Why Dirty Hands Are Not Necessary In Politics

By: Matthew Tsuda



A Summary of the Article “Democratic Dirty Hands?”, Written By David P. Shugarman


Shugarman’s Opposing Views of Walzer’s Article:


 Michael Walzer, the author for the article that supports dirty hands in politics, tries to persuade us that preferring to be deceitful and cruel at times is the best way to operate, so long as it creates a greater good for society and the politician who’s knowingly committing the immoral act feels guilty (Walzer supports a form of utilitarianism)

* Walzer uses an example that he calls an in extremis situation, which concerns a politician who is originally totally against any type of human torturing, but tortures a terrorist to get him to reveal the whereabouts of his planted apartment bombs before hundreds of innocent people die 

* Shugarman criticizes this example by claiming that first of all, in this extremely rare situation the politician could have considered many other options (such as ordering the evacuation of everybody in the apartments), and second of all, if torturing the terrorist was really your last option in order to save hundreds of people, there would be no reason for you to feel guilty because you’ve chosen the high moral ground

* Walzer also brings up an example of a politician who deviously “buys votes” through patronage in order to win an election; Walzer declares that what the politician did to get elected was morally right so long as he feels guilty for his morally wrong actions (the fact that he feels guilty should make people want to vote for him)

* Shugarman opposes this example by stating that there are many serious problems with supporting corrupted people and he quotes a point made by the US Supreme Court seventy years ago: “Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subject to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law.”          

  *  * in Shugarman’s examples there are distinct differences between whether dirty

      hands is acceptable or unacceptable depending on the extremeness of the situation,

      whereas Walzer’s treatment of dirty hands remains the same for both his dramatic

      and pedestrian examples


Shugarman’s Viewpoints On Why Dirty Hands Is Unnecessary:


*   if supporters of dirty hands deem it moral for one politician to “buy votes” or use any conniving plan, then why shouldn’t it be acceptable for all politicians “buy votes” or use any conniving plan?

*   this can create a spiral effect of widespread corruption and may lead to the corruption within society (citizens will break the law if they see their own government breaking the law)

*   citizens can’t really tell whether a politician feels guilty about his/her dirty hands act; during an election campaign, people have a hard enough time trying to get significant issues elucidated without being expected to know a candidate’s inner motives and guilty feelings

*   as well, if a successful and moral politician does an act that pays off in triumph and is done with the approval of his/her supporters, why should he/she feel guilty at his/her actions?

*   we cannot say that dirty hands is democratic because that would be the same as saying dishonest elections are part of democracy; the phrase “democratic dirty hands” is an oxymoron


Shugarman’s Defensible and Indefensible Dirty Hands Viewpoints:


* there are some situations that some may call dirty hands that are acceptable, such as if a man whose phone lines have been cut breaks into a soda pop machine to steal money to make a phone call to the President to prevent their country from a nuclear war         

* Shugarman regards this situation as an acceptable dirty hands case because even though the man breaks the law (he steals), he should not feel guilty because his actions were justified and righteous

* however, the majority of dirty hands scenarios are unacceptable, such as the MKULTRA program which was a mind-control experimentation program, funded by the American CIA, that deceitfully treated 77 patients who thought they received cures for their psychological problems but really were maliciously experimented on

* the CIA said they had good-intentions because they assumed that the MKULTRA group was performing treatments, but Shugarman claims that by having over 70 people’s psyches damaged, MKULTRA’s dirty hands demonstrated some of the lowest acts in human nature

* a final example of unacceptable dirty hands scenarios would be the notorious presidency of Richard Nixon, who secretly approved over 3600 B-52 air attacks against suspected Viet Cong installations and helped to organize the financial support for the Watergate burglars and White House plumbers

* Henry Kissinger was the secretary of state during the time of Nixon’s presidency, and he was a former Nobel Peace Prize winner and respected scholar, and saw himself as representing America to the best of his ability; like Nixon, Kissinger was obsessed with the spreading of disinformation

* Kissinger, Nixon, and the MKULTRA program all offer us prevailing arguments for the rejection of Machiavellism and dirty hands politics because of their lack of morality and choice of deceitfulness over the honesty of basic humanity







Glossary of Terms From The Article


Dirty hands à In politics, the term dirty hands refers to politicians who make decisions to break a law or utter a falsehood in order to serve the public interest.  The difference between a politician with dirty hands and a politician who is solely amorally corrupt is that the politician with dirty hands will be able to recognize and feel guilty for the moral wrongs that he/she is committing.


Utilitarianism à A theory that states that the greatest good for the greatest number of people should be the main consideration when making a choice of actions; a belief that if “the ends justify the means,” then a decision is moral.


In extremis à A Latin word which is defined as an extreme situation in which there are no other options available except one (which usually involves ethical dilemma); an utmost degree; a near death experience.


Patronage à The power of public officials to make appointments to government jobs or grant other favours.  


Imperiled à To put something or somebody in jeopardy or danger.


Scrupulously à Acting in an ethically considerate and principled manner.


Contempt à An open disrespect for the rules of a court or legislative body; the state of being despised; the feeling that something is worthless.


Pedestrian à Literally means a person who walks on-foot; however in the article’s context it means “simple”, “ordinary”, “common”, or “realistic”.


Oxymoron à A figure of speech that uses seeming contradictions (i.e. “pretty ugly”).


MKULTRA à An acronym for Manufacturing Killers Utilizing Lethal Tradecraft Requiring Assassinations.


CIA à An acronym for Central Intelligence Agency.


Disinformation à False speech; bogus information/verifications.


Machiavellism à A word that stems from Niccolo Machiavelli, who was a famous Italian political philosopher; a belief in deception for expediency.







