In Michael Walzer’s, “The Problem of Dirty Hands,” he contemplates the possibility of someone being able to have a moral dilemma, where they are confronted with two possible decisions with both resulting in a negative outcome. They are forced, however, to make the decision and this makes it a moral dilemma. Walzer strengthens thesis by offering the ideas of other people who have contemplated whether it was possible. The reviews were mixed. Walzer believes that the dilemma is faced often when war is involved and even general governance. He doesn’t believe that it is possible to govern without having dirty hands. Leaders are often faced with the challenge of doing that which is utilitarian or that which is in line with the political office. He says leaders try to do what is best for the greatest number of people. Walzer goes on to claim that whatever the answer, the argument “relates not only to the coherence and harmony of the moral universe, but also to the relative ease or difficulty – or impossibility – of living a moral life.” This is the thesis of his essay, as he battles through this idea, is that moral dilemmas are common among leaders who often face moral challenges, sometimes in war. Political scientists and theorists, as well as the general public, could get an objective idea of the moral struggles of politicians by reading this article.
Walzer should have presented his thesis more clearly, as he presents various other people’s thoughts and doesn’t narrow the topic until about the fourth paragraph. A clearer stake on the thesis should have been made in the opening paragraph, or at least he should have presented the other people’s perspective on the focused argument of applying the moral dilemma to political leadership. In testing the theory of the possibility of having a moral dilemma to political leadership, Walzer uses utilitarianism as a measuring stick. He uses the term “dirty hands” to refuse totalitarian governments while accepting that moral dilemmas are common under democratic rule.
I thought that Walzer occasionally lacked in confidence of his argument. He didn’t seem to be sure which side he leaned on: “I am not sure that Hare’s explanation is at all comforting…” Using words like “not sure” is either modest, or it is telling the reader that the author isn’t really the authority on the topic.
Walzer introduces the challenges faced by politicians by describing the role they play in society. This is a logical first step that puts the topic into perspective for the reader. Politicians are held to a higher account than businessmen, who often cheat, and who are “villains.” I’m not sure that a comparison with businessmen was necessary here. It is just assumed that people consider politicians to be in need of higher accountability. But this comparison sets up an interesting take on the relationship between politicians and the people who they govern. Walzer is right in saying that the general public does have a suspicious, and often evil, eye pointed in the direction of politicians. This is, as he points out, because they have rule over the people and they have greater pleasures in ruling us than we take in being ruled. “The successful politician becomes the visible architect of our restraint.”
He says politicians have the kill sometimes in order to defend one’s country. This is an example he uses as getting one’s hands dirty. I believe this is proof of the point that a moral dilemma is possible in the political realm. This statement backs up Walzer’s thesis. He gives examples of relating to struggling for power and one exercising power. Detailing the examples backs his thesis up and this is an effective way to make a solid argument in support of his thesis. He says politicians have no choice but to do bad things. Someone is bound to say that the politician is not willing to get his or her hands dirty. This is a solid argument for the catch 22 politicians find themselves in.
Walzer’s specific case of a politician needing to make a deal with someone who is dishonest so a school can be built is an example of making a necessary decision but getting one’s hands dirty. At this point, Walzer adds to the focus of his thesis, saying dirty hands means someone is feeling guilty about doing something. Giving specific examples further strengthens his argument.
He uses the opinions of people he introduced at the beginning of the essay to draw conclusions on the moral dilemmas politicians could be faced with. Machiavelli doesn’t participate in issues that involve moral dilemmas because that’s not what good people do. Therefore, for a politician to be in the political realm, they must be inherently not good.
Walzer goes on to give examples of two more thinkers’ justifications for what they believe is an ethical dilemma. He analyzes such things as the way the human subject in the example would be punished for the crime, in trying to decide whether they are being ethical when they take their course of action. He is trying to determine whether there would be a punishment that fits the crime.
Throughout each example of the philosophers, Walzer bring the readers thoughts back to the political realm. He is taking what was used as a basis for the examples and applying it modern day politicians. He tackles such topics that have come up in the debate about the principles of utilitarianism, and that is the degree of action. The degree is such a hard thing to measure, so Walzer tries to provide the answers in this text. “Wanton or excessive cruelty is not at issue, any more than is cruelty directed at bad ends.” He takes this to the political arena and speaks about the thought process of politicians who are thinking they are doing something in the name of the role that they have assumed.
Instead of providing his original take on the dilemma, Walzer conveys what three philosophers have said about the debate and then he critiques those analyses and compares them to his own idea. However, I found that Walzer lacked focus in his delivery. It seemed as if his paper was a flow of thought, rather than something that was structured. In college, when students write essays, they communicate to the reader from the beginning what the structure of the paper will be. It would have been useful in Walzer’s essay to say at the beginning that he will be reviewing three philosophers’ takes on morality in the political sphere. That way, the reader would have a clearer understanding of the paper’s direction.
However, I do have to give Walzer credit for providing a summarized view of what these philosophers have said and then applying that directly to examples that can be applied quite logically. But it is unusual how he never really makes his decision on which view he wants to take until he is done analyzing Camus’ view about political morality. Walzer did give what I would call smaller thesis statements throughout the essay and he came to some realizations, but they never really seemed to keep focus.
Walzer took some major risks with much of what he said. He essentially spoke for the majority and relayed their attitudes towards politicians. I think this is a bold move, and one I somehow found that I agreed with every one of his generalizations. The article was good for me, and it would be good for people who want to have some objective into what it must be like to be a politician, and what kind of person it takes to be a politician.