The problem of clean hands in the philosophy of ethics turns on a presupposition, or at least a sort of allegorical understanding, of morality and immorality as material things, as things that are sticky and gloopy out in the world: actions have sort of essential ethical characters, they exude ethical ooze, and some of them when performed — even in the service of some greater good — leave a toxic trace in the soul or on the body of the subject. All this is probably true. Deontological ethical codes, more or less, prescribe avoiding these toxic actions to keep one’s hands clean, putting the personal moral purity of the subject above the protection or improvement of the world, generating thousands of corpses safely out of view in the process; consequentialist theories assert essentially the sterility of any moral dirt that one accrues in the service of that greater good, and that even — to borrow an analogy from Dick Cheney, with whom the consequentialists share a penchant for crafting corroborating fictions — the hands of torturers are cleansed of their blood by the great disinfectants of national security and the abstract principle of quantity.
Both doctrines have their corpses; and partly because, in their insistence that ethics is entirely a matter of knowing the right thing to do, doing it, and then walking away sunny and pure, they shield the subject from the very gloopy materiality of ethics that motivated the clean hands problems in the first place. Ethics (and we hold onto the term in the perhaps faint hope that there could be a distinct ‘morality’) in the sparkling hands of the deontologists and consequentialists really does fall toward something like hygiene, turning toward techniques for keeping the individual soul clean, producing pristine selves from which others less pristine can be judged, of course, and perhaps equally as obviously situating ethics within the wider category of Sitte to which it always belonged; situating it, that is, as a mere appendage of the local customs and petty microfascist decencies that it tries so hard to transcend. For as ethics becomes a classificatory system for judging the cleanliness of different sets of hands — their cleanliness in deontology or their capacity to be easily cleaned in consequentialism — it becomes obvious too that holding a high place in the ranking depends upon one’s ability to present oneself as separate from, purified of, estranged from the dirt and immorality of the world — however little resemblance that presentation may share with the actual causal chains that connect one to violent death, and however much its maintenance resembles the maintenance of the other performances — of walking right, talking right, eating right, of living in rarefied and abstracted ways — that entrench and reproduce one’s high-up position in the more general social hierarchy. When our judgement of what is right turns upon the subject themselves, then we not only get those horrifying situations where people believe that by keeping their hands clean, by not personally pulling the trigger, they are absolved of the state of the world: ethical purity can also become, like the hygiene on which it is modelled, something that is manufactured, traded, sold, and otherwise captured by the sliding nexuses of power beneath us.
If it does grow parasitically out from custom, depending on it for its form and nourishment, then from a vulgar Marxist perspective ethics is an epiphenomenon of an epiphenomenon; there is of course more reciprocity to it than that, just as there is more reciprocity between superstructure and base than vulgarity would allow; but it’s worth noting the parallel between the individualised but formally equivalent subjects of modern ethics — it’s a matter of you doing the right thing, but the right thing is the same for everyone — and the similarly constructed subjects of modern capitalism, which has its own, not entirely distinct, codes of etiquette and decorum to make invisible the bloodiness of its power and justify the shapes of its social order. It’s worth noting too, of course, and perhaps a little more snidely, that the first great modern articulations of deontology and consequentialism were made as modern industrial capitalism was awakening. The limitations of this modern ethical form are familiar and obvious: they can’t easily account for responsibility without some real or hypothetical causal chain on which to hang it, and as such they cannot account for responsibility without blame, or voluntarily taken on responsibility, or for a collective responsibility distinct from an aggregation of individual blames. And ethicists really will sometimes say that they need a theory of ethics to fit with our current practices of praise and blame, making what’s right, the great exalted realm of the ethical — just as the vulgar Marxist would have it — parasitic on actually existing social forms.
As ever, it is in its failures that we might be able to glimpse hope. There are true expressions of contemporary moral life that are anathema to the modern ethical codes: that we are all responsible and none of us to blame; that we may know what is right, but it is impossible for us to perform. It’s unlikely, I think, that a new ethical form that was able to hold onto these truths would be enough to go any way toward healing the now-ancient wounds of the world, but we might still try to imagine that form that might come along with more systematic change. And, oddly and dialectically, I think we might here imagine a return to virtue ethics — a return that nevertheless goes beyond where we are now. For virtue ethics is about the possibility and practice of a good life — at its beginnings it denied the formal equality between individuals that the later doctrines turn upon, asserting instead that some of the highest levels of virtue were unavailable to some people as a matter of course; we might instead assert that the highest levels of virtue are inaccessible to everyone as a matter of course. But an ethics centred on the possibility of a good life can’t help but look at the conditions in which that good life is supposed to take place, and look at the ways that any possible good life would engage with those conditions — perhaps even changing them; and in this way some contemporary reconfiguration of virtue ethics could account for the dirty immorality of the fallen world that everywhere adheres to us, give us practical ways of moving through it to something better, rather than just prescribing that we keep our hands clean by hiding it somewhere safely away behind the pure means of deontology or the pure ends of consequentialism.