Dirty Hands, part 1: Forbidden fruits


The graph illustrates what happened to MWA‘s Amazon sales rank after Jim Holt’s review came out in the New York Review of Books.  Last March, after I quoted Tom Waits in order to express my ambivalence toward Amazon (on the one hand, it has been a disaster for independent bookstores; on the other hand, it does make it easy to buy books), I asked a friend who is a professional ethicist whether ambivalence of this kind has a specific name in the philosophical literature.  The technical term, it turns out, is Dirty Hands, after Sartre’s play of the same name.

if one is trying to ultimately change the structures (to get rid of amazon.com), one can sell one’s book on amazon.com. But one must do it with the clear awareness that one is getting one’s hands dirty. Or better: one is aware that one is deceiving oneself (if one also believes that it’s impossible to get rid of amazon.com).

More abstractly, to quote the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

it is the whole act in context that is both categorically wrong and not wrong. In the dirty hands scenario we are asked to believe that doing X is morally wrong and yet it is palpably right to do it.

This is more dramatic (as Sartre understood) when the “whole act” involves hands that have been “plunged… up to the elbows… in filth and blood” (to quote Sartre) than when it just amounts to consenting to sell my books on amazon.com, but the logical dilemma of an act that is both wrong and not wrong is the same in both cases.  My friend recommended that I read Michael Walzer’s essay Political Action: the Problem of Dirty Hands.  Walzer seems to be claiming that the dilemma can be resolved by doing X because it is right and then accepting punishment for doing X because it is morally wrong.  In Camus’ The Just Assassins, to which Walzer refers, the hands of the political actors are “washed clean” by “their execution, by the same despotic authorities they are attacking;” for the rest of us,

there is probably no way …[to] set the stakes or maintain the values… except through philosophic reiteration and political activity.

This excerpt from Chapter 4, on tasting the “forbidden fruits” of mathematical finance, and on suffering the inevitable retribution, was written in 2011.

A colleague boasted that Columbia’s mathematical finance program was underwriting the lavish daily spreads of fresh fruit, cheese, and chocolate brownies, when other departments, including mine in Paris, were lucky to offer a few teabags and a handful of cookies to calorie-starved graduate students.

When I joined Columbia’s mathematics department in 2013, I had the opportunity to remove this (not quite unique) reference to the mathematical finance program from the manuscript.  I left it in, not because I was looking for trouble, nor because of any pre-philosophical ideas about “dirty hands,” but because it’s one of the best paragraphs in the book, in large part because of the allusion to “fresh fruit” — an earlier draft actually included the words “forbidden fruits” — and indeed Mephistopheles, with his “Faustian bargains,” sets the tone for the chapter.

The paragraph is so effective, in fact, that the above sentence was quoted in the NYRB review, which unfortunately neglected to mention that the passage alludes to a conversation that took place in 2004.  A  Columbia colleague who read this passage was furious that it would provide an excuse for the “dirt-poor” humanities departments to complain to the Columbia administration.  I lost his thread when he tried to explain the nature of the complaint; would the humanists be demanding their share of the (long gone) chocolate brownies as well as the fresh fruit?

MWA details many of the ways anyone involved in university education and research is likely to wind up with “dirty hands” — in public universities in France and England as well as in public and private universities in the United States.  The paragraph in question dramatizes the dilemma by exaggerating both the rewards (in 2004) and the retribution (in 2008) associated with mathematical finance, but the thrust of the book is that there are no simple answers.   The ambition “to ultimately change the structures,” to quote my ethicist friend, may or may not be unrealistic; the book’s more modest aim is to contribute to “clear awareness” of the dilemma.  But does awareness also come at the price of dirty hands?  Certainly there is a real danger that the positions outlined in the book can be exploited for demagogic purposes, and not only by hungry humanists.




One thought on “Dirty Hands, part 1: Forbidden fruits

  1. Pingback: Edward Frenkel’s bela bunda and what it has to do with the Sokal affair | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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