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Dirty Hands: A Dilemma of Politicians and Public Administrators

Right and Wrong - Not Always Clear-Cut

According to Michael Walzer, politicians should be willing to get their hands dirty in the public interest as they are of a unique position to use the power vested in them that the general public does not have. Walzer argued that political leaders must be willing to break the rules because their line of work frequently involves dilemma for which there is not always a moral solution (Walzer, 1973, p. 162). At times, leaders may need to defend their cause against acts of corruption committed by others (Thompson, 1990, p. 15). Bernard Williams and Machiavelli discussed the concept of political morality, where having “dirty hands” is ethical so long as it is for the general welfare, not for personal gain (1982, p. 41; Thompson, p. 12). Max Weber claimed that to ensure the smooth functioning of an organization, followers should be willing to carry out the orders of the leaders, and so administrators should be willing to get their hands dirty if necessary to ensure the best outcome the public.

Walzer claimed that no matter what politicians do, their hands are clean so long as they have done their best to act in the public interest after considering all alternatives (Walzer, p. 169), though they will likely still feel guilty if they do have to break the rules even for good reason (p. 174). No rule can determine the best outcome in every situation. Nonetheless, just because rules are not followed does not mean that they are cancelled; most people, including regular citizens, should still follow the rules (p. 171). We choose our leaders because we believe in their judgment; not everyone should be given the option to determine whether or not to follow the rules.

Dennis Thompson did not agree with Walzer, arguing that the level of “cleanliness” depends on if politicians gain the consent of the public for their actions; there is more dirt and the action is more unethical if a leader does not have public approval (p. 11). Also, moral culpability depends on one’s distance from the execution of an act; a politician may give the order to break the rules, but the administrator would likely be the one to carry it out directly, and so the administrator would therefore feel more guilt as the public perceives him or her as more unethical (pps. 19-20). Unfortunately, administrators do not always have the power to choose whether or not to get their hands dirty and may be given an order to commit a wrong for a good reason. However, if they are unaware of the nature of the decisions being made by political leaders, then there is an additional level of “dirtiness” that the leaders achieve but the administrators do not (p. 22). In that way, the hands of supervisors or oversight committees also are dirtied when a rule is broken because they have responsibility over the actions of politicians and administrators (p. 29-30).

Just because a politician or administrator acts in the public interest does not mean that committing a wrong should go unpunished (Walzer, p. 179). However, this is a sacrifice that both politicians and public administrators make in serving the people; they should be willing to get their hands dirty and consequently suffer a sense of wrongness if necessary to ensure the best for the public (Thompson, p. 13). When leaders feel guilt after breaking a rule, the public is assured that they are still suitable leaders with good judgment. There are two elements involved in cases of dirty hands, one deontological where the motive behind the act should be noble, and one consequentialist where the outcome is worth breaking the rules when the public benefits.

Additional Resources

Works Cited

Thompson, Dennis F. Political Ethics and Public Office. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987. Web.

Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2.2 (Winter 1973): 160-180. 


glassvisage (author) from Northern California on February 13, 2013:

Thank you all for your comments and thoughts.

Walt, I feel that the line of reasoning doesn't intend to clear a politician of guilt, or give him license to act without reprieve, but I do think that it is intended to assist an official in making the best decision as one more consideration to keep in mind when there is a hard task ahead.

justincayce on October 18, 2011:

I see no valid reason why politicians should break the rules they make - except for the reason that is valid for everyone - conscience. Dirty hands really is the quick solution that doesn't really solve the underlying problems and always leads to greater trouble down the line until true sacrifices are made.

AskAshlie3433 from WEST VIRGINIA on February 04, 2011:

I find thid very interesting. In these small towns, politicians rule like kings. I live in a small town in WV. These people just don't care. They get what they want, no matter what. Dirty people they are. Great hub. Best wishes to ya.

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on January 31, 2011:

Thank you for a fantastic hub. GBY

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on January 16, 2011:

A fine hub on an important topic. I used to be so surprised when tv stories of dirty politicians were revealed. How naieve of me. What a shame. Thanks for presenting this!

saket71 from Delhi, India on January 07, 2011:

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This is the first of your hubs that I have read and going by the meaty content therein, I am sure I would be visiting you more often. Glad that the I stumbled on to you. This is a complex subject which keeps on clouding my thoughts every now and then, in the backdrop of CWG scandal, food inflation, 2G scam and all, here in India; and then to top it all we have Wikileaks expose.

Drood on January 04, 2011:

i am always encouraged by your topics. you remind me that this forum is for the sharing of ideas.

daravuthz from Cambodia on January 02, 2011:

Good information from you. I learn much from this hub. I think this hub very useful for us.

glassvisage (author) from Northern California on December 28, 2010:

Thank you all for your comments. I think that this is something that is pretty relevant in today's society

Barry Rutherford from Queensland Australia on December 27, 2010:

I firmly believe in transparency. Even if I disagree with the decision

Hello, hello, from London, UK on December 21, 2010:

Oh, pioliticians, promising, promising until they are in power and then they show their faces. Thank you for a splendid hub

syras mamun on December 19, 2010:

A politician can well serve the public interest without getting his hands dirty by being transparent to the public about his action.In the critical situations like national emergencies,politicians make quick decision to serve the national interest the best possible way, and in that case he may make wrong decisions.Yet making a wrong decision and taking a wrong steps knowingly is not the same thing.I love reading this type of hub very much.Thank you so much:)

katrinasui on December 18, 2010:

Good writeup on such an important topic. Great hub!

fishskinfreak2008 from Fremont CA on December 18, 2010:

Very interesting perspective

Tom Koecke from Tacoma, Washington on December 18, 2010:

There is so much gray area in whether someone does something for public benefit or personal gain. We have the Charles Rangel and Tom DeLay situations as current examples. Whether these leaders are perceived to have done good or evil probably depends more upon the perceiver's political affiliation than on facts.

Rarely are there issues so popular as Muslims and Mexicans causing all the problems in the country that people who violate their rights are seen as having done something good.

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