Our Dirty Hands

In 1973 Michael Walzer wrote an article entitled “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” In the article, Walzer argued that involvement in politics entails confronting difficult situations where values conflict. Adjudicating between values requires making compromises; and while most compromises can be understood in terms of mutual concessions interested parties make in order to further some common good, other situations are more extreme. These situations call for compromise in the sense of harming or demeaning something valuable. Walzer explains these “dirty hands” situations, using the example of a politician making a backroom deal with a dishonest ward boss: 

“We know [the politician] is doing right when he makes the deal [with a dishonest ward boss] because he knows he is doing wrong. I don’t mean merely that he will feel badly or even very badly after he makes the deal. If he is the good man I am imagining him to be, he will feel guilty, that is, he will believe himself to be guilty. That is what it means to have dirty hands.” (166)

Walzer’s notion of dirty hands has evoked considerable debate (for an overview see here; and for an overview of the ethics of torture see here). The dirty hands problem highlights the difficulty of doing right in a complex world. Even if someone is able to identify and do what ought to be done, it does not necessarily mean his or her conscience ought to be clean.

The enhanced interrogations techniques (EIT) employed by the CIA over the last decade go beyond this, in my opinion. Yet I believe that those who developed and employed the techniques, felt that they were doing what was right. At the same time, even if we accept their actions as right, we need not deny the appropriateness of feeling distress, grief, and even guilt when intentionally causing defenseless human beings extreme pain for the sake of breaking their will. All involved should be shamed and should feel ashamed.

These conflicted feelings are well represented by Alyssa Peterson, who followed orders, carried out EIT, but could only stand doing it for two days. The distress created from those two days in “the cage” was a significant factor in her suicide one week later.

It’s now well known that Peterson and one of the developers of EIT are Mormon. The deep irony of the situation is that one Mormon’s program to intentionally harm, humiliate, and systematically abuse potential terrorists, unintentionally harmed, grieved, and distressed another Mormon who happened to implement it. Further ironic is the fact that of all the Mormons involved in EIT, the one likely to garner the most shame in Mormon culture is the one who actually felt she had dirty hands—her suicide is the only clear infraction of LDS standards.

Regardless of whether or not you believe Mormonism was a significant factor in this whole situation, we (meaning all Americans) ought to feel distressed by what is surfacing. We (meaning Mormons) ought to feel grief; we should grieve for Peterson, not because she broke some commandment about taking her own life, but because she was placed in tragic circumstances and processed them the best she could. We should grieve because one of our brothers assisted in creating the tragic circumstances of one of our sisters. We should grieve for the pain this brother has intentionally and unintentionally caused in the world. We should grieve for a Mormon community that even if not directly contributing to the development of EIT, lacks a robust ethical tradition to think through the ethics of torture. Most importantly, we should grieve for our hypocrisy in claiming to look to the pierced hands of someone subjected to torture for our salvation, yet when it comes to the suffering of others subject to abuse we wash our hands from feeling their pain. Indeed, whether we recognize it our not, our hands are dirty. Every last one of us.