Problems of Dirty Hands As a Species of Moral Conflicts

Problems of Dirty Hands As a Species of Moral Conflicts Abstract Every problem of dirty hands is a moral conflict in which a highly unpalatable course of conduct is chosen for the sake of fulfilling a stringent moral duty, and in which either the chosen course of conduct is evil or else it would have been evil in the absence of the exigent circumstances to which it is a response. To support this conception of problems of dirty hands, this paper endeavors to elucidate the nature of moral conflicts and the nature of evil. Every problem of dirty hands is a moral conflict, but not every moral conflict is a problem of dirty hands. Every problem of dirty hands involves the prospect of evil conduct—conduct which will be evil if undertaken at all or which would be evil if undertaken in the absence of a searing moral dilemma—whereas not every moral conflict involves the prospect of evil conduct. To support and clarify the claims in the preceding two sentences, this paper will need to elucidate the nature of moral conflicts and the nature of evil. I. Moral Conflicts This essay generally takes a moral conflict to be a situation in which some person P is under a moral duty-to-φ and simultaneously under a moral duty-not-to-φ.1 However, in line with most other philosophers who write on these issues, I also apply the phrase ‘moral conflict’ to any situation in which P simultaneously bears moral duties whose contents are contraries rather than contradictories. A situation of the latter sort obtains when P is under a duty to do x and simultaneously under a duty to do y, where (1) ‘P does x’ entails the negation of ‘P does y’ and (2) ‘P does y’ entails the negation of ‘P does x’ and (3) the negation of ‘P does x’ is logically consistent with the negation of ‘P does y’. Though the clashing duties within a moral conflict can perfectly well coexist, they can never be jointly fulfilled; the fulfillment of either of them entails the nonfulfillment of the other. Quite a few philosophers over the centuries have raised queries about the possibility of genuine moral conflicts. I have elsewhere addressed their sundry queries at length (Kramer 2014a, 11–19; 2016). Instead of taking up those points of contention afresh, we should here simply note two main aspects of moral conflicts. First, when moral duties are in conflict with each other, neither of them is canceled or suspended. Because each duty in a moral conflict persists, and because only one such duty can be fulfilled, the remaining duty will have been contravened. The contravention of that remaining duty gives rise to some remedial obligation(s). Regardless of how someone faced with a moral conflict has chosen to behave in response to it, then, she will have incurred a moral obligation to rectify her breach of the duty which she has transgressed. Second, in a typical moral conflict, the duties that clash with each other are of unequal stringency. That is, the contravention of one of those duties would be more gravely wrong than the contravention of the other. In any situation where the duties in a moral conflict are indeed of unequal stringency, the uniquely correct response to the conflict is to fulfill the more stringent duty. Of course, as should be evident, the term “correct” here does not denote permissibility. Within a moral conflict, no morally permissible course of conduct is available. Nonetheless, although the uniquely correct mode of conduct in such circumstances is itself morally wrong—and although the adoption of that mode of conduct will therefore give rise to remedial obligations—it is indeed uniquely correct in that the nonadoption of it would be an even more serious wrong. Any applicable moral principles determinately prescribe the mode of conduct that is to be undertaken as the best way (the least bad way) of dealing with the quandary which such a moral conflict presents. II. Two Types of Permissibility In the final paragraph of the preceding section, I have invoked the notion of permissibility. In application to human conduct, permissibility and wrongness are contradictories. Any type or instance of human conduct is permissible if and only if it is not wrong. Now, if some person X is permitted to perform some action q, then X is not obligated to not perform q. (To avoid ambiguities in my prose, my placement of “not” will create some ugly split infinitives at several junctures in this essay.) So much is clear, but we need here to take account of two ways in which someone can be morally obligated to φ. The germane distinction is between overtoppingly stringent and nonovertoppingly stringent moral obligations.2 An overtoppingly stringent moral requirement exceeds in importance all the moral duties that run counter to it, or is unopposed by any competing moral duties. A nonovertoppingly stringent moral requirement R does not exceed in importance all the moral duties that run counter to it. (Any competing moral requirements might be equal in importance to R, or they might exceed it in importance, or they might be insusceptible to any determinate comparisons with it because of problems of incommensurability.) With reference to these two broad types of obligations, we can apprehend two broad types of permissibility: Weak Permissibility. Some person X is permitted to perform some action q if and only if X is not under any overtoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q. X’s being weakly permitted to perform q is consistent with the proposition that X is under a nonovertoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q. In that respect, weak permissibility differs from strong permissibility. Strong Permissibility. X is permitted to perform q if and only if X is neither under an overtoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q nor under a nonovertoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q. X’s being strongly permitted to perform q is inconsistent with the proposition that X is under a nonovertoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q. Note that the proposition ‘X is strongly permitted to perform q’ entails the proposition ‘X is weakly permitted to perform q’, but not vice versa.3 Whenever this essay uses the term “permissible” or “permissibility” without any qualification, it is invoking the notion of permissibility in the strong sense. Consequently, the term “impermissible” is to be understood herein as ‘not strongly permissible’. That is, I take as given that an action q is impermissible for a person X unless X is not under any obligation whatsoever to not do q. For the purpose of gauging whether any type or instance of conduct is impermissible, this essay will not discriminate between situations in which someone is under an overtoppingly stringent obligation to eschew q and situations in which someone is only under a nonovertoppingly stringent obligation to eschew q. Precisely because my ascriptions of impermissibility will not discriminate between those two kinds of situations, this essay will contend that morally correct courses of action can be morally impermissible. If two moral duties clash, and if one exceeds the other in importance, then compliance with the former duty is a morally optimal but impermissible course of conduct. The moral optimality of such compliance will extenuate but not eliminate the breach of duty involved; it will therefore not eliminate the impermissibility of the compliant course of conduct. III. The Nature of Heartless Evil My central contention in this essay is that any problem of dirty hands is a moral conflict that involves the prospect of evil conduct. So far, we have glanced at the nature of moral conflicts. Let us now briefly ponder the nature of evil. As I have argued at length elsewhere (Kramer 2011, 187–223; 2014b), evil conduct is impelled by sadistic malice or heartlessness or extreme recklessness that is connected to severe harm in the absence of any significant extenuating circumstances. Most relevant to the present essay is evil conduct impelled by heartlessness. Whereas sadistic malice is a state of mind in which someone derives pleasure from the sheer fact of causing or witnessing other people’s adversities, heartlessness is a frame of mind in which someone’s lack of inhibitions about causing or witnessing other people’s adversities is due to his regarding their woes as instrumentally gratifying (rather than as inherently gratifying). Heartlessness is the frame of mind that characterizes a steely contract killer or hit man who murders his targets with ruthless efficiency while not deriving any sadistic relish from their deaths. Like a depravedly sadistic murderer, an icy contract killer shows disdain for the humanity and basic well-being of his victims. He interacts with the victims as if the only relevant consideration in his treatment of them were the satisfaction of his own wishes and needs. However, he wields his godlike power of life and death over them not because he experiences sadistic glee in response to their discomfiture, but simply because their deaths are the means of advancing his own ends. Their deaths do not elicit in him any sense of bloodthirsty elation, but they likewise do not cause him any consternation. In that respect, his attitude toward his extinguishing of human lives is similar to the feelings of an ordinary person about her own crushing of a plastic cup. Contemplating the deaths of his victims in abstraction from the consequences thereof, the contract killer would feel neither exhilaration nor dismay but instead blank indifference (Morton 2004, 59–60). Like a sadistic murderer, a cold-hearted contract killer wants to bring about the death of any person whom he has targeted. Were he to fail to bring about the death of such a