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Political Realism and Dirty Hands: Value Pluralism, Moral Conflict and Public Ethics

  • Demetris TillyrisEmail author


This paper draws on the underappreciated realist thought of Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire and Judith Shklar, rehearses their critique of moralism and extends it to a position which seems far from obvious a target: the dirty hands (DH) thesis, which is mostly owed to Michael Walzer, and which a number of contemporary realists (i.e. Mark Philp, Duncan Bell, and Hans-Jörg Sigwart) have recently appealed to in their endeavour to challenge moralism and/or tackle the insufficiently addressed question of what a more affirmative, realist public ethic might involve. In illustrating that the DH thesis is a thinly disguised brand of the moralism which realists reject, I shall not merely put some flesh on the bones of Shklar’s scattered, unsystematic objections to Walzer’s thought – the only realist who explicitly criticized his DH thesis. Rather, I wish to cast doubt on the internal coherence and ‘realism’ of contemporary realist positions which invoke that thesis and to illustrate that the discrepancy between Berlin’s, Shklar’s and Hampshire’s thought and the DH thesis: i) enriches our understanding of how we might wish to distinguish more meaningfully realism from the ideal/non-ideal theory debate; and ii) enables us to pursue a particular direction in which a more positive realist approach to public ethics and integrity might be developed – an approach which we might term Heraclitian realism, and which follows from their idiosyncratic, innovative, and radical account of the place of conflict in human life.


Political realism Dirty hands Stuart Hampshire Isaiah Berlin Judith Shklar Public ethics 



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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Politics and International Relations, School of Psychology, Politics, and SociologyCanterbury Christ Church UniversityKentUK

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