Essays on Leadership Ethics
Edited by Joanne B. Ciulla, Terry L. Price and Susan E. Murphy
Chapter 6: Dirty hands, necessary sin, and the ethics of leaders
Peter Temes I spent part of 2003 and 2004 talking to audiences about Just War theory, the subject of a book that I’d recently written and, of course, the subject of much national debate before and during the American invasion of Iraq. My book covered a lot of ground, and early on I wasn’t sure which of its points of emphasis would be the most engaging when I got up to speak – maybe the arguments for or against pure pacifism, or about the role of the UN in national policy making. As it turned out, neither got that much traction. To my surprise, people were much more interested in the abstract idea of “Necessary Sin” that I tried to explain in the book, a variation on the classical philosophical dilemma of “Dirty Hands.” One of the central notions of my book was that war is always wrong, but sometimes necessary. That is, we cannot say that intentional killing and destruction as a matter of policy is in any way good. By any moral principle worth defending, these are bad acts. Bad as they are, though, from the perspective of national policy, they are at times the least bad among a finite set of options. A head of state enters his or her moment of decision-making about war with all of the constraints inherited from years, decades, and centuries of other leaders’ decisions – all of their mistakes, all of their moral shortcomings, all of their compromises with forces they deemed insuperable....
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