person, and were he to know of the failure of his efforts, he would conclude that his principal objective in undertaking those efforts had not been realized. Similarly, a cold-hearted torturer seeks to induce excruciating pain in his victims. Were he to discover that one of those victims had not experienced anything more unpleasant than mild discomfort, he would conclude that his aim in subjecting that person to a certain type of treatment had not been accomplished. Even though the torturer might not harbor any sadistic impulses—that is, even though his demeanor might consist solely in stern unfeelingness rather than in sadistic zest—he resembles a sadist in that he endeavors deliberately to inflict agonizing pain on the people who are unfortunate enough to come under his control. When a heartless frame of mind is connected to the infliction of severe harms such as murder and torture, the actions which it underlies are evil. Like sadistic malice, such a frame of mind—connected to the infliction of those gross harms—is incompatible with an elementary regard for other people as rational agents and as creatures whose basic interests include the avoidance of intense pain and the undergoing of positive experiences. Again like sadistic malice, heartlessness is often engendered by the influence of noxious ideologies and bigotries such as Nazism, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and Communism (Glover 1999; Morton 2004, 79–80, 112; Staub 1989). People whose minds are in thrall to such odious ways of thinking will be inclined to view certain other people as subhuman and will thus tend to feel no sense of fellowship or sympathy toward them. Still, just as many acts of sadistic malice do not originate from people’s adherence to bigoted ideologies, so too many acts of heartlessness do not originate from such a source. An indurate personality can result from self-absorption as readily as from immersion in hate-mongering creeds. Most contract killers carry out their murders on the basis of relentless greed and self-devotion rather than on the basis of politically pregnant prejudices. Indeed, an arresting account of the role of self-absorption in the perpetration of heartless iniquities is to be found in Hannah Arendt’s book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. When discussing the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile mass-murder units that operated under the direction of the German SS, principally in Eastern Europe), Arendt wrote in part as follows: [T]he murderers were not sadists or killers by nature; on the contrary, a systematic effort was made to weed out all those who derived physical pleasure from what they did … . Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler—who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself—was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!4Arendt’s book in its broader themes can alert us to another important point about heartlessness in the commission of evil misdeeds. When heinous activities are performed under the auspices of a large organization such as a nation-state, numerous people are involved at varying levels of proximity and in varying capacities. Whether or not the knowingly involved people within the lowest ranks of an organization’s bureaucracy are behaving evilly, the people (such as Eichmann) who manage large-scale atrocities from the upper ranks are thereby perpetrating great evils. Among such people in their official capacities, heartlessness is a common frame of mind. Because they are not usually present at the bloodletting for which they issue general or specific orders, they can distance themselves mentally from the graphic horrors of what they are commanding. Moreover, by concentrating their attention on their own advancement within their organization (as Eichmann did), and perhaps also by cleaving to a noisome ideology that circulates throughout the organization, the upper-level administrators can steel themselves against any misgivings that might otherwise have beset them. Heartlessness among such people is fostered by the formality and antiseptic remoteness of the bureaucratic settings in which they work, and by the competitive infighting that prevails there. IV. Heartlessness with Some Qualms The preceding section may have conveyed the impression that the culpable attitude of heartlessness is an all-or-nothing property. In fact, however, no such impression has been intended. If a generally icy attitude of impassivity is mixed with a few small twinges of regret or sympathy, it is still a potentially evil frame of mind (Garrard 1998, 58). On the spectrum between a warmly solicitous demeanor and a thoroughgoing lack of benevolence, there reside a number of possible outlooks that are sufficiently close to the latter end of the spectrum to be properly classifiable as heartless. Such outlooks, if connected to terribly injurious attacks against other people, are evil notwithstanding that they contain small traces of misgivings. Consider, for example, Lady Macbeth. With chillingly ruthless importunity, she urges her husband to commit regicide against their supposedly honored guest Duncan. She unflinchingly overcomes Macbeth’s reservations with her insults and impassioned exhortations. Having implored the forces of darkness to “[m]ake thick my blood, [s]top up th’ access and passage to remorse, [t]hat no compunctious visitings of nature [s]hake my fell purpose,” she famously announces to her husband the implacably fierce resoluteness of her evil ambition: “I have given suck, and know [h]ow tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face, [h]ave pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, [a]nd dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you [h]ave done to [the murder of Duncan]” (Macbeth, I.v.43–46; I.vii.54–59). Ferocious though these utterances are, Lady Macbeth later fleetingly reveals that she has not been entirely successful in ridding herself of compunctions. While waiting for Macbeth to return from his slaying of Duncan, she fears that he may have botched the endeavor, and she wishes that she had performed the task on her own. She feels a need to justify to herself her decision to entrust her husband with the enterprise of regicide: “Had [Duncan] not resembled [m]y father as he slept, I had done’t” (Macbeth, II.ii.12–13). Having acknowledged this vestige of sympathy that remains in her soul, she straightaway resumes her stance of murderously unremitting ambition. When Macbeth comes back from his assassination of Duncan, he looks down at his bloody hands and exclaims: “This is a sorry sight.” Lady Macbeth retorts with heartless vehemence: “A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight” (Macbeth, II.ii.18–19). Lady Macbeth’s conduct in goading her husband to murder their royal guest is evil irrespective of the fact that her generally unwavering sternness is tinged by a few small streaks of humaneness. Her demeanor is heartless despite those passing scruples, and its connection to a horrific crime renders it deeply wicked. In the case of Lady Macbeth, as in numerous other cases, ruthless callousness that falls somewhat short of completely unalloyed callousness is potently productive of wicked deeds. These reflections can shed light on a question that has received attention from some of the other philosophers who have addressed the topic of evil: namely, the question whether the distinction between evil conduct and merely wrong conduct is qualitative or quantitative (de Wijze 2002; Garrard 1998; Garrard 2002; Russell 2007; Steiner 2002). That point of controversy now appears to be rather misleading. Though the question is normally taken to be posing mutually exclusive alternatives, the only tenable position on the matter is that the distinction between evil actions and merely wrong actions is both qualitative and quantitative. On the one hand, the category of evil actions is qualitatively distinct from the category of merely wrong actions, because the modes of culpability that underlie the respective actions are divergent. Every instance of evil conduct is underlain by sadistic malice, heartlessness, or extreme recklessness, whereas not every instance of merely wrong conduct is underlain by one of those modes of culpability. Some wrongs are nonculpable, and many culpable wrongs are simply negligent. Of course, the category of mere wrongs does also include instances of conduct that are sadistically malicious, heartless, or recklessly indifferent. However, because that category further comprises all instances of conduct that are negligent and some instances of conduct that are nonculpable, it is qualitatively distinct from the category of evil conduct. On the other hand, as should now be evident, the modes of culpability that disjunctively underlie evil actions are themselves vague properties (in the technical philosophical sense of being embeddable in sorites paradoxes).5 That is, each of them is differentiated from a more benign type of outlook through a series of fine gradations, and no gradation is a talismanic point of transition between the benign type and the potentially evil type. For the present discussion, the relevant spectrum lies between the property of benevolence and the property of heartlessness. Though the contrast between those two properties is starkly qualitative, it is also quantitative; each property shades into the other through an indeterminate region of borderline cases. There is no magical point of transformation at which the trait of benevolence has abruptly flipped into being the trait of heartlessness, or vice versa. One brief twinge of sympathy or regret does not convert an attitude of overall heartlessness into an attitude of solicitude, nor do two brief twinges produce such