On dirty hands

August 13, 2021 09:25

Politics is by no means easy in the contemporary era.

On one hand, politicians – especially in electoral or semi-democracies – must answer to the will and whims of their audience; they must entertain and keep their audience happy, and match or “reflect” the avowed preferences of those who have and will continue to back them. On the other hand, they must uphold the actual, substantial interests of all individuals in the society – not only those who elect them, or whose support they counted on in climbing to the top (in non-electoral democracies), but also those whose interests are entangled with the trajectory and development of the society, i.e. the rest of the people at large.

These objectives very often – though not always – come apart. And when they do, politicians must engage in the delicate balancing act, between sticking by their guts on what the right thing to do is, and meeting the demands and asserted preferences of the public.

And there’s more to politics, too. With the increasing complexity of institutions and interdependence between money, politics, and masses, conflicts of interests and deeply rooted entanglements are only increasingly ubiquitous. This is to say, politicians could ill-afford to remain puritans – to be morally puritanistic and refuse to dabble at all in what they term or view as “immoral”, may render them feeling glibly self-righteous, but would also prohibit them from getting any and all work done. They have to get their hands dirty, even if doing so lands them in trouble with “popular opinion”.

A drowning murderer is retrieved from the pool in which she is languishing. In resuscitating her, there is a non-zero chance that she will continue to murder innocent bystanders, upon her revival. Yet there is also the possibility that she would settle for a placid life – one free of crime and sin. All’s well, ends well.

A soldier has been asked to shoot at a prisoner of war. He knows, fully well, that if he refuses to comply, another soldier would be sent in – and, unlike him, this soldier harbours no sympathy or mercy. The upshot? An excruciating and painful death on the part of the prisoner, but the soldier is – indeed! – freed from the sins that he fears would drag him down. At the Gates of Heaven, St. Peter turns him away.

Dirty hands – an age-old classic in history of political thought. First coined to describe acts by politicians at times of war (or crises), where actions that may ostensibly compromise their moral characters must nevertheless be necessarily undertaken, in order to avert worse consequences. Throwing the fat man off the bridge; pulling the lever (for the Trolley Problem); getting one’s hands “dirty” – these are all similar, albeit different acts at their core. The underlying similarity constitutes the fact that one must make moral sacrifices – sacrifices to one’s moral standing – to get things done.

And such is the nature of politics. Politics is packed to the brim with circumstances that require dirty hands. A public representative runs, for they know that the alternative to them would be a subpar, far less qualified candidate. An administrator opts to stay in office for another term, in order to mediate between the competing factions and interests, to hold the “fort”, so to speak, whilst they seek and approach a prospective successor. A political leader opts to stay in power, not because he wants to, but because the alternative, the counterfactual, is downright unthinkable. These are all instances where the hands must necessarily be dirty and dirtied – where tradeoffs are all but necessary.

Is the dirtying of one’s hands justified? Conventional wisdom – specifically, those who adhere to Weber’s ethics of responsibility – would argue that it is justified, for there exist no alternatives. To get things done, to get outcomes through, to get changes through to the people who most deserve and need them, there needs to be action. Action, in turn, could well require individuals to accept particular tradeoffs, to give up and relent upon certain self-defined baselines and values, in exchange for the greater good, or, indeed, the freedom to stay and remain in the system – to make a difference in the future.

Then, of course, there are those who insist that morality is absolute, that politicians ought to stick to an ethics of conviction, and recognise that principles – especially absolutist ones – should neither be compromised nor eschewed, even if doing so is practically utile. Those who make this argument, however, should be very careful and mindful of the danger of self-effacement (i.e. expressing self-defeating platitudes). What’s the use of claiming to be in favour of “democracy”, when all one does and gets to achieve, in the end, is to parade the slogan of democracy as a talking point and flamboyant banner, only for it to be – ultimately – confined to the dustbins of history? Pragmatism isn’t sexy, but pragmatism gets things done. And pragmatists ought to stand up for themselves, far more than they currently do.

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HKEJ contributor