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“Dirty Hand” Parenting

February 8, 2011

In Michael Walzer’s essay Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands, the author devotes much of the paper to justifying the practice of “dirty hands”. Although Walzer’s essay discusses political figures in regard to “dirty hands”, it is interesting to think about Walzer’s claims on a different level. What if we applied the practices and repercussions of “dirty hands” to other people in authoritative positions, such as parents? Is it acceptable for parents to go to extreme lengths for the greater good of their children?

If we were to apply all of Walzer’s ideas concerning “dirty hands” to the actions of parents we could safely conclude that “dirty hand” parenting is inevitable. Walzer explains that, “a central feature of political life, one that arises not merely as an occasional crisis in the career of this or that unlucky politician but systematically and frequently”. In this quote, Walzer asserts that it is inevitable that one day a politician will find himself or herself in a situation where they will need to act immorally in order to advance their agenda. When pertaining to parenting this can also be seen as valid. Whether it involves forcing their children to enroll in specific after-school activities to boost their appeal for college admissions or applying for genetically engineered embryos, parents are willing to make potentially immoral decisions to advance their agenda: getting their child “ahead” in life.

On a more extreme level of acting with questionable morality, some parents in our twenty-first century society are willing to do anything in order to give their children the best chance of being successful later in life. One such moral quandary involves parents who are desperate to have, create, and promote a perfect child, as is shown in Dorothy Nelkin’s article, Anything For an Edge: Breeding a race of champions with germline. In Nelkin’s article, she explores a new technology that is grabbing the attention of ruthless, “overachieving” parents all over the world called “germline” engineering. This practice involves, “ the insertion of genetic material into the pre-implantation embryo at a point when the cells are still developing and dividing”. She goes on to explain that, “The idea is to “fix” children with debilitating genetic defects, but the technique would also allow the enhancement of desirable traits”. Personally, this sounds quite immoral to me. When comparing this practice to Walzer’s description of “dirty hands”, it definitely coincides with the actions of those who, “ignore the demands of morality and make decisions based on the demands of expediency and absolutists”. These parents are willing to go to the furthest extent in order to make sure that they as parents are proud and have the “perfect” child. But is this practice moral? Is it morally sound for parents to be genetically engineering nature? This debate can go on forever but, nevertheless, many parents are ready and willing to submit to this process.

Works Cited

“Human Genetics Alert – Human Genetic Engineering Resources.” Human Genetics Alert – Technologies Which May Contribute to Human Genetic Engineering and Eugenics. Web. 08 Feb. 2011. <;.

Nelkin, Dorothy. “Anything for an Edge.” Galton Institute. Web. 08 Feb. 2011.                 <;.

  1. Boris Pevzner permalink
    February 8, 2011 6:54 PM

    The biggest difference between Walzer’s examples that include getting your hands dirty, such as torturing a terrorist to save hundreds of people, and the example you described, pertaining to parents genetically modifying their children, lies in the “greater good” of the solution.

    While Walzer supports his claim by saying that there is a greater good of saving innocent lives by torturing a criminal, the same cannot be said of a certain kind of parent. In my opinion, the type of parent who would submit their child to genetic modification for their child to get ahead is only doing it for themselves, not their children. They are so concerned with being a good parent and feeling good about themselves, that they do whatever it takes to have their child be “successful,” without taking the child’s interests into account.

    For example, in the drawing depicting a musical gene modification, the child’s own desires are not taken into consideration and she is being forced to play instruments when she is not interested. The child would live an unhappy life with constant pressure from the parents to enter the field.

    Dirty hands definitely factor into parenthood but something as artificial and gene injection is simply narrow minded and rarely in the best interest of the child.

  2. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    February 8, 2011 8:33 PM

    I think your post makes an interesting point but I’d like to point out that you have yet to establish, in your case, as to why genetic engineering is immoral, i.e, what is the basic underpinning for morality in your argument against ‘germline engineering’.

    Furthermore, I think the distinction between Walzer’s conception of dirty hands and your point is that for utilitarians, acting in a somewhat immoral way in the interests of the majority can be justified. Also, Walzer’s piece discusses dirty hands in the context of political action. As such, I’m somewhat unclear as to the broader political significance, or overarching societal significance, of the supposedly immoral, parenting decision to adopt the scientific breakthrough of ‘germline engineering,’ that would make this issue an appropriate case-study.

  3. kasnetz permalink
    February 8, 2011 9:50 PM

    I really think this is an interesting take on the concept of dirty hands. If you have been paying attention to the news, you may have seen another example of “Dirty Hands Parenting.” These dirty hands may come from Amy Chuan who, in her book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, attempts to explain the differences between Asian and American parents and, subsequently, why these differences cause asians to achieve higher as Chuan claims. Chuan describes how if a child from America came home with an A-, he or she would almost certainly be praised by his or her parents. On the other, she says, Asian parents would demand to know why it wasn’t an A or an A+ and expect a higher grade the next time. She goes even further as she describes how parents ought to deny their children play dates or sleepovers because it detracts from a child’s studies and general discipline. She describes how she herself once threatened to burn her child’s stuffed animals if she made too many mistakes playing the piano. Now if I ask whether this is moral, I would argue most in the West would say no. This illustrates a distinct difference in the concept of the ideal citizen in East and West. Western parents tend to be much more hands off, give their children more freedom and independence, allow them to learn on their own, and perhaps be more lenient with regard to measured achievement and discipline. But let’s go beyond debating whether dirtying a parent’s hands in this way is moral, and take a more Machiavellian approach–is it effective? Although it may at times be better for the state for a leader to be more feared than loved by his people, I would argue that it is generally more effective for a parent to have a more even mix of the two, slanted towards love. Is a child who recieves better scores on tests but is denied social interaction a better citizen? Better yet, does that make them a better business or doctor or lawyer or student? I would argue no. A more well-rounded life, combining studies with social interaction and independence, creates more productive and flexible people. That being said, though dirtying hands like Mrs. Chuan is far too extreme, we can learn a little from this more Eastern attitude and demand higher achievement from our children.