an effect; and so on. Yet, although there is no precise tipping point, a spectrum of minute quantitative gradations does lie between benevolence and heartlessness. Hence, the stark qualitative contrast between them is also a quantitative contrast (like the contrast between day and night, which shade into each other through the indeterminate regions of dawn and dusk). Qualitative differences between vague properties are constituted by quantitative spectra. Thus, the distinctiveness of evil conduct vis-à-vis merely wrong conduct is neither solely qualitative nor solely quantitative but both qualitative and quantitative. V. Moral Conflicts without Evil Many moral conflicts do not involve the prospect of evil conduct. Though wrongdoing is unavoidable in any such conflict, the gravity of a person’s chosen course of conduct in such a situation can fall short of any level that is pertinently classifiable as evil. Consider the following scenario. In return for a payment, Jeremy has promised Susan that he will be present at some particular location L on a certain day during a certain stretch of time. Again in return for a payment, he subsequently promises Melanie that he will be absent from L on the specified day during the specified time. (Melanie fears that his presence at L would gravely upset someone else who is scheduled to be there.) Each of the promisees has made costly arrangements in reliance on the undertaking that has been received, and neither of them has any grounds for knowing of the promise made to the other. Perhaps Jeremy himself has forgotten about his first promise by the time he encounters Melanie, or perhaps he is craftily and greedily engaging in double-dealing. Whatever may lie behind his delivery of conflicting assurances, he is now under conflicting obligations to Susan and Melanie. Inevitably, of course, Jeremy will breach one of those two conflicting obligations. Either he will be present at L during the specified span of time, or he will not. Accordingly, regardless of how he acts, he will incur an additional obligation to remedy his breach of a moral duty (most likely through an apology and the payment of compensation). In the circumstances depicted, however, such an outcome is perfectly fair to all parties concerned. Especially given the absence of any mitigating factors, Jeremy is morally required to live up to the burden of dealing with the quandary in which he has placed himself. His moral agency is not at all compromised by his being required to undo the injurious effects of his bungling or chicanery on an innocent promisee. Were he not to do anything to remedy his breach of one of his promises, either Susan or Melanie would be treated with gross unfairness. We can thus conclude that Jeremy has been morally obligated to be present at L during the relevant span of time and morally obligated not to be present at L during that span. Although Jeremy’s predicament is a straightforward instance of a moral conflict, it is not a situation that involves any prospect of evil. A breach of his promise to Melanie or to Susan will clearly be wrong and will thus give rise to some remedial obligations on his part, but the harm inflicted will not be at a level that renders the breach evil. Even if the contravention of the promise were undertaken for a purpose less mitigatingly benign than an effort to fulfill a conflicting promissory duty, it would not be an instance of evil. Hence, there is no prospect of evil conduct in the moral conflict with which Jeremy is faced. Of course, the scenario could be amplified to include features that would introduce such a prospect. Suppose for example that Susan is a low-income person who has devoted nearly all her savings to defraying the costs of the preparations for Jeremy’s visit (which she reasonably expects to be highly profitable for her), and suppose that Jeremy reneges on his promise to her because he wishes to experience sadistic gratification from knowing that her expenditure of her hard-earned funds has been to no avail. In that event, his violation of his promise is a low-grade instance of evil. However, the point of this section has obviously not been to deny that numerous moral conflicts involve the prospect or actuality of evil conduct. Rather, the point has simply been to note that many moral conflicts—especially those that occur in everyday life—do not involve such a prospect. VI. A Problem of Dirty Hands In the final paragraph of the preceding section, we briefly pondered a moral conflict in which the chosen course of conduct is evil. However, that moral conflict is not a situation of dirty hands—because the evil course of conduct is sadistically chosen for its own sake rather than out of a desire to fulfill some pressing moral duty. Let us now consider quite a different moral conflict, where an agonizing decision to inflict grievous harm is reached for the sake of fulfilling an especially pressing moral duty. In the summer of 1945, President Harry Truman of the United States approved the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Although I believe that my account of the circumstances of his decision is historically accurate, nothing here hinges on its accuracy. Anyone who disagrees with me about the historical facts can take the scenario in this paragraph to be a sheer thought-experiment.) In light of the truculent determination of the Japanese War Cabinet to continue fighting, President Truman was confronted with a choice between undertaking an invasion of the Japanese mainland and dropping the atomic bombs. No mere demonstration of the power of the new weapon through the dropping of an atomic bomb on an uninhabited island in the presence of Japanese witnesses would have sufficed to obviate an invasion of the mainland. That is, no such demonstration would have induced the War Cabinet to desist from full-scale hostilities. Had an invasion of the Japanese mainland taken place, several million people—Allied soldiers, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese civilians—would have perished. Thus, given the circumstances, and given that a surrender by the Allies to the Japanese would have been morally the worst of all the feasible outcomes, Truman had to decide between two repellent options: (1) killing as many as 200,000 Japanese civilians by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and (2) launching an invasion of Japan that would have resulted in the deaths of vastly more Japanese civilians and Allied soldiers and Japanese soldiers. With the circumstances as they were, and with the responsibilities of his office incumbent upon him, Truman was under a moral duty to drop the bombs and under a moral duty not to drop them. He could not avoid committing a serious wrong. On the one hand, although the decision to drop the atomic bombs was in violation of a moral duty and was therefore wrong, it was not evil. Indeed, because it was reached and implemented in order to fulfill an even more pressing moral duty, it was morally the best thing to do in the dire situation. While Truman’s breach of his moral duty-not-to-drop-the-bombs gave rise to countless remedial obligations, the gravity of his wrong was heavily mitigated by the role of his decision in averting an even worse moral catastrophe. The concept of evil is not applicable to his breach. On the other hand, had Truman deliberately ordered the slaying of tens of thousands of people in circumstances where he was not fulfilling any major moral obligation by so doing, his conduct would have been profoundly evil. After all, his conduct—though doubtless undertaken with compunctions—was heartless in that he steeled himself to set in train the intentional annihilation of many tens of thousands of civilians. Given that the heartless frame of mind was connected to the production of severe harm on a massive scale, the conduct underlain by the heartlessness would have been a paradigmatic instance of wickedness in the absence of any mitigating factors. By contrast, in the presence of the mitigating factors that bore on Truman’s decision, his conduct was not wicked (even though it involved the commission of serious moral wrongs). In sum, the example of Truman’s momentous course of action serves to underscore the importance of extenuative considerations within any account of evil. In the presence of such considerations that are of sufficient moral weight, wrongs that would otherwise have been evil are lessened in their gravity to the status of mere wrongs (albeit serious wrongs). In the presence of extenuative factors that are of sufficient moral weight, a wrong does not partake of the contemptuous attitude—a contemptuous attitude toward some other human being(s) as properly subject to destruction or severe harm for one’s own nefarious purposes—that lies at the heart of evil. Still, although the decision to drop the atomic bombs was not wicked, it would have been deeply wicked outside the dire moral conflict in which Truman had to act. Consequently, that moral conflict did involve the prospect of evil conduct. Moreover, the conduct that would in any ordinary circumstances have been deeply evil was adopted for the sake of fulfilling an especially stringent set of moral responsibilities. Hence, the moral conflict in which Truman had to act was a situation of dirty hands. VII. No Genuine Conflict In the terrible plight that formed the context of Truman’s decision, the negative features and the positive features of his course of action were not constitutively inseparable. Instead, those features were causally linked. When the morally contrasting elements of a course of action are indeed co-occurrent (and causally connected) rather than constitutively inseparable, the situation comprising them can amount to a genuine moral conflict and