirty the simplest thing to do is go to a sink and clean them. One turns on the facet, presses for soap, scrubs their hands together for a couple of seconds, then lets the water clear the dirt and soap away until ones hands are clean again. This technique works when ones hands are literally dirty, but how does one justify, or go about for that matter, cleaning ones hands of figurative dirt?

Walzer discusses the matter of politics with regards to the politician’s work ethics and their roads to where they now are. It is known that a politician can not keep his hands clean for long, and it is almost impossible to accept one in such a position to do so, but how can a politician go about doing his job without doing wrong? As Walzer mentions, those in politics are similar to entrepreneurs in their methods of lying, misleading, hustling and their methods of wearing masks (162). However, they are different in that they are required to represent not only themselves, but the people that they govern as well, and the only way for them to gain success is through the power and glory that others give to him. As he later says, “no one succeeds in politics without getting his hands dirty” (164).  Therefore, this is what we have:

To do right you need to succeed in your positionàIt is right to succeed especially in a political position that betters the people you representàto succeed you need to get your hands dirtyàgetting your hands dirty is wrongàthen it is wrong to do what is right.

How is it possible that the only way to do right is to do wrong? Is that possible? Fathomable? Comprehendible?  Well, Yes. At least in Walzer’s mind there is.

If we look at the example Walzer gives us we can figure out how it is possible to do right while doing wrong.

In the example the politician running for office faces a moral dilemma- should he make an agreement with a dishonest ward boss to secure his victory in the election? This quarrel is very complicated for the candidate because he is a good man and he questions whether agreeing to this is in fact the right thing to do. He might run through reasons why he shouldn’t, such as some supporters only support him because he wont make this deal, or because he simply feels unclean dealing with a dishonest man. However, all these reluctances and second-guessings are the reason that the author believes the candidate to be good and to be the one to make this deal. “It is important to stress that we don’t want just anyone to make the deal; we want him to make it, precisely because he has scruples about it” (166). There in lies the reasoning and the possible way to solve the above dilemma. Because he is a good man, he will not only think he is doing wrong, but he will feel guilty about doing it. He is not a man who will pretend like nothing went wrong and that his hands are clean, but a man who acknowledges he wronged in order to do what was right, and the fact that he understands this and accepts it is what makes him a good, honest man deserving the victory he seeks and making it morally acceptable to have hands dirty.

3 Comments
  1. Alyssa Christie permalink
    January 30, 2011 7:26 PM

    Your post has done a good job touching on the major points from Walzer’s work. While I agree with the summary you have provided, I think it is important to relate Walzer’s paradoxical theory to politics today.
    Politicians today, specifically in the United States, often struggle with the choice between individuals’ rights and security. When President Bush admitted to approving torture to aid in the War on Terror, it is clear that Walzer would believe this act got the President’s hands dirty. (See ACLU article: http://www.aclu.org/national-security/bush-admits-knowledge-torture-authorization-top-advisers) What is unclear, however, is if President Bush felt guilty about getting his hands dirty. President Bush was faced with making the decision of sacrificing human rights for security by endorsing torture. Many, including the ACLU, believe that Bush’s support of torture infringed on human rights and undermined America’s values of freedom and justice. Others, maybe even Walzer, would say that Bush was acting in a manner that he thought was crucial for the security of the United States; therefore, it was necessary for him to get his hands dirty.
    In your post you wrote, “Because he is a good man, he will not only think he is doing wrong, but he will feel guilty about doing it. He is not a man who will pretend like nothing went wrong and that his hands are clean, but a man who acknowledges he wronged in order to do what was right, and the fact that he understands this and accepts it is what makes him a good, honest man deserving the victory he seeks and making it morally acceptable to have hands dirty.”
    If we do not know whether or not a politician feels guilt, can we ever really classify them as acting in a “morally acceptable” manner?

  2. Nicholas Steiner permalink
    January 30, 2011 8:07 PM

    I enjoyed reading your post. I think, especially in today’s world of politics, it is easy to slam our politicians for what we consider is wrong. One of the greatest characteristics of our country today, is that it is a melting pot of cultures and ideals. Our diversity also carries with it many pressures for our politicians to represent our nation as a whole, while keeping everyone happy. Politicians are also, just like everyone else, motivated to do things by incentives. If there wasn’t glory, either public or private, then there would be no one willing to take on the duties of a politician. A politician also knows that if his actions are judged to be more morally wrong than people accept, he will run the risk of losing his job or facing strong opposition. These facts themselves help motivate the politician to do what is best for his constituents and himself, even if that means getting his hands dirty from time to time.

  3. John D'Adamo permalink
    January 30, 2011 9:13 PM

    Your post does a fantastic job of hitting on the key points of Walzer’s essay, which admittedly is rather dense reading. Dirtying one’s hands is sometimes a necessary part of being a politician, because as Nicholas stated, there are so many people to please and he needs the support of a certain amount of the state in order to get elected. While there are different interpretations of how to clean dirty hands depending on the theology, I believe there are some actions that are beyond cleansing. For example, Omar al-Bashir, leader of Sudan, led the act of genocide in the region of Darfur. Joseph Stalin killed millions of his own people. Hitler killed over 6 million Jews, gypsies, and people he felt were Communists. There comes a time where I’m not sure there is any cleansing of said dirty hands at all (unlike the Catholic belief stated by Walzer). Still, a fascinating article and blog posts, to be sure.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: