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From Ivory Coast to Ivory Tower

The former president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbabgo, did little to enhance his democratic credentials by refusing to step down from power after defeat at the polls.

President Barack Obama, it has recently transpired, tried to encourage him to depart by offering him an ivory tower carrot – an academic post at a prestigious East Coast university.  That university was almost certainly Boston.

Now, President Gbagbo is not the most evil man in the history of humanity – but he’s also far from being the most virtuous.  And you wouldn’t have thought he was a chap that a university faculty would rush to embrace.  On the other hand, had the White House persuaded him to leave office gracefully, Ivory Coast would not have descended into near civil war, and hundreds of lives would not have been lost.

In the event, President Gbagbo refused to accept President Obama’s calls.  He may have been wary of a deal, following the experience of another West African leader, Charles Taylor.  Taylor had left Liberia believing that his security was guaranteed in Nigeria.  He’s now facing trial at the International Criminal Court.

It’s an interesting example of what might be called the Problem of Dirty Hands, a problem that goes back at least to Machiavelli.  To what extent should our democratically-elected politicians, because of their enormous responsibility, be permitted to act differently to the rest of us?  Usually, proponents of the claim that politicians operate in a distinct moral sphere, are those who reach utilitarian judgments in certain relevant moral thought experiments – whether the politician should order torture in the ticking bomb scenario, etc.  The former US Secretary of State for Defence Robert McNamara, an instrumental figure in the Vietnam war, offered a list of principles for the conduct of foreign policy.  Number 9 was this: “In order to do good you must engage in evil”.

The dilemma of whether or not to offer a dictator an amnesty – perhaps with a home and an income thrown in – to ward off potential chaos and conflict, is a very real one in politics.  My own view, not unlike Tony Coady’s and Rai Gaita’s is that we’d do well to elect politicians who are reluctant to resort to the ‘dirty hands’ defense of political deals.  And we should be aware that over time the messy, grubby, necessary process that politicians have to engage in, of weighing up unpalatable options, is almost bound to have a corrupting effect.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. I guess we can construct politics in different ways for different purposes. If we see it in terms of deploying the coercive apparatus of the State, then in principle a politician may have different legal responsibilities but still the same moral responsibilities as anyone else.

    If they lie, cheat, steal, it may be morally justifiable as long as we concede that such actions are also sometimes justifiable for the rest of us. If they use the State to undertake systematic lying, cheating and stealing, then I guess it is not justifiable. In this case, I guess I am actually discussing the moral rights and responsibilities of the State and putting it on a par with individual rights and responsibilities which is a different issue.

    But if I read you correctly, you are claiming that the moral pressures on politicians may be distinct from the pressures on other individuals such that there are some actions which would be morally prohibited in all circumstances for individuals but permissible for politicians in some circumstances. I would need an example of such a situation to think about it more clearly, the example above is analogous to me offering a bully a place on my football team as a way to stop him or her spending their energies hitting other kids in the playground. It seems morally justifiable to me, in the absence of an authority who can straighten things out by enforcing agreed rules and providing consistent consequences, to do so.

    However, you raise the possibility that there is such an authority that could punish Gbagbo, and that Obama may be finding a way to give him impunity (analogous to the situation where a bully cannot be forced to make amends by the headteacher if they are in my football team), which would be more morally suspect in both cases, but not clearly wrong, if it is the only practical way to stop injury to others.

    The further moral complexity of whether the offer of sanctuary is actually a pretense and whether Obama would be right to double-cross Gbagbo in order to bring him to answer for crimes, when this may make it harder to persuade nasty leaders to bow out peacefully in future, is, again, no different from the moral decision-making we would have to make, in terms of whether we should grass someone on the team up to the teacher when the teacher eventually drops by.

    Now, maybe my analogy is a bit forced, and the point you are making is that in real life we are faced with such situations very rarely, while politicians are faced with them all the time, in which case non-politicians just lack awareness of the complexity of the moral decisions being made when they accuse a politician of "dirty hands". And a lack of self-consciousness of the way we all have "dirty hands" whenever we try to decide what to do when faced with conflicting moral principles.

    From listening to the Tony Coady, I think he sees things the same way, the argument of "necessity" is a way of avoiding the responsibility for immoral decisions, or for the choices they make to resolve a moral dilemma. What I find suggestive from his discussion is the moral psychology hypothesis of whether being exposed to moral dilemmas more often (and being insulated from moral consequences by virtue of being a politicians) dulls our ability to consider the morality of your choices. In that case I would argue we need to consider how to reorganise the State to continually sharpen the moral consciences of those who steer it. But I have not seen evidence that this is the case – the opposite may be true.

  2. Dmitri Pisartchik

    Try as I might, I fail to see how this is an example of the problem of dirty hands. Or, perhaps, what is it that's the problem of dirty hands that you allude to. I agree with your, vaguely implied though it was, definition through the following question: "To what extent should our democratically-elected politicians, because of their enormous responsibility, be permitted to act differently to the rest of us?" The central claim of the problem is: political (and perhaps other kinds of) leaders, by virtue of some sufficient difference in the circumstances in which they have to operate and make decisions are, in at least some cases, absolved of the responsibility of following what are for the rest of us binding moral principles. Politicians, to stick with the example, are allowed to get their hands dirty, morally speaking, where others, indeed all others, are forbidden.

    However, given this conceptualisation, I fail to see how what Obama has proposed (if it is indeed Obama who is the central character here) qualifies as an instance of the problem of dirty hands. That is, I do not see how Obama's offer to place Gbagbo in an academic position in Boston (something I very much doubt he has the power to do at any rate, its not up to him to appoint faculty at any university) and even assuming that this would have come with an offer of impunity, falls outside of what would be considered morally permissible for the general public.

    Is your claim that it would be morally wrong for a non-politician (a common member of the public) to have proposed this deal, assuming she had the means of following through with it? I find this implausible. Under the reasonable assumption that such an arrangement would prevent unnecessary death and suffering in Ivory Coast, by facilitating a smooth(er) transition of leadership, it seems to me to be perfectly permissible to forgo making Gbagbo account for his possible crimes (assuming their moral weight is less than the that of suffering averted).

    My specific objection, I suppose, is that you seem to have failed to establish that Obama's actions are in any significant sense within "a distinct moral sphere." True, this is probably in large part due to the fact that I am sympathetic to consequentialist moral reasoning that underpins the proposed action, but then the question simply becomes why should it be the case that this is (that is, consequentialism at least in some of its permutations) "a distinct moral sphere"? True, the so-called common-sense morality is not all too accommodating of consequentialism. But at the same time it does not, so far as I can see, completely deny the weight of consequences and the possibility that there may be a limit at which sufficient consequences outweigh what are commonly considered prohibitions (such as against killing, or indeed against letting killers avoid justice)

  3. "we’d do well to elect politicians who are reluctant to resort to the ‘dirty hands’ defense of political deals."

    Depends on the competition, I guess. Imagine, for example, that you have a politician who is willing to engage in "dirty" deals – someone like Barack Obama, for example – running against someone who believes that such deals can never be justified, that one must never do evil in order to do good, who is in fact a Jainist and is unwilling to harm any living thing, and who prefers to sit and meditate rather than to actually do anything. I know where my vote would go.

    That being said I basically agree: history is replete with bad examples of people "doing evil that good may result", and one of the tragedies of this is that it has given utilitarianism such a bad name, and thus increased the attractiveness of less helpful and practical moral philosophies. So we should indeed be suspicious of politicians that appear excessively eager to resort to the "dirty hands" defense.

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