a problem of dirty hands. Such a dilemma is crucially different from a situation in which the vile aspects of a policy are constitutively inseparable from the ostensibly laudable aspects thereof. Let us mull over a situation of the latter kind. Suppose that the leaders of a repressive autocracy deem their crowded country to be overpopulated.6 They therefore resolve to perpetrate genocide in a certain region of the country in order to free up space for the hordes of citizens who live in other regions. Now, although the objective of relieving the pressures of overpopulation might be morally worthy in the abstract, this concrete way of pursuing such an objective is iniquitous. Even if the leaders who order the genocide and the officials who implement it do feel some reservations about their butcherous course of action, they are heartless in that they go ahead with that course of action despite the overwhelming moral reasons against it. Like Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, they proceed with hearts hardened against the compelling considerations that militate unequivocally in favor of their desisting. Eve Garrard (1998, 49–58) has adroitly delineated the nature of the evil in a situation of this sort. She maintains that the perpetrator of an evil act “silences [in his own mind] the reasons against doing the act, which reasons are themselves metaphysical silencers, and where the agent’s reasons for doing the act are members of the class of considerations which are in this case metaphysically silenced” (Garrard 1998, 55). When Garrard refers to metaphysical silencing, she means that certain “considerations … ceas[e] to be [moral] reasons in the presence of certain kinds of contrary requirements” (Garrard 1998, 52). In other words, a factor that typically is endowed with some positive moral weight will be devoid of any such weight—and will therefore not be a veritable moral reason at all—in any context where it is constitutively connected to the perpetration of some atrocity. In such a context, the metaphysically silenced factor is not to be treated as a favorable element that should get balanced against the appalling features of the atrocity in some peculiar cost/benefit analysis. Given that a metaphysically silenced factor is deprived of all moral force, it should count for nothing in any such analysis. In the scenario of the repressive autocracy, the iniquitous aspect of the autocracy’s policy for dealing with the perceived problem of overpopulation is constitutive of the policy’s beneficial aspect. That perceived problem has been addressed only because there are fewer people at the end of the implementation of the policy, and there are fewer people at that juncture only because a myriad of other people have been butchered. Neither of the two instances of “because” in the preceding sentence denotes an instrumental-causal relationship. Rather, each of them denotes a constitutive relationship. The fact that the problem has been addressed is constituted by the fact that the people have been butchered. Let us designate the former fact as “F2” and the latter as “F1.” In that event, F1 amounts to F2. That is, in combination with all the prevailing circumstances other than any causal laws, F1 logically entails F2.7 Because those two facts are inseparable in this fashion, the seemingly salutary effects and the iniquitous effects of the autocracy’s population-control policy cannot correctly be balanced against each other as if some good results and some horrific results have simply occurred in tandem. Instead, the seemingly good results have occurred only because they are constituted by the occurrence of the horrific results (in the sense just indicated). Consequently, there is no room for the purportedly benign aspect of the policy to possess an independent moral status—a favorable moral status—by reference to which we can weigh that aspect against the policy’s horrendous features. As Garrard suggests, that putatively benign aspect has been deprived of all reason-giving force by its unity with the horrendous features. It has been metaphysically silenced. Hence, if the leaders of the repressive autocracy pursue their program of space-clearing genocide, they are acting on the basis of an objective that has been metaphysically silenced by its inseparability from the overwhelming considerations against the pursuit of such a program. Heartlessly undissuaded by those considerations, the autocrats seek an ostensibly worthy objective that in fact is devoid of any positive moral weight. Their policy of genocide is deeply evil, as they inflict grievous harm for the sake of that thoroughly vitiated objective. Their policy is not a matter of dirty hands; rather, it is unqualifiedly wicked. VIII. A Terse Conclusion In short, a problem of dirty hands is a moral conflict in which a highly unpalatable course of conduct is chosen for the sake of fulfilling a stringent moral duty, and in which either the chosen course of conduct is evil or else it would have been evil in the absence of the exigent circumstances to which it is a response. With this conception of problems of dirty hands, we can differentiate such problems from other types of situations to which they bear some resemblances. A moral conflict is not a problem of dirty hands if the conduct chosen in response thereto is not appropriately classifiable as wicked even when it is assessed in isolation from the mitigating effects of the conflict that has led to it. Nor is a moral conflict a problem of dirty hands if the person confronted by it elects a course of conduct out of sadism—since that course of conduct has been adopted not for the sake of fulfilling a stringent moral duty but instead for its own sake. Furthermore, the notion of dirty hands is not applicable to a situation in which the rebarbative aspects and the ostensibly benign aspects of some policy are constitutively indisseverable. A situation of that sort is not a moral conflict; the only relevant moral duty is a duty to abstain from the rebarbative policy. Thus, although the boundaries between problems of dirty hands and other types of cruxes are vague, we can meaningfully postulate such boundaries. Notes 1 The variable ‘φ’ can stand for any verb(s) or verb phrase(s), denoting any action(s) or omission(s). 2 See Kramer 2004, 280–81. Although the term “overriding” is much more common than “overtopping” in discussions of these matters, I disfavor the former term because it conveys the impression that a less important duty is eliminated or canceled in any conflict with a more important duty. 3 Michael Moore has also posed a distinction between weak permissions and strong permissions (Moore 2007, 42–44), but his distinction is markedly different from mine. Likewise very different from my own distinction is the weak-permission/strong-permission contrast drawn half a century ago by G.H. von Wright (1963, 86). In the text here and elsewhere, I am invoking only my own weak/strong dichotomy. Although I have expounded that dichotomy here with reference to actions, it is equally applicable—mutatis mutandis—to omissions. 4 Arendt 1963, 105–106. A portion of this passage is quoted (for a slightly different though related purpose) in Morton (2004, 80, 113–14). 5 I discuss vagueness at some length—with citations to the relevant philosophical literature—in Kramer (2007, 36–37, 70; 2009, 109–13, 260–61). 6 In Kramer (2004, 241–43), I discuss some similar examples for a different purpose. 7 I have expounded this understanding of constitutive relationships in Kramer (2003, 280). REFERENCES Arendt Hannah 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil , Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. de Wijze Stephen 2002. “Defining Evil: Insights from the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands’,” The Monist  85: 210– 38. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Garrard Eve 1998. “The Nature of Evil,” Philosophical Explorations  1: 43– 60. 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Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kramer Matthew H.. 2014b. “The Nature of Evil,” American Journal of Jurisprudence  59: 49– 84. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kramer Matthew H.. 2016. “Moral Conflicts, the ‘Ought Implies Can’ Principle, and Moral Demandingness,” in van Ackeren Marcel, Kühler Michael, eds., The Limits of Moral Obligation , London: Routledge, 163– 84. Moore Michael 2007. “Patrolling the Borders of Consequentialist Justifications: The Scope of Agent-Relative Restrictions,” Law and Philosophy  27: 35– 96. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Morton Adam 2004. On Evil , London: Routledge. Russell Luke 2007. “Is Evil Action Qualitatively Distinct from Ordinary Wrongdoing?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy  85: 659– 77. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Staub Ervin 1989. The Roots of Evil , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Steiner Hillel 2002. “Calibrating Evil,” The Monist  85: 183– 93. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Von Wright G.H. 1963. Norm and Action , London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. © The Author(s), 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Monist Oxford University Press

Problems of Dirty Hands As a Species of Moral Conflicts

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Abstract

