Res Publica

, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 475–494 | Cite as

Political Integrity and Dirty Hands: Compromise and the Ambiguities of Betrayal



The claim that democratic politics is the art of compromise is a platitude but we seem allergic to compromise in politics when it happens. This essay explores this paradox. Taking my cue from Machiavelli’s claim that there exists a rift between a morally admirable and a virtuous political life, I argue that: (1) a ‘compromising disposition’ is an ambiguous virtue—something which is politically expedient but not necessarily morally admirable; (2) whilst uncongenial to moral integrity, a ‘compromising disposition’ constitutes an essential aspect of political integrity. In so doing, I question certain moralistic assumptions which fuel contemporary vilifications of compromise—that, in theory, democratic politics should be inhospitable to compromise and that political integrity should be akin to moral integrity—and which are shared by Walzer’s Dirty Hands thesis which professes to be sensitive to the realities of politics. These assumptions displace the complex realities of politics and misconstrue the standards of political excellence; they unsatisfactorily idealize political integrity and the messy context in which democratic politicians operate—a context characterized by a plurality of incompatible traditions, each with its own values and principles. Whilst commitment to a set of principles stemming from one’s tradition or pre-election promises implies commitment to realize these, leading a virtuous political life amidst such a grubby domain often requires abandoning some of these. An innocent, all-or-nothing pursuit of one’s principles in politics might prompt political disaster or defeat: an uncompromising disposition entails the entire abandonment of any hope of realizing all of those principles.


Compromise Political integrity Dirty hands Democratic politics Moral conflict Betrayal 



I am extremely grateful to Derek Edyvane, Kerri Woods and Jonathan Dean for reading earlier versions of this essay as well as for their fruitful feedback, encouragement and support. Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the 2014 Association for Legal and Social Philosophy Conference. I would like to thank the participants of the conference—and, in particular Matteo Bonotti and Jesse Tomalty—for their constructive feedback and suggestions. I have also benefited from discussions with Jonathan Allen on the topic of Dirty Hands. Finally, I would like to thank the University of Leeds and the ESRC for funding my research as well as the editors of Res Publica and two anonymous reviewers for their encouragement and helpful comments and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Politics and International StudiesUniversity of LeedsLeedsUK

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