Political accountability and moral pollution: defending democratic dirty hands.

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In this paper I argue that certain key Machiavellian insights remain germane for democratic societies, and that the central issues that define the problem of dirty hands do not change given the particular values that underlie a democratic form of governance. The argument that a democratic form of governance changes (if not demolishes) our understanding of the standard DH scenario are based on a twofold error: (i) the misunderstanding of the necessary conditions for DH and (ii) the ways in which democracy constrains political actions in the face of intractable moral conflicts. I shall argue that Machiavellian insights concerning the relationship between power, political legitimacy, and effective governance, apply equally to democratic societies as they did to medieval princedoms. What does change given our concern with democratic dirty hands is the issue of whether political agents ought to be held accountable to democratic citizens for getting dirty hands. There is also the important issue of whether a politician’s dirty acts transfer moral pollution to the citizens who elected her. However, in all other respects the DH problem remains as relevant today in democratic societies as it was in the turbulent Florentine political milieu in which Machiavelli wrote The Prince. Successful politicians who strive to ensure a viable and enduring state in order to provide the great benefits of peace and stability need to develop virtù and take heed of the vicissitudes of fortuna.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-62
Number of pages17
JournalBiblioteca della libertà
Issue number209
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014


  • Dirty Hands, Machiavelli, democracy


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