Abstract Every problem of dirty hands is a moral conflict in which a highly unpalatable course of conduct is chosen for the sake of fulfilling a stringent moral duty, and in which either the chosen course of conduct is evil or else it would have been evil in the absence of the exigent circumstances to which it is a response. To support this conception of problems of dirty hands, this paper endeavors to elucidate the nature of moral conflicts and the nature of evil. Every problem of dirty hands is a moral conflict, but not every moral conflict is a problem of dirty hands. Every problem of dirty hands involves the prospect of evil conduct—conduct which will be evil if undertaken at all or which would be evil if undertaken in the absence of a searing moral dilemma—whereas not every moral conflict involves the prospect of evil conduct. To support and clarify the claims in the preceding two sentences, this paper will need to elucidate the nature of moral conflicts and the nature of evil. I. Moral Conflicts This essay generally takes a moral conflict to be a situation in which some person P is under a moral duty-to-φ and simultaneously under a moral duty-not-to-φ.1 However, in line with most other philosophers who write on these issues, I also apply the phrase ‘moral conflict’ to any situation in which P simultaneously bears moral duties whose contents are contraries rather than contradictories. A situation of the latter sort obtains when P is under a duty to do x and simultaneously under a duty to do y, where (1) ‘P does x’ entails the negation of ‘P does y’ and (2) ‘P does y’ entails the negation of ‘P does x’ and (3) the negation of ‘P does x’ is logically consistent with the negation of ‘P does y’. Though the clashing duties within a moral conflict can perfectly well coexist, they can never be jointly fulfilled; the fulfillment of either of them entails the nonfulfillment of the other. Quite a few philosophers over the centuries have raised queries about the possibility of genuine moral conflicts. I have elsewhere addressed their sundry queries at length (Kramer 2014a, 11–19; 2016). Instead of taking up those points of contention afresh, we should here simply note two main aspects of moral conflicts. First, when moral duties are in conflict with each other, neither of them is canceled or suspended. Because each duty in a moral conflict persists, and because only one such duty can be fulfilled, the remaining duty will have been contravened. The contravention of that remaining duty gives rise to some remedial obligation(s). Regardless of how someone faced with a moral conflict has chosen to behave in response to it, then, she will have incurred a moral obligation to rectify her breach of the duty which she has transgressed. Second, in a typical moral conflict, the duties that clash with each other are of unequal stringency. That is, the contravention of one of those duties would be more gravely wrong than the contravention of the other. In any situation where the duties in a moral conflict are indeed of unequal stringency, the uniquely correct response to the conflict is to fulfill the more stringent duty. Of course, as should be evident, the term “correct” here does not denote permissibility. Within a moral conflict, no morally permissible course of conduct is available. Nonetheless, although the uniquely correct mode of conduct in such circumstances is itself morally wrong—and although the adoption of that mode of conduct will therefore give rise to remedial obligations—it is indeed uniquely correct in that the nonadoption of it would be an even more serious wrong. Any applicable moral principles determinately prescribe the mode of conduct that is to be undertaken as the best way (the least bad way) of dealing with the quandary which such a moral conflict presents. II. Two Types of Permissibility In the final paragraph of the preceding section, I have invoked the notion of permissibility. In application to human conduct, permissibility and wrongness are contradictories. Any type or instance of human conduct is permissible if and only if it is not wrong. Now, if some person X is permitted to perform some action q, then X is not obligated to not perform q. (To avoid ambiguities in my prose, my placement of “not” will create some ugly split infinitives at several junctures in this essay.) So much is clear, but we need here to take account of two ways in which someone can be morally obligated to φ. The germane distinction is between overtoppingly stringent and nonovertoppingly stringent moral obligations.2 An overtoppingly stringent moral requirement exceeds in importance all the moral duties that run counter to it, or is unopposed by any competing moral duties. A nonovertoppingly stringent moral requirement R does not exceed in importance all the moral duties that run counter to it. (Any competing moral requirements might be equal in importance to R, or they might exceed it in importance, or they might be insusceptible to any determinate comparisons with it because of problems of incommensurability.) With reference to these two broad types of obligations, we can apprehend two broad types of permissibility: Weak Permissibility. Some person X is permitted to perform some action q if and only if X is not under any overtoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q. X’s being weakly permitted to perform q is consistent with the proposition that X is under a nonovertoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q. In that respect, weak permissibility differs from strong permissibility. Strong Permissibility. X is permitted to perform q if and only if X is neither under an overtoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q nor under a nonovertoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q. X’s being strongly permitted to perform q is inconsistent with the proposition that X is under a nonovertoppingly stringent obligation to not perform q. Note that the proposition ‘X is strongly permitted to perform q’ entails the proposition ‘X is weakly permitted to perform q’, but not vice versa.3 Whenever this essay uses the term “permissible” or “permissibility” without any qualification, it is invoking the notion of permissibility in the strong sense. Consequently, the term “impermissible” is to be understood herein as ‘not strongly permissible’. That is, I take as given that an action q is impermissible for a person X unless X is not under any obligation whatsoever to not do q. For the purpose of gauging whether any type or instance of conduct is impermissible, this essay will not discriminate between situations in which someone is under an overtoppingly stringent obligation to eschew q and situations in which someone is only under a nonovertoppingly stringent obligation to eschew q. Precisely because my ascriptions of impermissibility will not discriminate between those two kinds of situations, this essay will contend that morally correct courses of action can be morally impermissible. If two moral duties clash, and if one exceeds the other in importance, then compliance with the former duty is a morally optimal but impermissible course of conduct. The moral optimality of such compliance will extenuate but not eliminate the breach of duty involved; it will therefore not eliminate the impermissibility of the compliant course of conduct. III. The Nature of Heartless Evil My central contention in this essay is that any problem of dirty hands is a moral conflict that involves the prospect of evil conduct. So far, we have glanced at the nature of moral conflicts. Let us now briefly ponder the nature of evil. As I have argued at length elsewhere (Kramer 2011, 187–223; 2014b), evil conduct is impelled by sadistic malice or heartlessness or extreme recklessness that is connected to severe harm in the absence of any significant extenuating circumstances. Most relevant to the present essay is evil conduct impelled by heartlessness. Whereas sadistic malice is a state of mind in which someone derives pleasure from the sheer fact of causing or witnessing other people’s adversities, heartlessness is a frame of mind in which someone’s lack of inhibitions about causing or witnessing other people’s adversities is due to his regarding their woes as instrumentally gratifying (rather than as inherently gratifying). Heartlessness is the frame of mind that characterizes a steely contract killer or hit man who murders his targets with ruthless efficiency while not deriving any sadistic relish from their deaths. Like a depravedly sadistic murderer, an icy contract killer shows disdain for the humanity and basic well-being of his victims. He interacts with the victims as if the only relevant consideration in his treatment of them were the satisfaction of his own wishes and needs. However, he wields his godlike power of life and death over them not because he experiences sadistic glee in response to their discomfiture, but simply because their deaths are the means of advancing his own ends. Their deaths do not elicit in him any sense of bloodthirsty elation, but they likewise do not cause him any consternation. In that respect, his attitude toward his extinguishing of human lives is similar to the feelings of an ordinary person about her own crushing of a plastic cup. Contemplating the deaths of his victims in abstraction from the consequences thereof, the contract killer would feel neither exhilaration nor dismay but instead blank indifference (Morton 2004, 59–60). Like a sadistic murderer, a cold-hearted contract killer wants to bring about the death of any person whom he has targeted. Were he to fail to bring about the death of such a person, and were he to know of the failure of his efforts, he would conclude that his principal objective in undertaking those efforts had not been realized. Similarly, a cold-hearted torturer seeks to induce excruciating pain in his victims. Were he to discover that one of those victims had not experienced anything more unpleasant than mild discomfort, he would conclude that his aim in subjecting that person to a certain type of treatment had not been accomplished. Even though the torturer