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Dirty Hands— Choosing a Wrong to do a Right

The option of supporting underground schools deemed illegal by the Taliban raises the question of “dirty hands” in ethics. Some difficult choices seem to be structured between the need to break one moral rule in order to fulfil another. In other words, the best thing to do in some situations is to do something that would usually be wrong. This type of choice has come to be understood as the inevitable ethical problem of getting dirty hands, and is particularly common in emergency ethics when the stakes are very high.10 It is similar and sometimes interchangeable with the idea of choosing a “lesser evil” in a difficult situation, or the change in morality that can occur in a “ticking bomb” scenario when some argue it is permissible to derogate from a moral absolute. Notoriously, the ticking bomb example frequently engenders the scenario of suspending the prohibition of torture in order to extract information that could save lives. Humanitarian choices are never as immoral as this, but certain situations do present the logic that suspending some moral norms is necessary for wider humanitarian goals.

Despite its relatively recent name, the challenge of dirty hands in ethics has a long history. Many ancient legends and religious texts have stories that celebrate deception, lies, misinformation and the murder of unarmed people as legitimate moral strategies in pursuit of a greater cause. Famously, Odysseus and the Greeks deceived the Trojans with the gift of a wooden horse filled with armed men. Rebecca and Jacob deceived Isaac to steal his paternal blessing from Esau, his rightful heir. Many tales also justify sex and seduction as a means to information or assassination in a just cause. Judith murdered the drunken Holophernes, an Assyrian general who was planning to destroy her city. Queen Esther used her sexual influence over the King to undermine the plans of his Vizier, Haman, to massacre the Jews in Persia. Throughout Shia history, this much persecuted branch of Islam has held to a doctrine of taqiyyah that allows them to disguise themselves and lie about their identity and beliefs if this will save their lives. Most commonly, these breaches of the normal moral law are understood as necessary cunning for the preservation of a greater good.

In Michael Walzer’s classic paper on dirty hands, he explores how Niccolo Machiavelli, the great political theorist and courtly adviser of Renaissance Italy, recognized the occasional need for "necessary immorality”.11 Importantly, as Walzer points out, choices of this kind do not signal moral relativism: an "anything goes” or "whatever works” approach to ethics. To talk of dirty hands decisions is not an extreme utilitarian position that argues that the end always justifies the means. Instead, Machiavelli himself was highly conscious that these choices involve a very real breach of moral rules. In his discussion of such practices, he still upholds the standard involved in the breach, but is clear that political realism requires some breaches to take place:

The fact is that a man [sic] who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous...taking everything into account, he will find that some of the things that appear to be virtues will, if he practises them, ruin him, and some of the things that appear to be vices will bring him security and prosperity.12

Walzer shows how Max Weber and Albert Camus felt similarly about such breaches, but more so. Weber observed how the politician with dirty hands is a hero, but always "a tragic hero” who has lost his soul. In his play on the theme called The Just Assassins, Albert Camus is in no doubt that his assassins put themselves beyond the realm of justice in choosing to murder. Despite the good that may follow, they must accept punishment and execution for the crime it involved.13

In humanitarian action, dirty hands choices are obviously not about assassination, but they routinely emerge around problems of corruption, armed protection, dangerous associations and deception of various kinds. Sometimes it makes sense for an agency to speak only of assistance when negotiating humanitarian access, so being silent about the advocacy and protection role it also plans to play. Sometimes a toleration of food diversions is the only way to reach vulnerable communities. Sometimes hiding people is important to do and it is necessary to deceive those who seek to harm them. Exaggerating the importance of his agency’s diplomatic immunity proved a good way for ICRC delegate Frederick Born to achieve this during the Holocaust. This is how he managed to preserve the immediate safety of hundreds of Jewish people in the centre of Budapest in 1944, although his protection was to prove tragically temporary and ultimately insufficient.14 Deception of this kind can be morally important and justified as "emergency ethics”. The notion of emergency ethics has been developed by Michael Walzer in relation to the use of force, but remains under-developed in humanitarian ethics.15 One situation that may demand such emergency ethics is what Coady calls "moral isolation” in which, as described above by Machiavelli, everyone around you is breaking all moral norms, so creating a perverse situation in which acting normally and virtuously renders you and others extremely vulnerable to immoral acts.16

In humanitarian ethics, the main concern in any strategy of dirty hands seems to turn on the gravity of any moral breach and the likelihood of dangerous slippery slopes that may emerge from half-truths, dishonesty, bribery or misinformation. Alex Bellamy has rightly pointed out that most dirty hands or lesser evil problems are really challenges of the incomparable and incommensurable values (apples and oranges) discussed above.17 Resolving a situation’s simultaneously different demands for humanitarian access, absolute honesty and impeccable food distributions may simply be impossible. The key question becomes whether dirty hands choices have humanitarian legitimacy even when they may not align strictly with law or morality. In other words, can such acts make moral sense and be broadly acceptable to the fundamental concerns of humanitarian ethics? Here, humanitarian workers have to decide and choose.

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