Dirty Hands and Geoengineering

In this blog series, we have been exploring the question of whether those disproportionately subject to the negative impacts of climate change—while at the same time benefitting disproportionately little from the consumption of fossil fuels—might have a special claim to engage in risky geoengineering. In Part One, I argued that geoengineering should not be understood as an exercise of a right to self-defense. In Part Two, I argued that geoengineering cannot be justified as an act of civil disobedience. In both cases, the main problem with these justifications was that they failed to take seriously the idea that risky geoengineering will almost certainly violate the rights of some person or another.  Of course, it is also true that climate change will, or in fact does, violate rights of similarly placed, though not necessarily precisely identical, people. Thus, the geoengineering context is one of non-ideal justice such that serious rights violations appear to be inevitable no matter what we do. Of course, we can adopt the view, often described as a ‘consequentialism of rights,’ where we try to minimize rights violations. But if we think that we cannot murder one in order to prevent five murders, then we need to reject rights aggregation as a way to solve conflicts. On the other hand, we do not want to be powerless to stop moral catastrophes because we must keep our own moral characters pristine. In other words, there needs to be a middle ground between a kind of idealism that tells us to respect rights even if the heavens fall and a kind of pragmatism that permits rights violations whenever doing so produces a greater good.

I want to suggest that this middle ground is captured by the philosophical idea, popularized by Michael Walzer, of ‘dirty hands.’ Dirty hands occur when a person must do something that violates the principles of normal morality—dirty one’s hands—in order to generate some significant good. Typical, though not unproblematic, examples would be that of a person who must torture a terrorist in order to defuse a nuclear bomb or Churchill ordering the carpet bombing of German cities during the Blitz. Often, dirty hands are associated with specific roles; politicians, generals, or soldiers may have special duties to pursue the common good at the cost of their own personal morality. But what’s the point of saying that torture is wrong if you are nonetheless obligated to torture? And isn’t it paradoxical to claim that it might be necessary to do something wrong? One possible answer is that retaining the wrongness of torture permits or justifies certain social responses that would otherwise be problematic. For example, we might want to punish or condemn the torturer for their action even if we acknowledge that, in some sense, she had to do it. In other words, these social responses represent a way of respecting a set of values even when they must be breached.

This suggests a different strategy for justifying geoengineering. Rather than argue that marginalized populations or their representatives have a special normative permission to engage in risky geoengineering, we could argue that these agents are appropriately placed to ‘dirty their hands’ by doing wrong in the name of the greater good. But in order for a dirty hand analysis to be appropriate, we need to figure out a few things. First, we need to understand what makes the context relevant for dirty hands. After all, our commitment to rights would be meaningless if one could invoke dirty hands whenever one needed to violate them in order to serve some common good. We need three things. First, we need a context that makes dirty hands appropriate. Second, we need to understand the demands of the role that makes it the specific obligation of marginalized agents to dirty their hands. Finally, we need an account of the appropriate social responses in response to dirty hands.

The context of dirty hands is often one where others impose a bad choice upon the agent. An agent faces the choice of torturing or allowing thousands to die because of the vicious actions of others. Similarly, marginalized agents are faced with the hard choice of harming other oppressed peoples through geoengineering or allowing themselves to suffer negative consequences because of the unjust actions of others. Those marginalized groups are not themselves responsible for the normative bind that entraps them. This does not necessarily make risky actions right, since they are likely to harm other people who are also marginalized or oppressed. Yet, if some other agent or agents are imposing a hard choice on them, then the moral dynamics of that choice may change.

So, we have a potential dirty hands context. However, usually a claim that one must dirty one’s hands is associated with some kind of political role where the person has an additional obligation to pursue the common good. This means that the claim that geoengineering is a case of justified dirty hands cannot be made by just anyone; it should be a political agent that represents, in some sense, the interests of those presented with the imposed choice. This has two implications. First, states that are primarily responsible for imposing the choice of geoengineering or climate change impacts are debarred from making the choice to geoengineer unless the oppressed agents voluntarily designate them through some kind of collective political mechanism. Second, marginalized and oppressed agents will need to find an agent that plays the appropriate representative role in order to make the decision to dirty their hands. Broadly speaking, oppressed and marginalized agents will need to engage in inclusive decision-making. I would suggest that that this requires, at the very least, two things. First, inclusive decision-making, on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized, requires mechanisms of contestation and public justification of the decisions made by the representatives. Second, it also requires the representatives to make choices that reflect an equitable distribution of the risks across the endangered class.

For example, suppose that a country or set of countries that had low per capita emissions yet very high exposure to negative climate change impacts decided to pool resources in order to engage in risky geoengineering. In order for these agents to properly represent the relevant endangered class, they would need to provide a forum where complaints from the rest of the world could be heard and addressed. Second, these nations would need to choose a geoengineering suite that did not maximize their own interests but distributed the risks and benefits of their decision fairly across the class of individuals who will be innocently harmed by their actions. These standards, of course, fall far short of anything like democratic representations. But if the nations of the world could get together to truly decide—in a legitimate fashion—to respond to climate change, then we would not be in the kind of non-ideal context where we would want to dirty our hands in the first place. However, it should not follow from the fact that optimal choices are unavailable to use that therefore there are no constraints on how to behave at all.

We have the context and the political role. Risky geoengineering is, ex hypothesi, wrongful. Yet, if performed by an agent that has had a bad choice unjustly imposed upon them and if the decision is made in an appropriately representative fashion, then marginalized agents may dirty their hands by engaging in risky geoengineering. Yet, we need to respect the norms that this choice violates by describing an appropriate set of social and psychological responses to that wrong-doing. First, those who are harmed by the risky geoengineering are owed compensation, and this is true even if their communities net benefit from the geoengineering when compared to business as usual. Second, the most important appropriate social response to wrong-doing in most contexts is that of resistance. The normative dynamics of a dirty hands context are complex. Just as we might punish the torturer despite the fact they are obligated to torture, we might appropriately resist the actions of those who are dirtying their hands. So, if other marginalized groups protest the action or decide to counter-engineer their decision, then that may be their right. Of course, those dirtying their hands need not merely accept that resistance but may also attempt to overcome it. Thus, we have a circumstance where both sides may have decisive reasons to do what they are doing and those reasons work against each other.

Unsurprisingly, non-ideal contexts are morally complex, with cross-cutting obligations and reasons for action. There is no guarantee that these obligations will nicely coordinate or correspond to one another. In fact, we might think that a defining feature of a morally non-ideal context is that they do not. So, we can live in the apparently paradoxical world where an agent can be obligated to take actions that others are obligated to resist. Yet, as Aristotle once said, we should aim for the level of rigor and clarity that is appropriate to subject matter; misplaced coherence and precision is no virtue.

Patrick Taylor Smith, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.  He is writing a book titled “A Leap Into Darkness: Domination and the Normative Structure of International Politics,” and researches climate change and climate engineering. His papers can be found here.


The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on climate engineering.