might not harbor any sadistic impulses—that is, even though his demeanor might consist solely in stern unfeelingness rather than in sadistic zest—he resembles a sadist in that he endeavors deliberately to inflict agonizing pain on the people who are unfortunate enough to come under his control. When a heartless frame of mind is connected to the infliction of severe harms such as murder and torture, the actions which it underlies are evil. Like sadistic malice, such a frame of mind—connected to the infliction of those gross harms—is incompatible with an elementary regard for other people as rational agents and as creatures whose basic interests include the avoidance of intense pain and the undergoing of positive experiences. Again like sadistic malice, heartlessness is often engendered by the influence of noxious ideologies and bigotries such as Nazism, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and Communism (Glover 1999; Morton 2004, 79–80, 112; Staub 1989). People whose minds are in thrall to such odious ways of thinking will be inclined to view certain other people as subhuman and will thus tend to feel no sense of fellowship or sympathy toward them. Still, just as many acts of sadistic malice do not originate from people’s adherence to bigoted ideologies, so too many acts of heartlessness do not originate from such a source. An indurate personality can result from self-absorption as readily as from immersion in hate-mongering creeds. Most contract killers carry out their murders on the basis of relentless greed and self-devotion rather than on the basis of politically pregnant prejudices. Indeed, an arresting account of the role of self-absorption in the perpetration of heartless iniquities is to be found in Hannah Arendt’s book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. When discussing the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile mass-murder units that operated under the direction of the German SS, principally in Eastern Europe), Arendt wrote in part as follows: [T]he murderers were not sadists or killers by nature; on the contrary, a systematic effort was made to weed out all those who derived physical pleasure from what they did … . Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler—who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself—was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!4Arendt’s book in its broader themes can alert us to another important point about heartlessness in the commission of evil misdeeds. When heinous activities are performed under the auspices of a large organization such as a nation-state, numerous people are involved at varying levels of proximity and in varying capacities. Whether or not the knowingly involved people within the lowest ranks of an organization’s bureaucracy are behaving evilly, the people (such as Eichmann) who manage large-scale atrocities from the upper ranks are thereby perpetrating great evils. Among such people in their official capacities, heartlessness is a common frame of mind. Because they are not usually present at the bloodletting for which they issue general or specific orders, they can distance themselves mentally from the graphic horrors of what they are commanding. Moreover, by concentrating their attention on their own advancement within their organization (as Eichmann did), and perhaps also by cleaving to a noisome ideology that circulates throughout the organization, the upper-level administrators can steel themselves against any misgivings that might otherwise have beset them. Heartlessness among such people is fostered by the formality and antiseptic remoteness of the bureaucratic settings in which they work, and by the competitive infighting that prevails there. IV. Heartlessness with Some Qualms The preceding section may have conveyed the impression that the culpable attitude of heartlessness is an all-or-nothing property. In fact, however, no such impression has been intended. If a generally icy attitude of impassivity is mixed with a few small twinges of regret or sympathy, it is still a potentially evil frame of mind (Garrard 1998, 58). On the spectrum between a warmly solicitous demeanor and a thoroughgoing lack of benevolence, there reside a number of possible outlooks that are sufficiently close to the latter end of the spectrum to be properly classifiable as heartless. Such outlooks, if connected to terribly injurious attacks against other people, are evil notwithstanding that they contain small traces of misgivings. Consider, for example, Lady Macbeth. With chillingly ruthless importunity, she urges her husband to commit regicide against their supposedly honored guest Duncan. She unflinchingly overcomes Macbeth’s reservations with her insults and impassioned exhortations. Having implored the forces of darkness to “[m]ake thick my blood, [s]top up th’ access and passage to remorse, [t]hat no compunctious visitings of nature [s]hake my fell purpose,” she famously announces to her husband the implacably fierce resoluteness of her evil ambition: “I have given suck, and know [h]ow tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face, [h]ave pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, [a]nd dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you [h]ave done to [the murder of Duncan]” (Macbeth, I.v.43–46; I.vii.54–59). Ferocious though these utterances are, Lady Macbeth later fleetingly reveals that she has not been entirely successful in ridding herself of compunctions. While waiting for Macbeth to return from his slaying of Duncan, she fears that he may have botched the endeavor, and she wishes that she had performed the task on her own. She feels a need to justify to herself her decision to entrust her husband with the enterprise of regicide: “Had [Duncan] not resembled [m]y father as he slept, I had done’t” (Macbeth, II.ii.12–13). Having acknowledged this vestige of sympathy that remains in her soul, she straightaway resumes her stance of murderously unremitting ambition. When Macbeth comes back from his assassination of Duncan, he looks down at his bloody hands and exclaims: “This is a sorry sight.” Lady Macbeth retorts with heartless vehemence: “A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight” (Macbeth, II.ii.18–19). Lady Macbeth’s conduct in goading her husband to murder their royal guest is evil irrespective of the fact that her generally unwavering sternness is tinged by a few small streaks of humaneness. Her demeanor is heartless despite those passing scruples, and its connection to a horrific crime renders it deeply wicked. In the case of Lady Macbeth, as in numerous other cases, ruthless callousness that falls somewhat short of completely unalloyed callousness is potently productive of wicked deeds. These reflections can shed light on a question that has received attention from some of the other philosophers who have addressed the topic of evil: namely, the question whether the distinction between evil conduct and merely wrong conduct is qualitative or quantitative (de Wijze 2002; Garrard 1998; Garrard 2002; Russell 2007; Steiner 2002). That point of controversy now appears to be rather misleading. Though the question is normally taken to be posing mutually exclusive alternatives, the only tenable position on the matter is that the distinction between evil actions and merely wrong actions is both qualitative and quantitative. On the one hand, the category of evil actions is qualitatively distinct from the category of merely wrong actions, because the modes of culpability that underlie the respective actions are divergent. Every instance of evil conduct is underlain by sadistic malice, heartlessness, or extreme recklessness, whereas not every instance of merely wrong conduct is underlain by one of those modes of culpability. Some wrongs are nonculpable, and many culpable wrongs are simply negligent. Of course, the category of mere wrongs does also include instances of conduct that are sadistically malicious, heartless, or recklessly indifferent. However, because that category further comprises all instances of conduct that are negligent and some instances of conduct that are nonculpable, it is qualitatively distinct from the category of evil conduct. On the other hand, as should now be evident, the modes of culpability that disjunctively underlie evil actions are themselves vague properties (in the technical philosophical sense of being embeddable in sorites paradoxes).5 That is, each of them is differentiated from a more benign type of outlook through a series of fine gradations, and no gradation is a talismanic point of transition between the benign type and the potentially evil type. For the present discussion, the relevant spectrum lies between the property of benevolence and the property of heartlessness. Though the contrast between those two properties is starkly qualitative, it is also quantitative; each property shades into the other through an indeterminate region of borderline cases. There is no magical point of transformation at which the trait of benevolence has abruptly flipped into being the trait of heartlessness, or vice versa. One brief twinge of sympathy or regret does not convert an attitude of overall heartlessness into an attitude of solicitude, nor do two brief twinges produce such an effect; and so on. Yet, although there is no precise tipping point, a spectrum of minute quantitative gradations does lie between benevolence and heartlessness. Hence, the stark qualitative contrast between them is also a quantitative contrast (like the contrast between day and night, which shade into each other through the indeterminate regions of dawn and dusk). Qualitative differences between vague properties are constituted by quantitative spectra. Thus, the distinctiveness of