Dusting off dirty hands
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This paper revisits one of the more frequented stops at the crossroads of politics and morality in contemporary ethical theory, Michael Walzer’s essay “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” The aim is to provide a fresh assessment of Walzer’s project, and to evaluate the tenability of its core notion of “dirty hands.” In pursuit of this aim, the effort is made to reopen the paths which take Walzer to his celebrated impasse, from two directions. The first of these resituates Walzer’s analysis in the context of the debate within Anglo-American ethical theory in which it is originally expounded. The second route seeks to recapture the trail of thinkers who guide Walzer to his conclusions from more remote locations in intellectual history, in order to determine the reliability of his intriguing constellation of Machiavelli, Weber and Camus as lodestars. Writing thirty years later, one of Walzer’s friendliest interpreters, Jean Elshtain, in the midst of her enthusiasm for ‘dirty hands,’ renews doubts about his recommendation of “casuistry.” Hints from throughout Walzer’s essay, incompletely elaborated there, are parceled together into closing suggestions as to an alternative approach to so-called ‘dirty hands’ situations.