The problem of "dirty hands" is a central paradox lying at the heart of politics, and of other "public" practices such as law, business, the military, and law enforcement. The problem emerges when one is confronted with a situation in which achieving a particular goal requires the violation of commonly accepted moral principles or rules. In Sartre's play of that name, the Communist leader Hoerderer says: "I have dirty hands right up to the elbows. I've plunged them in filth and blood. Do you think you can govern innocently?" Hoerderer, of course, wants to end class society, and he insists that in order to do so it is necessary to do things that the morally squeamish would find offensive and wrong. So be it. Camus' "just assassins," too, have dirty hands: they kill in order to achieve justice. As Robespierre noted during the French Revolution: if you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.
The problem of dirty hands has been addressed by numerous ethical and political theorists, including a key contemporary treatment by Michael Walzer (whose analysis has influenced many, including me). But its classic version is in the works of Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli famously sought to teach princes -- or political leaders in republics -- the value of learning how not to be good. His argument was that princes must sometimes act in ways that violate traditional or widely accepted moral principles if they want to be successful. Success, in the world of the Machiavellian prince, meant increased power and the glory that comes with it; in the world of a republic, it meant persistence and growth (in resources, in influence, in power) over time. In order to achieve success, it is necessary to be prepared to act in ways that are widely considered immoral: to be cruel, to lie, to break promises, to be stingy, to act aggressively, and so forth.
To do otherwise, in the world as it really is (Machiavelli insisted that he was a "realist"), makes it likely that others will take advantage of you. If you are unfailingly forgiving to those who have opposed you, they will continue to conspire against you, ultimately working your downfall. If you always tell the truth, you become prey to those who would exploit certain bits of information and to those who would lie to you. If you keep all your promises, even when the reasons for making them have disappeared, you harm your state, your nation, and undermine your own power. If you are too liberal with your (or your state's) riches, you will be plagued by never-ending requests for more, always more, until you have impoverished yourself, your government, your country. If you insist on always pursuing peace, if you give up the right to attack before being attacked, you risk the destruction of your nation, its subjection to outside powers, and the accompanying loss of liberty; maintaining liberty, in short, requires a willingness to take the offensive.
To be successful, the prince -- and, I repeat, Machiavelli's argument seems to apply just as well to all leaders who have political success in view -- must sometimes kill his opponents, lie to his enemies and even (if occasion demands it) to his friends (for friendship has no value independent of political success in this vision), deny benefits to those who need or even deserve them, violate treaties and other agreements as needed, wage war, and so on.
None of this means, I should note, that Machiavelli was, as Leo Strauss claimed he was, a "teacher of evil" -- at least not in a simple sense. Machiavelli does not praise evil; he does not say it is good. Machiavelli's language makes clear that he accepted standards of good, probably the traditional, Christian standards of his day. That's why the prince must learn how not to be good. There are rules that specify what is good, and the prince (if he is to be successful) must learn how and when to violate those rules. Of course, Machiavelli is clear that political leaders should not always violate the rules; but they must be willing to do so for purposes of self- or national aggrandizement. The rules and principles of morality, however, do not disappear. When he attacks a political opponent or a neighboring state, when he lies or breaks a treaty, the prince is not doing what is good; violating the rules is wrong, and the consequences (success) do not make it right. Quite the contrary -- when he violates the moral rules, the prince does what is not good. That is the nature of the job: it requires he (or she) who would do well, who would maintain and extend personal or national power, who would keep his (or her) place at the top of the political structure of nation or region or world, to transgress (sometimes) the proscriptions of ordinary morality.