evil conduct vis-à-vis merely wrong conduct is neither solely qualitative nor solely quantitative but both qualitative and quantitative. V. Moral Conflicts without Evil Many moral conflicts do not involve the prospect of evil conduct. Though wrongdoing is unavoidable in any such conflict, the gravity of a person’s chosen course of conduct in such a situation can fall short of any level that is pertinently classifiable as evil. Consider the following scenario. In return for a payment, Jeremy has promised Susan that he will be present at some particular location L on a certain day during a certain stretch of time. Again in return for a payment, he subsequently promises Melanie that he will be absent from L on the specified day during the specified time. (Melanie fears that his presence at L would gravely upset someone else who is scheduled to be there.) Each of the promisees has made costly arrangements in reliance on the undertaking that has been received, and neither of them has any grounds for knowing of the promise made to the other. Perhaps Jeremy himself has forgotten about his first promise by the time he encounters Melanie, or perhaps he is craftily and greedily engaging in double-dealing. Whatever may lie behind his delivery of conflicting assurances, he is now under conflicting obligations to Susan and Melanie. Inevitably, of course, Jeremy will breach one of those two conflicting obligations. Either he will be present at L during the specified span of time, or he will not. Accordingly, regardless of how he acts, he will incur an additional obligation to remedy his breach of a moral duty (most likely through an apology and the payment of compensation). In the circumstances depicted, however, such an outcome is perfectly fair to all parties concerned. Especially given the absence of any mitigating factors, Jeremy is morally required to live up to the burden of dealing with the quandary in which he has placed himself. His moral agency is not at all compromised by his being required to undo the injurious effects of his bungling or chicanery on an innocent promisee. Were he not to do anything to remedy his breach of one of his promises, either Susan or Melanie would be treated with gross unfairness. We can thus conclude that Jeremy has been morally obligated to be present at L during the relevant span of time and morally obligated not to be present at L during that span. Although Jeremy’s predicament is a straightforward instance of a moral conflict, it is not a situation that involves any prospect of evil. A breach of his promise to Melanie or to Susan will clearly be wrong and will thus give rise to some remedial obligations on his part, but the harm inflicted will not be at a level that renders the breach evil. Even if the contravention of the promise were undertaken for a purpose less mitigatingly benign than an effort to fulfill a conflicting promissory duty, it would not be an instance of evil. Hence, there is no prospect of evil conduct in the moral conflict with which Jeremy is faced. Of course, the scenario could be amplified to include features that would introduce such a prospect. Suppose for example that Susan is a low-income person who has devoted nearly all her savings to defraying the costs of the preparations for Jeremy’s visit (which she reasonably expects to be highly profitable for her), and suppose that Jeremy reneges on his promise to her because he wishes to experience sadistic gratification from knowing that her expenditure of her hard-earned funds has been to no avail. In that event, his violation of his promise is a low-grade instance of evil. However, the point of this section has obviously not been to deny that numerous moral conflicts involve the prospect or actuality of evil conduct. Rather, the point has simply been to note that many moral conflicts—especially those that occur in everyday life—do not involve such a prospect. VI. A Problem of Dirty Hands In the final paragraph of the preceding section, we briefly pondered a moral conflict in which the chosen course of conduct is evil. However, that moral conflict is not a situation of dirty hands—because the evil course of conduct is sadistically chosen for its own sake rather than out of a desire to fulfill some pressing moral duty. Let us now consider quite a different moral conflict, where an agonizing decision to inflict grievous harm is reached for the sake of fulfilling an especially pressing moral duty. In the summer of 1945, President Harry Truman of the United States approved the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Although I believe that my account of the circumstances of his decision is historically accurate, nothing here hinges on its accuracy. Anyone who disagrees with me about the historical facts can take the scenario in this paragraph to be a sheer thought-experiment.) In light of the truculent determination of the Japanese War Cabinet to continue fighting, President Truman was confronted with a choice between undertaking an invasion of the Japanese mainland and dropping the atomic bombs. No mere demonstration of the power of the new weapon through the dropping of an atomic bomb on an uninhabited island in the presence of Japanese witnesses would have sufficed to obviate an invasion of the mainland. That is, no such demonstration would have induced the War Cabinet to desist from full-scale hostilities. Had an invasion of the Japanese mainland taken place, several million people—Allied soldiers, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese civilians—would have perished. Thus, given the circumstances, and given that a surrender by the Allies to the Japanese would have been morally the worst of all the feasible outcomes, Truman had to decide between two repellent options: (1) killing as many as 200,000 Japanese civilians by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and (2) launching an invasion of Japan that would have resulted in the deaths of vastly more Japanese civilians and Allied soldiers and Japanese soldiers. With the circumstances as they were, and with the responsibilities of his office incumbent upon him, Truman was under a moral duty to drop the bombs and under a moral duty not to drop them. He could not avoid committing a serious wrong. On the one hand, although the decision to drop the atomic bombs was in violation of a moral duty and was therefore wrong, it was not evil. Indeed, because it was reached and implemented in order to fulfill an even more pressing moral duty, it was morally the best thing to do in the dire situation. While Truman’s breach of his moral duty-not-to-drop-the-bombs gave rise to countless remedial obligations, the gravity of his wrong was heavily mitigated by the role of his decision in averting an even worse moral catastrophe. The concept of evil is not applicable to his breach. On the other hand, had Truman deliberately ordered the slaying of tens of thousands of people in circumstances where he was not fulfilling any major moral obligation by so doing, his conduct would have been profoundly evil. After all, his conduct—though doubtless undertaken with compunctions—was heartless in that he steeled himself to set in train the intentional annihilation of many tens of thousands of civilians. Given that the heartless frame of mind was connected to the production of severe harm on a massive scale, the conduct underlain by the heartlessness would have been a paradigmatic instance of wickedness in the absence of any mitigating factors. By contrast, in the presence of the mitigating factors that bore on Truman’s decision, his conduct was not wicked (even though it involved the commission of serious moral wrongs). In sum, the example of Truman’s momentous course of action serves to underscore the importance of extenuative considerations within any account of evil. In the presence of such considerations that are of sufficient moral weight, wrongs that would otherwise have been evil are lessened in their gravity to the status of mere wrongs (albeit serious wrongs). In the presence of extenuative factors that are of sufficient moral weight, a wrong does not partake of the contemptuous attitude—a contemptuous attitude toward some other human being(s) as properly subject to destruction or severe harm for one’s own nefarious purposes—that lies at the heart of evil. Still, although the decision to drop the atomic bombs was not wicked, it would have been deeply wicked outside the dire moral conflict in which Truman had to act. Consequently, that moral conflict did involve the prospect of evil conduct. Moreover, the conduct that would in any ordinary circumstances have been deeply evil was adopted for the sake of fulfilling an especially stringent set of moral responsibilities. Hence, the moral conflict in which Truman had to act was a situation of dirty hands. VII. No Genuine Conflict In the terrible plight that formed the context of Truman’s decision, the negative features and the positive features of his course of action were not constitutively inseparable. Instead, those features were causally linked. When the morally contrasting elements of a course of action are indeed co-occurrent (and causally connected) rather than constitutively inseparable, the situation comprising them can amount to a genuine moral conflict and a problem of dirty hands. Such a dilemma is crucially different from a situation in which the vile aspects of a policy are constitutively inseparable from the ostensibly laudable aspects thereof. Let us mull over a situation of the latter kind. Suppose that the leaders of a repressive autocracy deem their crowded country to be overpopulated.6 They therefore resolve to perpetrate genocide in a certain region of the country in order to free up space for the hordes of citizens who live