Sunday 3 November 2013

Dirty hands

I appreciated this bit in Art of Theory's interview with Michael Walzer (HT: Xavier Marquez):
Walzer: The argument of my piece on dirty hands, which is also the argument summed up in that phrase, is that sometimes it’s necessary in politics to do things that it’s wrong to do, which translates into the right thing to do being the wrong thing to do. That’s the incoherence.

What philosophers mostly believe is that the right thing to do is what, all things considered, is the right thing to do. The notion of getting your hands dirty implies that you’re doing something which is wrong and that’s what I was trying to get at in the article. You want political leaders who know that x is the wrong thing to do, because you want them to do it only in extremis. You want them to do it only at the last minute, when nothing else will work, and when there’s some looming disaster. It’s a kind of utilitarianism of the last moment.

You begin by rejecting the maxim “do justice even if the heavens fall,” and instead choose the maxim “do justice until the heavens are about to fall, and then do whatever you have to do to stop the heavens from falling.” You have to know that your actions at that last moment are something brutal, cruel, wrong. Otherwise you will do it too soon, and too often.
That's not far from what I think about voting: only do it if there's a lot at stake and if it's looking really close. And about a few other things too.

There should always be some utilitarian/consequentialist side constraint.

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