There are many illuminating ways to understand politics, but one is as the practice of attempting to shape and direct the collective life of one’s community. Those who do politics typically seek to influence the collective life of the community with what they regard as morally good objectives in mind. Hence, at least according to this understanding of politics, outcomes matter enormously.
This goes part of the way to explaining why consequentialism is an approach to morality that has such purchase in politics. Simplifying a bit, consequentialism is the view that the moral rightness of an act depends only on its consequences.
Perhaps the most well-known objection to consequentialism is that it seems to permit acts which most people believe are obviously morally wrong. Familiar examples of such acts include lying, breaking promises, failing to show gratitude or loyalty, and imposing harm on others. This implication is typically illustrated via highly unrealistic thought experiments, but let me use three quite different recent examples from British politics instead.
Keir Starmer and getting the Labour Party elected
First, consider the fact that, as part of his successful pitch to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour Party, Keir Starmer made various promises and pledges to the Labour Party membership, many of which he has since reneged on.
Defenders of Starmer – including Starmer himself – explain his behaviour by pointing to what they regard as the likely consequences. The idea is that, if you want the Labour Party to win the next general election, then Starmer’s actions can be justified insofar as they maximise the chances of this outcome coming to pass.
But others criticise Starmer for breaking his promises, and he has been called ‘a bare faced liar with no honour’. Hence, it seems that a desire to bring about what he believes is a morally good outcome has led Starmer to behave in ways many would ordinarily regard as immoral.
The Buckingham Palace race row and securing the Royal Family
Second, consider the fact that Ngozi Fulani, a black, British charity leader, attended a reception at Buckingham Palace where she was repeatedly asked by a member of the royal household where she is from. Within 24 hours, Buckingham Palace had announced that the member of the household in question, Lady Susan Hussey, was stepping back from her role “with immediate effect”.
Lady Susan is 83 years old, is the godmother to Prince William, was Queen Elizabeth II’s longest serving lady-in-waiting, and had been working for the royal household for over 60 years. Given all this, some have complained that the way that the Royal Family has treated Lady Susan has been ‘callous’, ‘cruel’, and disloyal.
The rationale for the Royal Family’s swift and decisive action becomes clearer if you consider the consequences. Race and racism are explosive issues in modern Britain. If your aim is to maximise the Royal Family’s chances of survival, then it is at least possible to see how, in their own minds, the Royal Family’s somewhat ruthless and unforgiving treatment of Lady Susan might be justified (I’m not suggesting that Lady Susan is the most sympathy-worthy party in this case; moral concern is not zero sum). Again, we see that the desire to bring about what (let us assume) the Royal Family believes is a morally good outcome has led the Royal Family to behave in a way that many would ordinarily regard as immoral.
Workers striking for better pay and conditions
Third, consider the ongoing strike action in the UK. Workers in various industries have recently been on strike, have voted to go on strike, or are balloting to go on strike soon. The specific complaints workers have vary from sector to sector, but the primary, shared aim of these strikes is to improve workers’ pay.
The standard objection to these strikes – indeed, to all strikes – is that they are harmful. The obvious reply is that the harm that strikes involve is often minor when compared to the benefits that strikes can generate. And many would argue that it is not just the striking workers themselves or others in their industry who benefit when strikes succeed. Instead, everyone’s living standards are raised.
This defence of strikes doesn’t deny that they may involve the imposition of harm. What it says is that this harm is justified in light of the consequences. Again, we see that a desire to bring about what they believe is a morally good outcome can lead striking workers to behave in a way that most would ordinarily regard as immoral.
Do politics, get dirty hands
The three cases just described are very different from each other. There will be disagreements about whether the outcomes being pursued are actually morally valuable or whether the means being used to pursue these outcomes are wise. I do not wish to adjudicate on those disagreements here. I assume that some people will believe that the behaviour of the political actor(s) in at least one of the cases above is justified, so that the immorality-permitting implication of a consequentialist outlook is clear enough. Indeed, I chose such a varied range of examples precisely so that people who disagree about what constitutes a morally good outcome might nevertheless be brought to recognise this implication.
What this implication shows is that – sometimes, when the stakes are high enough – it can be permissible to engage in ordinarily immoral acts in order to secure morally valuable outcomes. But this implication does not show that consequences are all that matter morally. If outcomes were all that mattered morally, then it would not be clear how the means used to secure morally good outcomes could themselves be ‘immoral’. The fact that we continue to regard some acts as morally wrong, even when it can be permissible to engage in them, suggests that there is more to morality than consequences.
Politics is an arena where the stakes are often high because the outcomes in question relate to the collective life of the community. This means that, compared to other areas of life, politics will more often invite people to engage in ordinarily immoral acts in order to achieve morally good outcomes. Those who do politics will have to live with the fact that, even though they have done what is morally right, they are nevertheless guilty of wrongdoing. In other words, they have dirty hands.
This is not an original observation. The phrase ‘dirty hands’ comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play of the same name, first performed in 1948. Max Weber argued in 1918 that those who are serious about doing politics must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions and reckon with the fact that politics calls on you to use morally dubious means. In The Prince, first published in 1532, Niccolò Machiavelli insists that those who do politics will have to “learn how not to be good”. Many regard Machiavelli as overly cynical, and perhaps some exceptional or exceptionally lucky people can do politics innocently. But ask yourself, honestly, could you?