Can we keep our hands clean?
by Matt “Naj” Najmowicz
With an upcoming national election upon us, it’s truly worth the time to talk about a philosophical problem that has been with us for hundreds of years: The problem of dirty hands. The problem of dirty hands is defined as: “Would you perform acts that are ethically or morally questionable in order to achieve benevolent ends? Do the ends justify the means? Does might make right?”
There’s a little snippet from a book that illustrates my question, from Anthony Trollope’s novel, “The Way We Live Now”:
“If a thing can be made great and beneficent, a boon to humanity, simply by creating a belief in it, does not a man become a benefactor to his race by creating that belief?”
“At the expense of veracity?” suggested Mr. Booker.
“At the expense of anything?” rejoined Lady Carbury with energy. “One cannot measure such men by the ordinary rule.”
“You would do evil to produce good?” asked Mr. Booker.
“I do not call it doing evil… You tell me this man may perhaps ruin hundreds, but then again he may create a new world in which millions will be rich and happy.”
“You are an excellent casuist, Lady Carbury.”
“I am an enthusiastic lover of beneficent audacity,” said Lady Carbury.
Beneficent audacity is what I wish to get at.
If one reads Niccolo Machiavelli, this is a theme that arises constantly: dirty hands. One must instill fear instead of love, or, it is better to appear pious than to actually BE pious. This is quite an ethical quandary that a ruler must confront everyday when he or she is making choices. There is no better philosopher and modern political scientist that really begs the question with such clarity as Machiavelli does. Can you participate in unethical or immoral actions to achieve ultimate goals?
For example, engaging in war to promote democracy — this is a prime example of ends justifying the means. It has been, and still is, a part of American liberalism to spread democracy across the globe since 1776. We have always engaged other civilizations with the intent of making “them” more like “us.” Why must we engage countries and convert them into democracies? Why must it be done with force or economic coercion such as embargos? Is this morally and ethically permissible of our Sovereignty to act as a global hegemon?
Another example, without getting knee-deep into messy questions about international relations, is the TSA security checkpoints at airports. You must stand in line, take your shoes off, go through an array of detectors, and possibly have your body touched by TSA agents. These are measures that were instituted after the attacks of 9/11 and the public outrage and backlash over these procedures have been widespread. Should you ask an 88-year-old woman to take off her shoes to see if she has a weapon? Should an 8-year-old girl be patted down by a TSA agent? Does the act of taking off a belt to go through a metal detector make anyone safer? Should anyone give up some personal liberty in exchange of a new blanket of protection?
Now that the questions have been asked, I would like to try to give some sort of answer.
When someone is voted into office as a leader of a community, that elected official must be willing to compromise, even if it is against his or her own ideology and or principles. That person must try hard, despite political pressure from his constituents, to be a pragmatist. The constant battle between your personal ideology and the politics of the moment are constantly and relentlessly at odds given any situation. With all things being equal and you having all the facts presented to you clearly at the time, being pragmatic is going to be your default position even though one eye will be constantly calculating how much political capital you have left.
Aldous Huxley wrote in the forward to “Brave New World,” “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment.” Someone may not see the consequences of their actions clearly, and could get him or herself into ethical trouble. There is a little piece of advice I would like to give any reader in the form of a quote from the same book: “Rolling in the muck is not the best way to getting clean.”
Do the ends justify the means?