Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 879-897

First online:

Punishing ‘Dirty Hands’—Three Justifications

  • Stephen de WijzeAffiliated withManchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT), Politics, University of Manchester Email author 

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Should those who get dirty hands be punished? There is strong disagreement among even those who support the existence of such scenarios. The problem arises because the paradoxical nature of dirty hands - doing wrong to do right - renders the standard normative justifications for punishment unfit for purpose. The Consequentialist, Retributivist and Communicative approaches cannot accommodate the idea that an action can be right, all things considered, but nevertheless also a categorical wrong. This paper argues that punishment is indeed appropriate for those who dirty their hands and that there are three normative justifications that can be used to support this claim. These are the justifications from ‘Catharsis’, ‘Recognition of Evil Suffered’ and ‘Causal Responsibility’. Together they provide the sui generis justifications for punishing dirty hands.


Dirty Hands Punishment Justification Michael Walzer