Dirty Hands: How much is too much?

November 6, 2011

Political Theory


In our most recent lecture, we discussed the concept of “Dirty Hands.” Dirty Hands is essentially the concept of performing an immoral action for the greater good of one’s self, group, nation etc. After further analyses of the topic in discussion, I began to interpret that the concept of Dirty Hands is a pretty broad one. But at what point does dirty hands become just plain wrong? This has proven to be a rather provocative topic of discussion for myself and some of my cohorts, and I’d like to delve deeper into the subject.

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian removal act. A direct result of the act was the Trail of Tears, a mandated march of 5 different Indian Tribes from their homes to a designated “Indian Territory.” The Trail of Tails had debilitating effects on all the Indian tribes forced to vacate their homes, including almost 1/3 of the Cherokee Tribe. Jackson mandated the move so that the US can increase the size of the nation and offer more agriculturally friendly land for the country. One could easily question the morality of the decision. By no means did thousands need to die in order for the US to increase its territory. The question now to ask is, were Jackson’s actions “Dirty Hands,” or was it just plain wrong. Do all immoral actions qualify to be classified as Dirty Hands, or is there a limit. More examples throughout history can help assess the situation.

In August of 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs put an end to the Japanese threat that our country faced, but all the while killing countless innocent lives, also, the radiation from the bombs wreaking havoc on both cities for years. Did the US need to go to such extremes to win the war that they had to kill so many innocent lives. Yes, the bombs cemented our victory over Japan, but not only did our army murder innocent Japanese citizens, but its actions had repercussions that continue to cause problems to this day. Does our military murdering Japanese citizens constitute Dirty Hands, because it put an end to the Japanese threat, or is it an act of evil and nothing more?

The way I interpreted Dirty Hands, was performing an action nowhere near as extreme as those listed above. I saw Dirty Hands as a President of a nation at war, sending in a small troupe of soldiers, who he knows will suffer severe casualties, in order to gain the rest of the army more time to prepare itself properly for a major battle.  The President’s actions are immoral, sending in troops he knows are bound to death, but his cause is a noble one. The lives of the soldiers being sent to their doom can secure the safety of an entire nation by giving them the extra time they need to prepare.

Dirty Hands is still a confusing issue, but I do not interpret acts of aggression as part of it. Dirty Hands should be out of necessity night out of malice.

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5 Comments on “Dirty Hands: How much is too much?”

  1. beaurh Says:

    The Dirty Hands problem is interesting in the fact that it is completely ambiguous and situational. Is the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan a necessity for the betterment of the world? or just a way to end something terrible efficiently? The issue I have with the Dirty Hands problem is who deems if horrible violence is necessary for progression? Were there no other ways to get the same results? Murdering thousands and justifying it by saying that we saved thousands more sounds iffy to me, but that could be because I’m not one of the thousands or one of the intelligent many making this complicated decision. My only worry regarding immoral decisions is if we are making them for the right reason. The bombing of Japan was said to be done to save the millions of Japanese and American lives that would have been lost in an invasion. Especially after Japan stated that they would defend their island to the last man. But did we bomb Japan to demonstrate our incredible strength and dominance over the rest of the world? Was it a mix of both? There are so many situations where Dirty Hands occurs. Please respond with a better more black and white means of deciding on the morality of dirty hands.

  2. kaitlinlapka Says:

    Interesting examples here. Dirty hands is a broad issue. It has many facets, and I agree, it is sometimes entirely situational. However, I think that it is also independent or individualized. Different people put in the same situation might entertain different ideas or do things for a specific reason, either confronting or portraying the idea of the dirty hands issue. It’s like the comment above: are we making immoral decisions for the right reason? What is the right reason? I’m not sure if there’s some universal idea of what can be considered “for the right reason”. Perhaps that’s what religion gives us, but that’s extremely diverse and personal too. Interesting idea here, dirty hands does encompass a lot.

  3. kelseymlee Says:

    I don’t necessarily believe that there is a line for when an action is too extreme to qualify for the Dirty Hands problem. I think that as long as a person is acting to obtain an outcome that is greater and beneficial to more people than an alternate path that wouldn’t cause them to dirty their hands, then it qualifies for the dirty hands problem. This is because extreme circumstances call for extreme decisions, and big decisions need to be mad to get results that are worthy of such a consequential decision. I agree with kaltllnlapka above, that as long as we are making immoral decisions for the right reason, then it qualifies to be classified as dirty hands. I agree with the author as well, that we should be making decisions based on necessity, not on malice, but it is hard to draw the line between necessity and malice as well, and malice effects what a person believes to be necessary in the first place.

  4. maryblee Says:

    Dirty hands is a complex concept and no example exists of a perfectly executed, undeniably justified exercise of it. We trust that rulers make decisions in our best interests, and that that occasionally involves doing something we would ordinarily see as wrong to achieve something better. But the definition of “better” is extremely subjective. And so, at least in the US, when we elect our leaders, we are electing people we think have a similar view of “better.” So in this way, we then become responsible for our leaders’ actions and implementation of dirty hands because we put them in power. If the majority of the public sympathize with the author and believe that extreme aggression has no place in politics, then a leader would be elected that reflects this. However, dirty hands further complicates this. An expert in the execution of dirty hands could convince the public of his sympathy with their problems and then ignore them once he wins office. But in that instance, we are still responsible for their actions because we allowed ourselves to be conned and we are responsible for putting them in power.

  5. hjclec Says:

    The dirty hands problem is such a hard issue because people have different opinions on what is right and what is wrong. For example, I think that the Indian Removal Act isn’t justified. I don’t think mistreating the Indians just to gain more US land was right, but Andrew Jackson did. And it gets especially hard when one purposefully kills to prevent future deaths in ones own country. For example in the case of bombing Japan, the US says they did that to prevent the Japanese killing their own men.

    I don’t know how to exactly define the dirty hands issue, and what constitutes dirty hands. It’s certainly an interesting idea, and maybe it can make people feel better about doing something bad if they can justify it in their mind. I hope that I never have to encounter an issue where I have to justify an action that involves the death of others. I feel like presidents are frequently faced with having to justify sending soldiers out to war, and this is why I would never want to be the president. It would be so hard to know what’s right for the country and for the world. And like I’ve said before, I respect presidents because they are faced with such hard decisions.

    Until a perfect definition can define what is right, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to perfectly define what constitutes a dirty hands issue. I also feel that “the common good” needs to be defined, because what’s “right” for some people may not be “right for others.” When these definitions are properly developed the dirty hands issue will be easier to assess.

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