It is important to realize that this does not mean the prince is subject to a higher morality that justifies violations of the standard moral rules. Machiavelli is not a utilitarian who seeks to dodge the deep problem here by arguing that what the prince does in violation of the moral rules is really good when placed in the scale of utility. The utilitarian insists there is nothing that is good or bad in itself: good and bad can only be determined once one has evaluated the consequences of an action for all those affected by it. This dissolves the problem of dirty hands by denying that the political actor's hands are dirty (assuming that all relevant consequences were carefully considered and entered properly into the calculation). Utilitarianism denies that something can be both bad and the right thing to do. The right thing to do at the time is simply good; it cannot be bad on a utilitarian analysis. (I set aside for now what is called "rule utilitarianism.") Thus, the utilitarian would say that torturing a prisoner who has information about a pending terrorist attack is good, not just permissible though unfortunate or sad. The torturer does not have dirty hands at all; she has not plunged them in filth and blood. She has done the right thing. She is morally good; she may even be a moral hero. The utilitarian would say that we should ignore our moral scruples about torture because nothing, not even torture, is bad in itself apart from its consequences.
There is a host of good reasons to reject utilitarianism that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say, that as Michael Walzer argues, utilitarianism is inconsistent with our moral take on things. Yes, we claim to reason on the basis of consequences, but when we do so we rarely (if ever) truly considerable the consequences of all available alternatives to everyone affected by our action, as utilitarian theory requires. Rather, we act as egoists: we think only of the consequences, often only the short-term consequences, to ourselves and our friends. So, on the one hand, despite our wish to sound utilitarian, we don't really decide things that way. On the other hand, we ultimately are not comfortable with thoroughgoing utilitarianism. How many of us really believe it is morally good to torture an innocent person (say the pre-teen child of a terrorist) in order to achieve our goal (information from the terrorist himself)? And yet utilitarianism sees no significant difference between torturing the innocent and the guilty so long as both will lead to the desired consequences. If it will work, torturing the child is the morally right thing to do. The trouble is most of us don't think that way.
The real tragic bite of the problem of dirty hands cannot be wished away by conceiving of a higher morality that dissolves the dilemma. Max Weber famously argued in "Politics as a Vocation" that the politician cannot live according the Sermon on the Mount (or according to any other "good book") because the job of the politician is to do what it takes to achieve the good for his nation (or his governing coalition, or his party). And that means that the politician, particularly when he takes up the sword and does violence to others, "does bad in order to do good." He may suffer internally as a result, but as a servant of his community he does what is necessary even when that means turning away from morality.
Machiavelli, Weber, and Walzer make us see something important about public roles. They ask us to think about whether we would want a person in these roles -- say, as president of the country, or as our defense counsel -- who always strictly adhered to commonly accepted morality. Or would we prefer someone who is willing to do what is not good if the circumstances demand it? They ask us to consider whether politics -- and public life in general -- is a place where traditional moral rules do not always apply, whether these are vocations where good people will inevitably fail and only those willing to set morality aside will succeed. If so, does that mean we should not evaluate candidates for these positions on the basis of morality but on the basis of some other standard? If so, what is that standard? And, perhaps most importantly, these theorists compel us to think about how we can hold in check the willingness to do bad into order to achieve the good. If our public figures -- politicians, business leaders, lawyers, and so on -- must be people willing to set aside high-minded moralism for the sake of the end built into the nature of their role, how can we ensure that they do not become mere tyrants, despots intent on doing bad things for the sake of evil, people who cast all standards except "success" aside no matter what that might mean?
These are tough questions, and ones that we would prefer not to think about. We are too used to falling back upon absolute standards, principles, rules. But in the muck and filth of the public world, absolute standards seem not to apply. And we have been made too comfortable by the nature of our public life, from which much corruption and violence (though not all, to be sure) has been eradicated. We do not live in a third world nation; we do not have millions of people on the Mall demanding a change of government; our democracy is stable and longstanding. But we are sometimes forced to think about dirty hands -- when presidents condone torture or invasion, when lawyers insist on the privilege to deceive, when business leaders tell us the bottom line requires them to leave millions jobless while a handful reap great profits. Let us hope we develop the resources to think about how to call these people to account in a way that doesn't imagine that their vocations can be carried out with purity of heart and soul.