Dirty hands

Do we, can we, always live up to our principles? Can we justify compromises?

Circumstances can arise when it seems hard to know what’s right and when it is difficult to make the right choice. Such a situation can introduce the concept of “dirty hands”.

Dirty Hands, the 1948 play by Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher and novelist, explores such a situation. The story takes place in the fictional eastern European country of Illyria in the latter stages of World War II. It centres on the conflict between a young zealous Communist party member and his older leader, which is based on the young man’s view that his leader has betrayed the party’s ideals by compromising with other political groups: instead of adhering to morally right decisions and the party’s principles, he has made expedient political alliances to avoid further problems for their communities. The idea that pragmatic political action must sometimes conflict with moral norms has become known as the problem of dirty hands. The term stems from the older leader’s view that people with power over the lives of others will almost certainly get their hands dirty in the sense of compromising their moral values. The question this poses – whether or not one can govern innocently – applies to business leaders as well as politicians

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides an interesting real example in a non-governmental organisation. It is an international medical humanitarian organisation created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971 that provides independent, impartial assistance in more than 60 countries to those in need, primarily due to armed conflicts, epidemics, malnutrition or natural disasters. MSF’s book, Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience, authored by MSF veterans, explores the practical realities of humanitarian crises through their experience in 11 complex situations: Ethiopia, Yemen, Gaza, South Africa, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, France and Nigeria.

Despite the obvious value of their work (MSF received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999), they acknowledge the problem of dirty hands. In their book they pose the questions: Do we – can we – always live up to our principles? Are the struggles and compromises we make to reach people in need in places like Somalia and Myanmar so different from those we faced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) following the Rwandan genocide, or in Ethiopia during the 1984 famine? In the introduction (aptly entitled “Acting at Any Price?”) written by Marie-Pierre Allié, President of MSF France, she acknowledges that they face compromises arising from opposing and convergent interests. Her question, “How can we judge whether a compromise is acceptable?” recognizes that they are criticised for accepting that “everything is open to negotiation”. Answering her own question, she writes that compromises are considered acceptable if they “reduce the number of deaths, the suffering and the frequency of incapacitating handicaps within groups of people who are usually poorly served by public health systems.” Justifying the organisation’s choices, she writes: “It seems to us that MSF can only justify its compromises to itself in an ethics of action founded on a principle of medical effectiveness and a refusal to be party to policies of domination.”

Extracted from Ethics: Giving a Damn, Making a Difference by Cynthia Schoeman