  4. Melissa Boelstler permalink
    February 9, 2011 9:38 AM

    This is an interesting take on Walzers hands, and though I do agree that parents also can fit into this category for “dirty hands” along with politicians, the example I have a different opinion on. Parents who genetically engineer they’re children to me are selfish, not doing something for the greater good. If that continues and expands, sooner or later everyone will be alike and everyone will have extreme talents, and people will no longer be unique. Although now to the contrary, I do think that parents do follow the “dirty hands” description because they are an authority figure, they make decisions for our lives much like politicians make the political decisions for their constituents,but on a much smaller scale. Parents will set the moral standards for their children, and they have to act in a way that they want their children to follow. Therefore, if they make to many immoral decisions even if it is for the greater good for their children, their children will see and believe that it is okay to make other immoral decisions. I’d say often, parents do not need to often partake in dirty hands. I have been trying to think of examples where parents must have dirty hands, and theres no other plausible option, and I have not come up with anything worthwhile. Maybe there is something obvious and large I am overlooking, but for now I’m going to stick with the decision that dirty hands and parenting do not need to go together. Parents can strive for the best for their children, but committing the immoral decisions is not necessary.

  5. noahgordon10 permalink
    February 9, 2011 11:28 AM

    As soon as the author made the connection between dirty hands and parenting, I thought of Amy Chua. Mrs. Chua has been in the news recently for her radical parenting practices. The restrictions she put on her daughters apply to all aspects of life: no finishing second place in any academic class, no refusing to play violin or piano, no TV and sleepovers, and no playdates or sleepovers. In one sense it worked–her daughters are incredibly talented musicians and academics–but there are other things children have to learn. Being part of a sleepover with other girls your age is the only way to learn about loyalty, friendship, and social hierarchies. Chua’s article
    is gripping, but I find her parenting style reprehensible. Dirty hands don’t apply to parenting.

  6. Emily Slaga permalink
    February 12, 2011 11:10 AM

    I think this was an interesting post and I enjoyed reading it. You used a great example of immoral parenting with the genetic engineering. I agree that parents do immoral things and that parenting can result in dirty hands. However, I think the genetic engineering of children is beyond immoral parenting, I think it’s being an immoral human being. Though some of the comments claim parenting isn’t like Walzers dirty hands because they aren’t doing anything for the “greater good of society”, with genetic engineering they are. Or at least they claim they are! Yes, they are being selfish by trying to create modified children that they can brag about/will be successful, they are also creating the future of society. They are modifying the future in a sense. Like Melissa said, soon everyone will be alike with the same talents and skills. I think society is functional because people are different and bring something unique to the table. If everyone is the same, the future could be a mess. Who knows what society would be like. It’d be hard to determine who does what in society. It’s just natural that some people need to work more labor-like jobs than mentally strenuous jobs for the economy to function. But if everyone is a genius and has the same skills, how will people be placed in careers?
    So, I think that this post was a great example of a set of people (parents) having dirty hands. They are doing immoral actions and attempting to justify such actions by saying it is for the greater good of society. The only problem though, is that it isn’t for the greater good of society. That’s just my opinion though. Though immoral, perhaps it would be beneficial to society to have all these smart babies running around.

  7. erc0504 permalink
    February 14, 2011 9:08 PM

    The article brings up an interesting connection between Walzer’s “dirty hands” and parenting. However, I am showing that Chinese parents like Chua, or parents in general, cannot be likened to politicians who engage in “dirty hands” parenting. I will not be arguing whether Chua’s parenting style either moral or immoral, since this is heavily dependent on personal values.

    Chua does not believe her actions to be immoral to begin with. Machiavelli claims that good people still enter political life to seek some type of reform, and ultimately have to learn “how not to be good.” This is certainly not the case for Chua, who knows exactly how she is going to raise her children prior to having them. Therefore, there is no choice between right and wrong. She only sees one option, which is strict and focused. This resonates with Chua’s closing sentence to her article, “By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” To Chua, the thought process of, “Is this acceptable? Should I be doing this?” doesn’t exist. On the other hand, a politician makes a conscious choice and voluntarily dirties his hands in order to achieve an end.

    Walzer’s conception of dirty hands generally describes the sacrifice of one individual or group’s well-being for that of another group. His examples of dealing with the dishonest ward boss, to help his own agenda, or torturing the captured rebel leader, to save the lives of others, are slightly different, but in both cases someone gets an advantage at the expense of someone else. Thus, the concept of dirty hands would not be applicable since the subject is merely the child. While a previous poster claims that the parent benefits from the child, there is no evidence to suggest this. Does the parent expect future financial compensation? This is doubtful. Claiming that a parent, who is trying to improve his or her child’s future, has “dirty hands,” is difficult.

    The comparison between politicians with “dirty hands” and parents who adopt Amy Chua’s style is invalid for these reasons. I believe that a parent such as Chua is different than a politician, and cannot be accused of partaking in immoral actions and “dirtying” his or her hands.

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