COOL CLASSES: “Ends and Means: Moral Choices in Politics”

This political science course revolves around one question: How should we balance between the demands of morality and the demands of political responsibility?

Class name: “Ends and Means: Moral Choices in Politics”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Thomas J. Donohue

Here’s what Donohue had to say about his class:

This course revolves around one question: How should we balance between the demands of morality and the demands of political responsibility? When—if ever—can good political ends justify bad means? For in the name of good political ends, politics has often used morally outrageous means: civil wars, mass murder, systematic lying to the public, mass rape, class domination ratified by the state, show trials, and on and on. It is tempting, then, to wash our hands of politics, to put on the kid gloves, and keep our hands morally clean. But what about cases in which wearing kid gloves might lead to even worse outcomes than getting our hands dirty? What then should we do? For, in politics, we often find ourselves face to face with grave injustices or—occasionally—impending moral disasters. In those circumstances, it sometimes seems that we could alleviate the injustice, or avert the disaster, if only we used the morally problematic means, just this once. But once shed the kid gloves, and it is easy to find yourself on a slippery slope to having hands bloodier than Lady Macbeth’s. This is what politicians and philosophers call “the dirty hands problem.”

This course aims to explore that problem in many of its variants. We, therefore, examine Zionism, Palestinian nationalism, civil disobedience, rebellion, detaining suspected terrorists without trial, interrogational torture, accepting economic exploitation so as to pick the fruits of economic growth, Stalinism, the Bolshevik rejection of human rights, conservatism, the debate between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, and the ethics of war and peace. For each of these, the course suggests, represents a response to a “dirty-hands problem.” For each of these issues, we ask what is the right balance to strike between acting morally and acting in a politically responsible way: one that alleviates social injustice and avoids moral disaster.

I created this course because we all face “dirty-hands” problems, both as private individuals and as citizens. I wanted to help students master the concepts and theories needed to formulate intelligent and responsible approaches to such problems, whenever they present themselves. And I wanted to improve my own responses to such problems. The best way to learn about a problem is to teach it.


See what other courses the Political Science Department is offering this semester.

Photo: (cc) Wei

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.