The concept of right and wrong is an important ethical dilemma. It allows for further insight into an individual and their moral character on the basis of their interpretation of it. Right and wrong is a spectrum wherein the decisions we make lie. Individuals develop their own concept of right and wrong based on both their nature and nurture. Often one’s right is another’s wrong, and vice-versa. Philosophers such as Michael Walzer and John Mcdowell have aided in explaining this concept and its complexities. Furthermore, they have pondered upon whether or not it can be right to do wrong. If a right can come from a wrong, then it can be right to do wrong. In practice, it often comes down to our morality, our virtues and vices, which play an important role in decision making. These guide us and allow us to make a right from a wrong; to make a morally wrong decision to benefit the greater good can at times appear as a necessity, and the event will test our character and make us conclude that, therefore, yes, it can be right to do wrong.
While we could consider daily life to explain why it can be right to do wrong, it is more effective to analyze situations politicians are confronted with. Politicians’ morality is constantly being challenged due to the kind of decisions they are forced to make on issues which, on an individual basis, would be straightforward and not controversial. We can understand situations where politicians are forced to make decisions which the average person would consider morally wrong, but they are supposed to do so, allegedly, in order to benefit the greater good, hurting the few to benefit the many. Then again, as politicians make decisions which the average person would consider morally right, in the long run they may well have detrimental effects, especially with politicians who lack a long term vision or acumen. Just as a right can come from a wrong, a wrong can come from what one thought to be right in the heat of the moment..
Political theorist Michael Walzer, in “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”, discusses how, within the political community, when dire situations present themselves officials are often forced to ‘dirty their hands’ giving way or approving immoral actions in order to save the community they represent. Walzer claims that governing innocently is nearly impossible, and those who claim or seem to do that probably are not. He asserts that the concept of ‘dirty hands’ stems from the wish to go against absolutism while maintaining the existence of moral dilemmas. Walzer explains why the politician is such an important and relevant figure in this moral conundrum. Unlike your regular person, the politician acts and makes decisions having in mind the interests of everyone as a collective, in their respective community. To make the collective happy also serves the politicians self interests, and to reach that happiness sometimes he must ‘dirty his hands’. Moreover, the politician is seen as a superior figure that dictates the restraint of the collective, to benefit their greater good. To take upon the role of the politician is to set upon a journey which will sacrifice innocence and thus create a balance within the politician’s moral spectrum between right and wrong.
The balance between right and wrong, that the politician has developed in his moral spectrum, is more advanced, or certainly different, than that of the average person. This is due to politicians’ developed ability, well guided or not, to expand and detach from individuality and examine the greater picture. This should allow the politician to evaluate circumstances and decide, allegedly, objectively. This objectivity would thus enable the politician to make an immoral decision when he judges it will end up being beneficial to the collective community in the long run. The concept of what is beneficial differs, though, from politician to politician, and it varies on the basis of values, character, and beliefs.
The politician has learnt to accept that making a morally wrong decision is often necessary to make a right. Walzer uses the example of a politician faced with the moral dilemma of having to torture a terrorist, so that he may be motivated to disclose the location of a bomb, which if not found and deactivated will greatly harm the collective. Although it is considered morally wrong to torture someone, not doing so will cause a greater harm. For Walzer, the politician is the figure the collective needs to make these morally challenging decisions. The morally right decision would be to not torture anyone, even the terrorist, but that would almost certainly result in a greater harm. In order to preserve the collective, even though it is morally wrong to do so, the politician is led to make the decision to torture the terrorist regardless of his moral inclinations, and this results in the politician ‘dirtying his hands’.
John McDowell is a philosopher who deals with the topic of “Virtue and Reason”. His understanding of ethics provides a greater outlook onto Walzer’s claims regarding ‘dirty hands’. Mcdowell asserts that ethics is not about codifiable knowledge or following codifiable rules. Ethics is about character, our virtues and our vices. He discusses the concept of the moral code, and how it is personal in regards to each individual. Our virtues differ from those of others, our moral code, although may be similar to another’s, will always differ even if it is so in a minimal way. These differences are due to an individual’s virtues, that shape their ‘character’: there is no rule book which guides one’s morality.
To put this into perspective, and support McDowell claims, we may examine dilemmas such as the abortion topic. These dilemmas are personal and come down to individuals’ virtues, or their moral ‘character’. One may believe that the ethical thing would be to never have an abortion, in any circumstances, and one may believe that having an abortion isn’t unethical as what comes before a baby is simply a cluster of growing cells, or it does not come from a willful and free act. Once again, there is no right or wrong per se answers when it comes to such complex ethical dilemmas, as an individual’s opinion differs from another’s, and so do their virtues. None are ethically wrong or right in absolute terms, and everyone would simply be acting upon their own character and attributed virtues: what is ethically wrong for one can be perceived as ethically correct for another.
In relation to the politician and Walzer, virtue ethics outlines the spectrum of morality. Right and wrong lie on the extremities, what lies in between is determined by an individual’s virtues and vices. The politicians’ virtues are challenged, and thus so is their morality. This does not make them immoral, they are simply forced to operate on a greater scale and consider things the average individual couldn’t even fathom or factor in when making a decision which presents moral challenges.
The regular individual lives their life acting upon their own moral code, which guides them in deciding whether or not their actions are right or wrong. The politician is challenged on a greater scale, and right and wrong appear to be mere trivialities as their moral code differs greatly. The politicians have to adapt their moral code to complex dilemmas, their virtues and respective vices are somewhat modified. This is where the concept of the ‘lesser of two evils’ comes in. The politician is forced to choose the lesser of two evils as often decisions are presented which will both have a negative outcome. On the other hand, the regular individual does not face these situations and never has to ‘dirty their hands’. As a result, their moral code does not need to deeply consider if it can be right to do wrong, as mostly their lives consist of a sequence of right and wrong decisions with clear consequences or rewards.
Can it be right to be wrong? The answer appears thus to be ‘yes’ as the concept of right and wrong is merely but a spectrum. Our virtues and moral character aid us in deciding which way to act. The weight of those decisions is clearly evidenced in the role of the politician who has to not only think of himself but of the collective as well, forcing him to evaluate and consider the greater scheme of things, which can dwarf the good of a single individual. Furthermore, the politician is presented with scenarios which the regular individual never has to go through and thus cannot see the depth of all implications, of all rights and wrongs which can derive from his decision. Individuals thus behave having a different perception in regards to what is right and what is wrong. As there is no rule book, it is up to the individuals to decide what to do based on how far they are able to consider the weight of their actions and whether a conventionally morally right decision made today, as opposed to the wrong one, will have crippling effects tomorrow. Luckily, the regular individual is not usually plagued by such complex dilemmas and lives their day to day life being guided by what they think is right and what they think is wrong.
John McDowell, “Virtue and Reason,” Monist 62, 1979, pp. 331-50, repr. in Mind, Value, and Reality, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998, pp. 50-73, extract, pp. 50-69 and 71-3
Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2:2, 1973, pp. 160-180, extracts