China’s One Child per Family Policy. A Case of Dirty Hands?

November 16, 2011

Dirty Hands


The thought of the government limiting how many children someone can have may seem preposterous and unreal to many in the United States, but since 1978 it has been a facet of everyday life for the citizens of China.

With the population quickly rising, and food famines occurring throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese officials needed a way to combat the challenges they were facing. Their solution was a nationwide policy that only allowed families to have a maximum of one child.

More detailed look at the law and the factors that lead to its creation can be found here.

Is it appropriate to consider China’s one child per family policy as a dirty hands problem? Examples of dirty hands situations presented by Martin Hollis, explained by professor LaVaque-Manty in lecture, and discussed in discussion section may lead one to say, no, this is not a good example of a dirty hands problem. Dirty hands problems appear to be situations where people are harmed and morals are temporarily put aside in order to achieve a greater good. In his Dirty Hands, Hollis says “…politics is a dirty game because even good men are forced to abandon their principles for the sake of at least getting something done”. The Chinese were faced with an overpopulation problem and came up with a feasible solution. The only thing that the citizens of China had to sacrifice was the personal liberty of having more than one child. Most would not argue that such a policy forced Chinese officials to temporarily put aside their morals or “abandon their principals”.

Now learn that due to this policy, an average of over 7 million female girls have been killed (both before and after birth) annually since 1978 because of the one child policy. A common belief shared by many in the Chine culture is that males are destined to be more successful than females and many parents prefer having a boy over a girl. This results in parents either having abortions or murdering the girl after she is born in order to try again to have a boy. Just recently a baby trafficking ring was discovered in Shandong, China where Chinese families were buying babies illegally off the streets. Buyers included families who were unable to conceive a boy after trying several times and only gave birth to girls (the article failed to mention what happened to the girls of these families). More information about the ring can be found here.

By adding this information regarding the policy, should the policy now be considered a dirty hands problem? Does the fact that blood is being shed and babies are being killed transform the issue? I am personally inclined to say that only after the addition of this information does the problem become a dirty hands problem because, only after the information is added, morals and principals are brought into play.

Hollis says “If there were a clear line which marked the limit of manoeuvre, then there would finally be no Dirty Hands problem.” Obviously there is no clear line, but with problems that are not as clear as President Truman’s use of nuclear warfare on Japan or Captain Campbell and the Massacre of Glencoe, how do we determine if there is truly a dirty hands problem, such as the Chinese one child policy?

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9 Comments on “China’s One Child per Family Policy. A Case of Dirty Hands?”

  1. lukeythekid Says:

    I believe that with the consideration of murdered babies and abortions taken into consideration that this is no doubt a problem of dirty hands, and I think that almost any person would agree. In reference to the issue of disregarding the murdered babies, (wow it sucks just to type that) I believe that this was a problem of dirty hands from the very beginning. I do not mean to offend anybody on this blog who is an only child, but the sad truth is: you really got fucked over. As someone with three brothers, I can tell you that the presence of siblings is maybe the most important thing in your life, and almost certainly the most influential. If I did not have older brothers, I would not be half the person I am today – even just thinking about the possibility of growing up alone terrifies me. Not allowing parents to have more than one child denies their only baby the chance to bond with someone on a level that others can’t imagine. Siblings are teachers, protectors, motivators (yes, sometimes assholes), and best friends. Not allowing parents to have more than one baby is a HUGE deal, and I believe that this was definitely a case of dirty hands from the beginning.

  2. ajnovo Says:

    I think another important question is not just is this a dirty hands problem, but if it is, who’s hands are dirty? Everyone has heard about the one child policy, but I’m not sure what ruler instituted it. I’m not familiar with the Chinese government, and I wonder how easy it would be to change the law if there is a large enough demand for it to change. Who should be blamed for this? The government for instituting it, but aren’t the people of China also to blame for following the policy?

    I’m also not sure how much of a dirty hands situation this is since I don’t really see what good having only one child does for China – it just helps control the population. Is the Chinese government so strapped for resources for their population that they are forcing their citizens to only have one child? I wonder how China would be different if everyone was allowed to have unlimited children, or maybe two or three instead of just one.

    Even from a biological point of view, only having one child means that a person fails from a genetics standpoint. 50% of our parents DNA is in us so in order for all 100% of our parents to live on, they need to have two children. Darwin would disapprove of this policy.

  3. briank726 Says:

    This is a very sad situation going on in a country where so many people are already underprivileged. I do believe that it is a case of Dirty Hands, and that the Chinese government’s hands are dirty. I think it is universal that murdering people is immoral, and China is sacrificing babies for the welfare of nation. A human life is a big price to pay for any kind of trade-off. Is it worth it to sacrifice all those babies in order to ease the problem of overpopulation?
    It is worthwhile to address whether or not this one child per family policy is justified. I think China’s social and economic state is the source of the problem. It is at such a condition that can barely support its own citizens. There has to be a way to manage this problem in a way that is not so dehumanizing. I think that families should be allowed to have more than one child, male or female, at the expense of maybe having to pay more taxes, etc. This is a Dirty Hands problem, but not like what Hollis and Machiavelli describe. Murdering the babies does not help the leaders nor citizens of China enough as to make it justifiable. Putting it this way, I guess there might be a point where sacrificing babies for the good of the nation would be okay, maybe one baby for a million Chinese citizens.

  4. blakesimons Says:

    This is an interesting post and a unique perspective on the topic of dirty hands. The thought that this situation could be considered as dirty hands shows that the concept is open to a wide array of definitions and considerations. Now, this particular situation, in my opinion, is a viable example of dirty hands, but the institution exhibiting the dirty hands is not the government. Since the Chinese government is not displaying any lack of morals or clear crime, they should not be placed with the dirty hands distinction.

