The Moral Importance of Dirty Hands

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Arts and Humanities | Philosophy


The Kantian aspiration to render ourselves invulnerable to moral compromise is well-intentioned and deserves our respect insofar as it alerts us to the importance of struggling with courage and imagination against evil. But to the extent that it rejects or ignores the possibility of moral tragedy, the Kantian conception paints too optimistic and artificial a picture of the human condition. We are complicated creatures with diverse and often conflicting ethical loves. Rigging our ethical theories to eliminate such conflicts does nothing to change life as real-life moral agents experience it. As with any kind of theory, we need to be careful about unwittingly deforming the world in order to make it conform to the beloved castles we so often build in the air.

This understanding of dirty hands should dispel the air of paradox so often associated with it. Dirty hands is a genuine moral problem, but not a conceptual one. The temptation to see it as a conceptual one arises from a hasty acceptance of these assumptions:

  1. Moral criticism is appropriate if and only if we can always do what is right. If we cannot do X or avoid doing Y, we cannot be criticized for failing to do X or for doing Y.
  2. We are always free to avoid moral compromise since goodness is a matter of having the will to do what is right.
  3. We are morally compromised if and only if we either intentionally do what is wrong, or if we do what is right for the wrong reasons.

As a general description of conscientiousness, these conditions are uncontroversial. However, conscientiousness does not exhaust the moral realm. The problem with the individuals described in this piece is not that they are guilty of being unconscientious. They are conscientious and still cannot avoid dirtying themselves. [adapted from the article's Conclusion]


DOI: 10.1007/BF00138971