Dirty, dirty hands.
“He orders the man tortured, convinced that he must do so for the sake of the people who might otherwise die in the explosions—even though he believes that torture is wrong, indeed abominable, not just sometimes, but always. . . . When he ordered the prisoner tortured, he committed a moral crime and he accepted a moral burden. Now he is a guilty man. His willingness to acknowledge and bear (and perhaps to repent and do penance for) his guilt is evidence, and it is the only evidence he can offer us, both that he is not too good for politics and that he is good enough. Here is the moral politician: it is by his dirty hands that we know him. If he were a moral man and nothing else, his hands would not be dirty; if he were a politician and nothing else, he would pretend that they were clean.”
– Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter, 1973), pp. 160-180.
When is it right to do the wrong thing? Michael Walzer, an academic and a longtime editor of Dissent magazine, pushed the question in what seem to me to be productive directions, both in the essay quoted above and in his book Just and Unjust Wars. Walzer frames his discussion as a conflict between moral principle and overwhelming utilitarian considerations. He believes that the dirty compromise is probably essential to politics, to a point that impedes the functioning of men of total integrity. Yet we still want our politicians to be moral.
Walzer wants to reject purely utilitarian arguments as not accounting for the moral life we actually experience. For the utilitarian, if he has chosen properly, has chosen the best among available options. If that best option was torture on the rack, the thoroughgoing utilitarian has no reason to feel guilty for what he has done; by utilitarian reasoning, he’s not guilty. As an example (from Just and Unjust Wars), let’s say you’re England in World War II. You think you have a chance to win if you blast cities like Dresden into oblivion, but you’re pretty sure that the price of not slaughtering non-combatants will be a thousand year Reich. This should be a snap judgment for a utilitarian. But, Walzer says, morality involves holding people accountable for rules, and it remains that firebombing is and should always be a major violation of the rules. So you shuffle the organizers, who “did what they had to do,” off into the oblivion of marginal historical figures, if you can.
So in order to assign moral guilt to leaders who are forced to do awful things, Walzer has to posit a system of rules that hold for all of us, except in extreme cases when utilitarian considerations outweigh moral principle. It’s not really surprising that many theorists have taken Walzer’s argument to be somewhat incoherent. Nevertheless, I take it to be a morally serious attempt to grapple with a common moral intuition. (It’s worth noting, in light of recent discussions, that while Walzer thought Dresden might have had a plausible justification, he concluded that Tokyo and Hiroshima did not meet the criteria of extreme emergency.)
Still, I’m not sure the discussion will get anywhere if it’s just another episode in the cosmic struggle between utilitarian calculations and deontological codes. I’m more interested in how we conceive of the role of “guardian,” and what responsibilities come with it, and how these duties conflicts with the responsibilities of other roles. I think Walzer pushes things in this direction. The irreconcilable demands of different social roles, the defender who must sacrifice everything for an ungrateful populace: this is the stuff of tragedy—if and only if the conflict is deep and true.
Someone who takes on guardianship for the right reasons on any level, from soldier to President, will commit himself to a set of rules, from treaties at the high level to rules of engagement at the lowest. We’ll take these rules to be pretty much comprehensive. He will hope that these rules will be sound enough to cover the situations he faces. But he also fears that he’ll find himself in a situation that the rules don’t cover, where following the rules as given creates a conflict with his more fundamental duty of protecting people. And such a situation will simply have to be an exception. Note that there is a difference between perceiving an exception and actually encountering one, and that a fuller understanding of the situation could very well show that following the rules was after all the right course of action.
Some thinkers, upon encountering the existence of exceptions, want to rewrite the rules in order to justify extreme cases. But we should take it to be a lesson of history that writing the exceptions into the rules leads to a good many situations being deemed more exceptional than they actually are. I can accept that in the mixed-up confusion of 2003 someone might have justifiably taken Khalid Sheik Mohammad to be an Exception, to be treated outside the normal channels of justice, but in light of what we know now, that judgment should at the very least come into question. And in this case, it looks like trying to write the exception into the rules led to prolonged unjust treatment of a number of other “unlawful combatants.”
I would like to see the people who made key decisions show some willingness to reevaluate their actions in hindsight. To say, “I thought I was doing what I had to do, but I was wrong.” Or even, “I can’t see how I could have acted differently, but I wish badly that I could have done otherwise.” Perhaps it is on the advice of their lawyers that they are not doing so? Or perhaps it’s happening, but such admissions have been getting lost in media noise?
As a side note, while I was reading around on the waterboarding/memos debate, I found this 2003 article from Mark Bowden. Reading the conclusion now is deeply weird, because it reads like the lead-in to a big slam on the Bush administration:
“In other words, when the ban is lifted, there is no restraining lazy, incompetent, or sadistic interrogators. As long as it remains illegal to torture, the interrogator who employs coercion must accept the risk. He must be prepared to stand up in court, if necessary, and defend his actions. Interrogators will still use coercion because in some cases they will deem it worth the consequences. This does not mean they will necessarily be punished. In any nation the decision to prosecute a crime is an executive one. A prosecutor, a grand jury, or a judge must decide to press charges, and the chances that an interrogator in a genuine ticking-bomb case would be prosecuted, much less convicted, is very small.”
But his actual conclusion is that the “Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter.” Such was life in 2003. Go figure.