The “dirty hands” dilemma

This week’s topic for my CentreTerm class has been the “dirty hands” dilemma. This issue arises when a political leader is forced to make a choice to do something morally wrong in order to bring about a greater good of some kind. For example, when a president has to authorize torture on one individual in order to obtain information that can save the lives of 1,000 people. Torturing is wrong, but so is letting 1,000 people die when you could have done something to prevent it.

To explore this concept, we watched two episodes of “The West Wing” and Batman: The Dark Knight. The Batman movie was especially useful, as we found over 15 different instances where the movie characters were forced to make a “dirty hands” choice of some kind. We also discussed several of the controversial counter-terrorism measures of the Bush presidency, including the warrantless wire-tapping program.

Ultimately, most of the class agreed that sometimes it is necessary for a political leader to get his or her “hands dirty”. But they also seemed to agree that it’s only the “right” thing to do if the leader wrestles with the decision and then feels guilty about it afterwards, and is willing to face the consequences of that decision.

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