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Michael Walzer on Political Action

In his essay, "Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands," philosopher Michael Walzer raises the disturbing question of whether a moral person can choose to enter political life, knowing in advance that the exigencies of politics will almost certainly, sooner or later, lead that person into making immoral decisions. It may be argued, indeed, that he proves that "we cannot enter the world of public administration except as we sacrifice our personal virtue in order to assume public responsibility. This is surely too high a price to pay for any job."

The question at hand is not willful immorality or amorality. The moral philosopher writes in vain for the public figure who is indifferent to moral concerns. Walzer's fear is directed toward the person who possesses moral values which he or she desires to live up to, but who in the course of public office (whether elective or as a civil servant) will at some point be forced to choose the least of evils. Even the least of evils is an evil; can any moral person choose a position in which this choice must be made?

Machiavelli is famous, or infamous, for arguing that the ends justify the means. It is less familiar that he raised the question of whether good ends could be achieved in circumstances where only evil means would suffice to gain them. In The Discourses, he considered the problem of instituting sweeping reform in a "corrupt republic," and concluded that it could be done only by someone siezing dictatorial authority. But, he wrote, it is "exceedingly rare that a good man should be found willing to employ wicked means to become prince, even though his final object be good; or that a bad man, after having become prince, should be willing to labor for good ends." If the nature of the task requires immorality, can any moral end be achieved as a result?

Watzer begins his discussion by observing the commonly expressed opinion of politicians, namely that (paraphra...

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