Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Obligatoriness of Washing Our Hands, and the Permissibility of Getting Them Dirty

Consider all the possible statements we could make about whether we should wash our hands, and what they reveal about the kinds of (personal, moral, and social) decisions we could make. Some examples are:

We should (must, or have to) wash our hands now.
We shouldn’t (mustn’t, or don’t have to) wash our hands now.
We would (probably, likely, or most certainly) be remiss if we weren’t to go ahead and wash our hands now.
We don’t have to wash our hands now, unless we won’t have time to wash them later.
It’s probably best that we wash our hands now, rather than later.
If our hands aren’t dirty, then we don’t have to wash them now.
If our hands are dirty, then we should wash them now, rather than later.
It would be better to wash our hands now, because someone might notice that they're dirty.
It doesn’t matter whether we wash our hands right now or sometime later. In fact, it doesn’t (or may not) matter whether we wash them at all.
We don’t have to wash our hands now, unless there is someone we know who thinks we should.
We'd better wash our hands now, because we don’t want people to think we’re being careless about making sure our hands are clean before we shake their hands.
We could wash our hands right now, but we don’t really have to, so we might as well wait until later.
We might as well wash our hands right now.
Washing our hands right now is no better than washing them later.
If there are sanitary facilities available, then we should go ahead and wash our hands now.
If there is hand sanitizer available (and if our hands aren’t too dirty), then we can use the sanitizer instead of washing our hands with soap and water.
If we’ve touched something unclean or dirty, then we should wash our hands with soap and water as soon as we can.
If we’ve already washed our hands, then we don’t need to wash them again right now, unless there is some reason for us to get them extra clean.
If it’s more likely that we’ll have time to wash our hands now than later, then we should go ahead and wash them now.
If we wash our hands now, then we can still (or might still be able to) wash them later.
If we wash our hands now, then we won’t have to wash them again later.

      Most of these statements are modal expressions employing modal auxiliary verbs such as “may,” “might,” “will,” won’t,” “can,” “could,” “should,” and “must” to indicate deontic modality (moral possibility or necessity). They vary in the strength of moral necessity that they express, with some expressing only moral possibility or permissibility, and others expressing moral necessity or obligatoriness.
      Given all the possible decisions we can or could make (and all the possible ways of rationalizing those decisions) regarding whether it is or isn't permissible, advisable, or necessary to wash our hands at a given moment, how are we able to decide what to do without consciously thinking about it? Such a decision-making process seems in most cases to be an unconscious and effortless one (unless for some reason, such as a mental or behavioral disorder, we have an obsessive or compulsive habit of washing our hands).
      In daily life, why is it that we don’t ever (or so rarely) seem to have any difficulty deciding whether to wash our hands? Is it because we’re always so busy doing something else that deciding whether to wash our hands at a given moment becomes very easy whenever the opportunity presents itself?
      According to CDC guidelines, we should wash our hands before, during, and after preparing food; before eating food; before and after caring for someone who is sick; before and after treating a cut or wound; after using the toilet; after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet; after blowing our noses, coughing, or sneezing; after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste; after handling pet food or pet treats; and after touching garbage.1
      Metaphorically speaking, when are we morally obligated to wash our hands of something, and when are we morally obligated to risk getting our hands dirty? When should we accept moral uncertainty in a given situation rather than refuse to risk any compromise of our moral principles? Risking moral blame or culpability may actually in some cases require a greater degree of moral commitment than refusing to put our own personal reputations at risk. We may in some cases have to risk getting our hands dirty if we've put ourselves in a position of responsibility that requires us to compromise our moral principles for the sake of a greater good, (unless we've consciously or unconsciously avoided putting ourselves in that position to begin with).
      An example of a “dirty hands” problem might be the president or prime minister who orders drone strikes against known terrorists, targeting them for destruction but thereby potentially endangering the lives of innocent civilians. However, Ben Jones and John M. Parrish (2016) argue that the dirty hands problem “describes an emergency that forces an individual to break a moral rule, not a policy that routinely breaks moral rules.” They also argue that “Rather than provide moral clarity, dirty hands justifications of current U.S. drone policy risk legitimizing a practice that expands state power in potentially dangerous ways.”2
      Michael Walzer (1973) argues that the politician who has dirty hands, even if he has acted out of concern for the common good, must nevertheless bear a burden of guilt and responsibility for his blameworthy actions. It is in fact by the politician’s acceptance of guilt and responsibility (why guilt, necessarily?) for his blameworthy actions that we know him to be a moral person. If he were not a moral person, then he would pretend that his hands were clean.3 Once he has atoned for his wrongdoing, then his hands will be clean again.
      Stephen de Wijze (2007) argues that the dirty hands problem may be a case of “doing right by doing wrong” or “doing wrong to do right,” but may also be subject to various conceptual confusions. He explains that it may involve either a moral conflict in which a right choice can be made between incompossible duties or a moral dilemma in which there is no right overall choice between incompossible duties (and in which there may only be a choice between the lesser of two evils). Some dirty hands problems may involve moral conflicts but not dilemmas, while others may involve both moral conflicts and dilemmas. De Witze also argues, following Michael Stocker (1990), that a dirty hands problem is a special kind of moral conflict in which an action is ‘justified, even obligatory, but also none the less somehow wrong.’However, de Witze explains that “not every wrong action is a dirty action and not every moral conflict involves dirty hands. Furthermore there can be dirty hands cases which involve moral dilemmas, whereas many moral dilemma situations do not involve dirty hands.”5
      Steve Buckler (1993) describes the dirty hands problem as an example of moral ambiguity in which there may be a choice between what is morally necessary and what is morally good. Some actions, despite being morally necessary, are in themselves not morally good. Thus, dirty hands cases may not be true dilemmas, which require a choice between two or more undesirable alternatives. The politician or government official, for example, may get dirty hands simply by doing what it is morally necessary for her to do (in order to promote the common good), rather than doing what it would be morally good for her to do. She may do exactly what she has to do, even though it may be morally disagreeable. In fact, this may be an obligation for her as a politician or government official, and failure to perform the necessary but morally disagreeable action may represent a neglect of her duty to the people she represents.6


1Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives,” September 4, 2015, online at
2Ben Jones and John M. Parrish, “Drones and Dirty Hands,” in Preventive Force: Drones, Targeted Killing, and the Transformation of Contemporary Warfare, edited by Kerstin Fisk
3Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 2, Issue 2 (Winter, 1973), p. 168.
4Michael Stocker, “Dirty Hands and Ordinary Life,” in Plural and Conflicting Values (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 9-36.
5Stephen de Wijze, “Dirty hands: Doing Wrong to do Right,” in Politics and Morality, edited by Igor Primoratz (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 9.
6Steve Buckler, Dirty Hands: The Problem of Political Morality (Avebury: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1993), p. 7.

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