This paper explores what the three best-known thinkers in the sentimentalist tradition - David Hume (1711-76), Adam Smith (1723-90), and Edmund Burke (1729-97) – have to say about the topic of “dirty hands” (the view that some forms of power, used properly, lead to guilt and bad actions). Although the views of these philosophers have often been declared inconsistent, my project is to defend and resurrect key elements of their position, which may have value for this debate. I contend that a coherent and unified view about dirty hands may be extracted from their work. By discussing this view, I aim to elucidate a philosophical tradition that may not be familiar to many readers today.
On their sentimentalist approach, all jobs or social roles inevitably lead to characteristic varieties of wrongdoing (i.e. dirty hands), due to corruption, increased temptation and opportunity. Such inevitability does not excuse the wrongdoing, but it might diminish the appropriate level of moral blame for those at the bottom, while enhancing blame for persons at the top.
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