in other regions. Now, although the objective of relieving the pressures of overpopulation might be morally worthy in the abstract, this concrete way of pursuing such an objective is iniquitous. Even if the leaders who order the genocide and the officials who implement it do feel some reservations about their butcherous course of action, they are heartless in that they go ahead with that course of action despite the overwhelming moral reasons against it. Like Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, they proceed with hearts hardened against the compelling considerations that militate unequivocally in favor of their desisting. Eve Garrard (1998, 49–58) has adroitly delineated the nature of the evil in a situation of this sort. She maintains that the perpetrator of an evil act “silences [in his own mind] the reasons against doing the act, which reasons are themselves metaphysical silencers, and where the agent’s reasons for doing the act are members of the class of considerations which are in this case metaphysically silenced” (Garrard 1998, 55). When Garrard refers to metaphysical silencing, she means that certain “considerations … ceas[e] to be [moral] reasons in the presence of certain kinds of contrary requirements” (Garrard 1998, 52). In other words, a factor that typically is endowed with some positive moral weight will be devoid of any such weight—and will therefore not be a veritable moral reason at all—in any context where it is constitutively connected to the perpetration of some atrocity. In such a context, the metaphysically silenced factor is not to be treated as a favorable element that should get balanced against the appalling features of the atrocity in some peculiar cost/benefit analysis. Given that a metaphysically silenced factor is deprived of all moral force, it should count for nothing in any such analysis. In the scenario of the repressive autocracy, the iniquitous aspect of the autocracy’s policy for dealing with the perceived problem of overpopulation is constitutive of the policy’s beneficial aspect. That perceived problem has been addressed only because there are fewer people at the end of the implementation of the policy, and there are fewer people at that juncture only because a myriad of other people have been butchered. Neither of the two instances of “because” in the preceding sentence denotes an instrumental-causal relationship. Rather, each of them denotes a constitutive relationship. The fact that the problem has been addressed is constituted by the fact that the people have been butchered. Let us designate the former fact as “F2” and the latter as “F1.” In that event, F1 amounts to F2. That is, in combination with all the prevailing circumstances other than any causal laws, F1 logically entails F2.7 Because those two facts are inseparable in this fashion, the seemingly salutary effects and the iniquitous effects of the autocracy’s population-control policy cannot correctly be balanced against each other as if some good results and some horrific results have simply occurred in tandem. Instead, the seemingly good results have occurred only because they are constituted by the occurrence of the horrific results (in the sense just indicated). Consequently, there is no room for the purportedly benign aspect of the policy to possess an independent moral status—a favorable moral status—by reference to which we can weigh that aspect against the policy’s horrendous features. As Garrard suggests, that putatively benign aspect has been deprived of all reason-giving force by its unity with the horrendous features. It has been metaphysically silenced. Hence, if the leaders of the repressive autocracy pursue their program of space-clearing genocide, they are acting on the basis of an objective that has been metaphysically silenced by its inseparability from the overwhelming considerations against the pursuit of such a program. Heartlessly undissuaded by those considerations, the autocrats seek an ostensibly worthy objective that in fact is devoid of any positive moral weight. Their policy of genocide is deeply evil, as they inflict grievous harm for the sake of that thoroughly vitiated objective. Their policy is not a matter of dirty hands; rather, it is unqualifiedly wicked. VIII. A Terse Conclusion In short, a problem of dirty hands is a moral conflict in which a highly unpalatable course of conduct is chosen for the sake of fulfilling a stringent moral duty, and in which either the chosen course of conduct is evil or else it would have been evil in the absence of the exigent circumstances to which it is a response. With this conception of problems of dirty hands, we can differentiate such problems from other types of situations to which they bear some resemblances. A moral conflict is not a problem of dirty hands if the conduct chosen in response thereto is not appropriately classifiable as wicked even when it is assessed in isolation from the mitigating effects of the conflict that has led to it. Nor is a moral conflict a problem of dirty hands if the person confronted by it elects a course of conduct out of sadism—since that course of conduct has been adopted not for the sake of fulfilling a stringent moral duty but instead for its own sake. Furthermore, the notion of dirty hands is not applicable to a situation in which the rebarbative aspects and the ostensibly benign aspects of some policy are constitutively indisseverable. A situation of that sort is not a moral conflict; the only relevant moral duty is a duty to abstain from the rebarbative policy. Thus, although the boundaries between problems of dirty hands and other types of cruxes are vague, we can meaningfully postulate such boundaries. Notes 1 The variable ‘φ’ can stand for any verb(s) or verb phrase(s), denoting any action(s) or omission(s). 2 See Kramer 2004, 280–81. Although the term “overriding” is much more common than “overtopping” in discussions of these matters, I disfavor the former term because it conveys the impression that a less important duty is eliminated or canceled in any conflict with a more important duty. 3 Michael Moore has also posed a distinction between weak permissions and strong permissions (Moore 2007, 42–44), but his distinction is markedly different from mine. Likewise very different from my own distinction is the weak-permission/strong-permission contrast drawn half a century ago by G.H. von Wright (1963, 86). In the text here and elsewhere, I am invoking only my own weak/strong dichotomy. Although I have expounded that dichotomy here with reference to actions, it is equally applicable—mutatis mutandis—to omissions. 4 Arendt 1963, 105–106. A portion of this passage is quoted (for a slightly different though related purpose) in Morton (2004, 80, 113–14). 5 I discuss vagueness at some length—with citations to the relevant philosophical literature—in Kramer (2007, 36–37, 70; 2009, 109–13, 260–61). 6 In Kramer (2004, 241–43), I discuss some similar examples for a different purpose. 7 I have expounded this understanding of constitutive relationships in Kramer (2003, 280). REFERENCES Arendt Hannah 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil , Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. de Wijze Stephen 2002. “Defining Evil: Insights from the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands’,” The Monist  85: 210– 38. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Garrard Eve 1998. “The Nature of Evil,” Philosophical Explorations  1: 43– 60. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Garrard Eve. 2002. “Evil as an Explanatory Concept,” The Monist  85: 320– 36. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Glover Jonathan 1999. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century , London: Jonathan Cape. Kramer Matthew H. 2003. The Quality of Freedom , Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kramer Matthew H.. 2004. Where Law and Morality Meet , Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kramer Matthew H.. 2007. Objectivity and the Rule of Law , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kramer Matthew H.. 2009. Moral Realism as a Moral Doctrine , Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kramer Matthew H.. 2011. The Ethics of Capital Punishment , Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kramer Matthew H.. 2014a. Torture and Moral Integrity , Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kramer Matthew H.. 2014b. “The Nature of Evil,” American Journal of Jurisprudence  59: 49– 84. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Kramer Matthew H.. 2016. “Moral Conflicts, the ‘Ought Implies Can’ Principle, and Moral Demandingness,” in van Ackeren Marcel, Kühler Michael, eds., The Limits of Moral Obligation , London: Routledge, 163– 84. Moore Michael 2007. “Patrolling the Borders of Consequentialist Justifications: The Scope of Agent-Relative Restrictions,” Law and Philosophy  27: 35– 96. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Morton Adam 2004. On Evil , London: Routledge. Russell Luke 2007. “Is Evil Action Qualitatively Distinct from Ordinary Wrongdoing?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy  85: 659– 77. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Staub Ervin 1989. The Roots of Evil , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Steiner Hillel 2002. “Calibrating Evil,” The Monist  85: 183– 93. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Von Wright G.H. 1963. Norm and Action , London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. © The Author(s), 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com

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The MonistOxford University Press

Published: Apr 1, 2018

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