‘Learning how not to be good’: Machiavelli and the standard dirty hands thesis

Tillyris, D. (2015) ‘Learning how not to be good’: Machiavelli and the standard dirty hands thesis. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 18 (1). pp. 61-74. ISSN 1386-2820.


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‘It is necessary to a Prince to learn how not to be good’. This quotation from Machiavelli’s The Prince has become the mantra of the standard dirty hands (DH) thesis. Despite its infamy, it features proudly in most conventional expositions of the dirty hands (DH) problem, including Michael Walzer’s original analysis. In this paper, I wish to cast a doubt as to whether the standard conception of the problem of DH—the recognition that, in certain inescapable and tragic circumstances an innocent course of action is unfeasible—fully captures Machiavelli’s message and its terrifying implications. In particular, I argue that the standard DH thesis is inadequately ‘static’: it conceives the conflict between ordinary morality and political morality as a stark, momentary and rare paradox of action—an anomaly disrupting the normality of harmony. As such it misconceives both the extent and the nature of the rupture between morality and politics. In this sense, the argument I shall advance does not just involve an exercise in the history of political thought. Rather, I want to suggest that, by virtue of its failure to take Machiavelli’s insights seriously, the standard DH thesis fails to live up to its purported capacity to capture the complexity and fragmentation of our moral cosmos and that, consequently, it is nothing more than a thinly veiled version of the idealism and monism it purports to reject.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: Machiavelli; Dirty hands; Moral conflict; Political virtue; Moral vice; Innocence
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics > BJ0001 Ethics (General)
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics > BJ0001 Ethics (General) > BJ1518 Individual ethics. Character. Virtue
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics > BJ0001 Ethics (General) > BJ1725 Ethics of social groups, classes, etc. Professional ethics
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
J Political Science > JC Political theory
Divisions: Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences > School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology
Depositing User: Demetris Tillyris
Date Deposited: 12 Oct 2016 09:28
Last Modified: 22 Oct 2016 15:31
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/14962

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00