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Dirty Hands at the Oscars

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Hollywood wrongly thinks leaders sometimes must do "evil so good may come"

“But it’s still not possible to rule with perfectly clean hands. There are still terrorists out there, hiding in the shadows and plotting to kill Americans. So even today’s leaders face the Machiavellian choice: Do I have to be brutal to protect the people I serve?”

So ruminated New York Times columnist David Brooks in his February 8 column about the ethics of President Obama’s drone program. “Do no evil so that good may come,” warned St. Paul. But St. Paul, apparently, did not understand the tragic nature of politics. Machiavelli, according to Brooks, is a much abler guide on the subject. For what Machiavelli got that St. Paul didn’t is that sometimes a political leader has to break a few eggs to make an omelette. Sometimes he has to do something brutal to protect the people he serves.

Philosophers call this the problem of “dirty hands.” To have dirty hands means that one is in a situation in which no morally upright course of action is available. No matter what one does, one is going to get his hands morally “dirty.” Landing in such a predicament can be the consequence of earlier immoral action, or, in even harder cases, it can come about through circumstances utterly outside of one’s control.

Such as we find portrayed in two of the films up for Best Picture at Sunday night’s Academy Awards. Both Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty portray political leaders doing some rather nasty things in order to achieve a happy result. Spielberg’s Lincoln indulges in political skullduggery in order to get passed the 14th Amendment and abolish slavery. Bigelow’s CIA agents pursue “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e. torture, in order to discover the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. For Brooks and all those who think the problem of dirty hands is unresolvable–and this group may well include a surprisingly large number of Christians–that political leaders have to take some unsavory actions in order to see justice done is axiomatic. It’s a nasty world out there. What else is a political leader supposed to do? Let the slaves suffer? Let Osama bin Laden run free? 

But think about it. To assume that dirty hands are inevitable is to assume that morality itself is internally conflicted, as though morality is a poorly made car that will one day, no matter what we do by way of maintenance, leave us stranded by the side of the road. But what is morality? Morality is the adventure of attaining, or failing to attain, both the natural and supernatural ends to which God has directed us. So, at bottom, to assume that dirty hands are inevitable is to accuse God of rather sloppily arranging our ends. It is to take God’s plan for our lives as something that can actually, through no fault of our own, undermine our attempts to attain him. This is both philosophically and theologically absurd.

Better to follow St. Paul in these matters, who was right to warn us that there is no justice in doing evil so that good may come–no matter how attractive that good may be (see Romans 3:8). It is a hard saying, to be sure, one that requires a very different conception of prudence than the one currently reigning among our political elites. Ben Affleck’s Argo—an enjoyable but certainly not brilliant thriller also up for Best Picture this year—comes closer to depicting such prudence in action. Subterfuge, after all, is not intrinsically immoral.

My pick for Best Picture of the year? For what it’s worth, of all the new films I saw this year I liked best Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress

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