Discussion Questions:


1.)    If you take into consideration Walzer’s example of dirty hands situations, such as a politician buying his votes, what are the consequences of the politician’s actions?


My answer: Politicians are supposed to be looked up to by the general public as role models and leaders, and if they have dirty hands, then if the public finds out they will do likewise (i.e. if the government is breaking the law, then why can’t citizens like me break the law?).  This may cause prevalent cases of corruption within society.


2.)    Do you agree with Shugarman’s argument that the phrase “democratic dirty hands” is an oxymoron?


My answer: Yes I agree with Shugarman’s argument because democracy is a government which is controlled directly or indirectly by the greater part of the people and it exists to serve citizens.  But if dirty hands and deception is used by a democratic party to get elected, then it really isn’t serving its citizens honestly and justly.  As well, one of the main beliefs that has been woven into democratic fabric is the respect for law, and if a candidate is breaking the law, he/she should not be using dirty hands to get elected because then they’re complete and utter hypocrites for what they believe in.  


3.)    Is there any validity in Walzer’s position regarding dirty hands?


My answer: I do not think that Walzer has many valid points simply because most of his examples are unrealistic or extreme exceptions to the rule rather than the norm.  As well, in the short-term, dirty hands may be effective to a point, but in the long run dirty hands will likely be exposed with dire consequences (i.e. over time, President Nixon was removed from presidency due to his deceitful and corrupt ways with respect to his dirty hands).


4.)    When Walzer is talking about the politician who buys his votes, he quotes “We know he is doing right when he makes the deal because he knows he is doing wrong.”  What do you think of this quote?


My answer: To me, this quote is absolutely ludicrous.  Just because the politician knows what he is doing is wrong does not make him right at all!  Politicians should definitely avoid simple, deceitful acts like this one because they clearly show lack of leadership, decadence in society, as well as foolish acts of gluttony and deceit.  The politician shouldn’t have committed that act simply because he knew that he was doing wrong.


5.)    In Walzer’s article he emphasizes on the need for values and moral rules while simultaneously acknowledging the place for dirty hands in democracy.  In Shugarman’s article he refers to this in a simile saying that what Walzer said is “like recommending a recipe that is bound to be botched before it gets to the table”.  Do you agree or disagree with Shugarman’s symbolic quote?


My answer: I agree with Shugarman’s quote because he’s comparing Walzer’s emphasis on moral values to a good recipe, but then goes onto comparing Walzer’s emphasis on dirty hands as the recipe being “botched” or spoiled before it’s served.  This metaphorically portrays the corruption that dirty hands stimulates in society.       



Tutorial: Reflection

Written By Matthew Tsuda


            The article “Democratic Dirty Hands?”, written by David P. Shugarman, was in opposition to Michael Walzer’s article, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”.  Shugarman’s article carefully and cleverly slashed apart Walzer’s article and he noted many flaws in Walzer’s arguments, such as the fact that Walzer picked extremely rare situations for his examples, Walzer made it sound like he totally supported corrupted government systems, and Walzer deemed it acceptable for dirty hands to occur under pretty much any circumstance. 


            Shugarman’s main criticism of Walzer’s article, however, was the issue of treachery.  Shugarman believed that if a well-known politician (who was looked up to by the public because of his/her integrity) performed a dirty hands act, it would institute a whirlwind of widespread corruption amongst society because citizens would see nothing wrong with breaking the law if their leaders were also doing so.  Shugarman quoted: “if it gets around that this is what it takes to win, it will be difficult to expect others not to do so in the future.”  This quote helped to convey Shugarman’s argument because it tried to show how the dirty hands of one politician could affect future politicians who may also use dirty hands as part of their tactics.  Shugarman’s last main line of reasoning against dirty hands was the fact that dirty hands goes directly against democracy, since democracy respects the law and it is a government system that’s supposed to represent its people to the best of its ability.  Shugarman quoted: “In this regard, free slaves and democratic dirty hands are not paradoxes, they are oxymorons.” 


            As my group and I discussed Shugarman’s article during my SLT, some group members came to the conclusion that although they agreed with Shugarman’s arguments that dirty hands in politics is a negative act of deceit, dirty politics is so common now that if a politician decides not to use dirty hands, the politician would probably never make it out “alive” or become successful in the harsh, real world that we live in today.  We also discussed the concern of dirty hands in democracy, and although we all agreed with Shugarman’s quote: “But we cannot claim that the dirty hands are democratic, any more than we could use the term democratic to refer to bogus elections”, certain group members concluded that it would be nearly impossible to entirely clean out dirty hands from politics simply because virtually everybody in politics possesses some nature of dirty hands. 


            For myself, I believe that Shugarman definitely had the stronger, clearer argument and provided convincing and more relevant non-fictional examples than Walzer.  Shugarman’s most significant and infamous example would unquestionably be the corrupted presidency of Richard Nixon because it visibly and straightforwardly expressed Shugarman’s opposing dirty hands arguments.  Realistically, though, I believe that despite the advantages of morality and ethics, dirty hands may come to be necessary under certain extreme circumstances.  I am a strong believer in that good will prevail over evil and that dirty hands is not necessarily intrinsic to humanity, but I do believe that in life or death situations, it may result in the greater good for society.  Therefore, all in all, I believe that there may be a time and place for dirty hands in politics (i.e. dirty hands could be applicable by a moral politician’s wise discretion) but in only the extreme cases where all other ethical options are exhausted.  Otherwise, dirty hands would likely lead to the “Slippery Slope Theory”, where if used unwisely and without care, it could lead to corruption, mistrust, and the ultimate downfall of a leader or political party.