    The people of China, however, could be considered with dirty hands. Those Chinese citizens who are going to extreme immoral actions to have male children instead of female are “abandoning their principles”, and Hollis could indeed consider these actions as a dirty hands case. The Chinese government, however, is not abandoning principles since they are attempting to control a potential extreme overpopulation crisis in their country.

    Overall, while the policy enacted by the government may be considered by Western cultures to be extreme, morally insensitive, or even flat out wrong, the policy does not exhibit dirty hands by Chinese officials. The response of Chinese citizens across the nation could be considered dirty hands in some extreme cases in which people go to abnormal, immoral levels to ensure their offspring male, and not female.

  5. bsrobin Says:

    This should be still be considered a dirty hands problem just as Truman and the other examples are. However, the question that still remains to be unanswered is who is responsible for the dirty hands. Is it the Chinese government who enacted this law? Is it the parents who chose to kill or abort some baby girls? Or is it the people running the underground illegal child trading rings throughout China? This is the more difficult question to answer but I believe that it is the people running the illegal child rings as well as the parents themselves. Their desired outcome, is either a baby boy or a way to make money and they will do anything to obtain that result. This includes sometimes even killing children so that they won’t have to keep the baby. We have learned in class through the social theorists and other thinkers that dirty hands can be any act that is immoral and unjust in order to reach a desired outcome; this example can not be clearer and people should recognize the atrocities that are occurring in China because of this.

    Some may look at this problem and think that the one child policy should therefore be abolished; I do not think this is the case. It is a necessary policy that limits the already gigantic Chinese population. However, the policy should be enforced more strictly and people should be punished more for abortions and the killing of children. Of course it is hard to discover all of this, but some must be made example of so that it would discourage others from doing the same. Hobbes’ believes that all aspects of society should be open to discussion and would probably support the discussion to abolish the one child policy. He can not see the state of China, however, which shows that the policy must stay intact but needs to be enforced more effectively.

  6. euriosti Says:

    I think it’s difficult to consider this a case of dirty hands. The government in China decided it was in the best interest to implement the one child policy to limit overpopulation. This policy is simple, you are only allowed to have one child. This policy doesn’t support the murder of female babies. I think that this policy doesn’t result in the murder of children, it’s the parents who ultimately make that decision. Parents are in no way forced to murder their own children. Thus, it’s hard to blame the government for these repercussions. I feel that dirty hands occurs when there are immediate repercussions. A policy meant to prevent over population doesn’t immediately result in the murder of female babies. This problem is entirely cultural.

  7. kelseymlee Says:

    I definitely see this as a case of dirty hands. I agree with the author of this post, and at first, before the fact of baby girls being murdered was brought into play, it really is difficult to say whether or not this was an issue of dirty hands. Rulers and political leaders of China really aren’t doing anything extremely wrong or immoral by limiting the number of children that their citizens are allowed to have. Instead, they are trying to do something good by limiting the population of China, allowing for more resources and better living conditions for current citizens not only of China, but of the world. While trying to do something good and resourceful, they instead have made a decision that allows for thousands of innocent children to be murdered. Even though this problem is one that deals with society’s morals, the leaders of China know that their decision and law is what is mainly responsible for all of these murders. I still consider this a case of dirty hands, because this law is inadvertently responsible for this tragedy, yet it is possible to still see why leaders feel this law is still necessary. Lawmakers in China really have no where to escape to, they have to make a decision.

  8. Karsten Smolinski Says:

    I definitely believe that this is a case of dirty hands. I think what Hollis is trying to say is that because politician’s have to deal with the uncertainty of what action will best benefit the public good and the uncertainty of what the public good even is, their actions will always fall into a moral grey area. It is this moral grey area that creates the problem of Dirty Hands and makes it unavoidable in politics. Rulers’ hands are dirty before they even attempt to confront a problem because of the numerous conflicting interests they must serve and the uncertainty of any outcomes. There is simply often no certain measure by which one action could be deemed ‘better’ than another.

    When the Chinese first instituted this law, they were looking to protect their country from the consequences of extreme overpopulation: economic ruin, unemployment, poverty, and decreased quality of living. They probably didn’t foresee that this would lead to Chinese citizens murdering their own daughters. Outcomes like this are an inherent risk of being a ruler, adding to the problem of dirty hands. However, I would not exonerate the Chinese government entirely and blame just the citizens of China. The Chinese government, knowing of the consequences of its actions, has continued this policy. This makes China’s one child per family policy a clear case of Dirty Hands.

  9. shmily4k Says:

    In my opinion, it cannot be determined whether China’s one child per family policy is a case of dirty hands problem or not. The government’s initial intention in establishing this policy is to solve the problem of overpopulation. It is true that by limiting Chinese citizens to have no more than one baby in their families forces them to give up the personal liberty and freedom in choosing the number of children they want to have. As the author of this post has mentioned, Hollis regards dirty hands as someone “abandon their principles for the sake of at least getting something done.” According to this quote, it might seem that the case is a dirty hands problem. However, the policy also allows Chinese citizens to give birth to more children after several years by paying a specific amount of fine. Even though the Chinese government limited the personal liberty in some way, they also allowed another form of liberty. Therefore it is hard to determine whether the policy is a case of dirty hands problems, because they might not have abandoned their principals. Another information that the writer provides is about female babies being killed and the baby trafficking ring. I think these situations are more related to the culture of China rather than the problem of dirty hands. When the Chinese government set up this policy, they do not know it would lead to these kind of problems and clearly these are not the results that they have been craving for by abandoning their principals.

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