Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 61–74 | Cite as

‘Learning How Not to Be Good’: Machiavelli and the Standard Dirty Hands Thesis



‘It is necessary to a Prince to learn how not to be good’. This quotation from Machiavelli’s The Prince has become the mantra of the standard dirty hands (DH) thesis. Despite its infamy, it features proudly in most conventional expositions of the dirty hands (DH) problem, including Michael Walzer’s original analysis. In this paper, I wish to cast a doubt as to whether the standard conception of the problem of DH—the recognition that, in certain inescapable and tragic circumstances an innocent course of action is unfeasible—fully captures Machiavelli’s message and its terrifying implications. In particular, I argue that the standard DH thesis is inadequately ‘static’: it conceives the conflict between ordinary morality and political morality as a stark, momentary and rare paradox of action—an anomaly disrupting the normality of harmony. As such it misconceives both the extent and the nature of the rupture between morality and politics. In this sense, the argument I shall advance does just involve an exercise in the history of political thought. Rather, I want to suggest that, by virtue of its failure to take Machiavelli’s insights seriously, the standard DH thesis fails to live up to its purported capacity to capture the complexity and fragmentation of our moral cosmos and that, consequently, it is nothing more than a thinly veiled version of the idealism and monism it purports to reject.


Machiavelli Dirty hands Moral conflict Political virtue Moral vice Innocence 



I am extremely grateful to Derek Edyvane and Kerri Woods for their comments on earlier versions of this essay. An early draft of this paper was presented at the workshop On Vice: Political Ethics and Moral Conflict hosted by The University of Leeds in association with the White Rose Association of Political Philosophy. I would like to thank the participants of the workshop, in particular Sue Mendus, John Horton and Cecile Hatier, for their encouragement and helpful comments. Moreover, I am indebted to the University of Leeds for supporting my research with two PhD scholarships. I would also like to thank the editors of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (ETMP) and two anonymous referees for their fruitful feedback on how to improve this essay.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of LeedsLeedsUK

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