Dirty Rules Dilemmas: Justice in a Corrupt Political World

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Political Economy


What should politicians do when the only feasible way to
achieve just outcomes is to "play dirty"-to work with political
processes and tactics that are themselves morally
defective? In today's democracies, the procedures for
political decision-making are often unfair and undemocratic.
Gerrymandering, anachronistic political institutions from a
less democratic age, unjust campaign finance laws,
unrepresentative electoral systems, the power of lobbyists-
these familiar elements of contemporary democratic
practice present morally conscientious politicians with a
serious dilemma. Only by operating within existing unjust
rules and norms do politicians stand a reasonable prospect
of winning power and thereby enacting just policies; the
alternative is surrendering and allowing the victory of those
who seek injustice. Yet by marshalling these defective
procedures and tactics, albeit for substantively just ends,
politicians are wrongfully complicit with significant procedural
wrongs, and indeed enable their perpetuation. So what is a
morally-minded politician to do? This thesis will constitute the
first systematic normative analysis of this question,
identifying the moral requirements, permissions, and
prohibitions that apply.
Using the dirty hands framework as the most promising
starting point for my project, I identify 'dirty rules' dilemmas,
a distinct new subset of dirty hands dilemmas. Michael
Walzer's seminal 'The Problem of Dirty Hands' (1973) laid out
the dirty hands dilemma. Walzer argued, first, that politicians
should be willing to commit intrinsically immoral acts for the
sake of certain outcomes. Secondly, he argued that, even
when we make the morally correct choice in such dilemmas,
we still incur some moral residue from, and are responsible
for, the wrongdoing we commit. In other words, a moral rule
retains its normative weight, even when broken justifiably.
Converted to the terms of contemporary moral philosophy,
Walzer's central insight was that we must sometimes do
something genuinely pro tanto wrong in order to do what is
all-things-considered right. I critique and build upon this


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2287393 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2019 30/12/2022 Gianni Sarra