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Les Mains Sales Versus Le Sale Monde: A Metaethical Look at Dirty Hands

1 January 2009


The phenomenon of “dirty hands” is typically framed as an issue for normative or applied ethical consideration—for example, in debates between consequentialism and non- consequentialism, or in discussions of the morality of torture or political expediency. By contrast, this paper explores the metaethical dimensions of dirty-hands situations. First, empirically-informed arguments based on scenarios of moral dilemmas involving metaethical aspects of dirty hands are marshaled against the view that “ought implies can.” Second, a version of moral realism is conjoined with a version of value-pluralism that charitably accommodates and explains the central features of the phenomenology related to dirty hands. It is not simply that agents are or are not justified in getting their hands dirty (les mains sales); rather, in certain situations, it is the nature of the moral domain itself to be intractably messy (le sale monde), such that dirty hands are unavoidable. The paper concludes by considering some important normative and psychological implications of this view.


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