Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Research Student: Dr Demetris Tillyris

Political Morality and the Problem of Dirty Hands: A Philosophical Critique and Re-interpretation.

Photo of Dr Demetris Tillyris

My main area of expertise lies in contemporary political theory and the history of political thought. I am particularly interested in questions of public ethics - the problem of dirty hands in politics, value pluralism, moral conflict, the distinctiveness of public virtue and integrity and the tradition of political realism.

My PhD thesis sought to reconceptualise what it means to have dirty hands in politics. In particular, my thesis articulated a novel critique of Michael Walzer’s DH thesis and a new interpretation of the DH problem.

The DH thesis purports to capture Machiavelli’s challenge: it argues that successful political action and ordinary morality conflict; in certain circumstances politicians may be required to act immorally. First, I argued that, despite its Machiavellian lineage, the DH thesis misconstrues Machiavelli’s thought: it fails to live up to its claim to capture the moral messiness of politics and collapses into the idealism it seeks to evade. The DH thesis is inadequately static: it conceives the conflict between morality and politics as a single, rare paradox of action – a tragic anomaly disrupting the normality of harmony. Consequently, it misconceives the extent of the rift between morality and politics: Machiavelli’s thought is supplanted by an unsatisfactory vision of honesty and harmony. But it also misconceives the nature of the rift. For, Machiavelli does not say that one must merely ‘learn how not to act well’. Machiavelli is clear that ‘one must learn how not to be good’.

By exploring this discrepancy, I demonstrated that the DH thesis’ overemphasis on action fails to capture the way moral character - in particular, innocence as a disposition - jeopardizes politics. I then sought to develop a dynamic account that captures DH in all its complexity and restores Machiavelli’s lost insights. This was achieved by turning to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account in After Virtue. In developing a dynamic account of DH, I used elements from Macintyre’s account as a theoretical premise upon which I grounded Machiavelli’s insights on political agency and virtù.

The key insight of the dynamic account is that approaching political ethics entails conceiving politics as a distinct practice and a way of life. Viewed in these terms, DH involves a conflict between two incompatible ways of life, each with its own virtues and standards of excellence. Hence, the dynamic account captures a more crucial paradox, the paradox of character: virtuous politicians should become partially vicious and no longer innocent. A virtuous political life requires the cultivation and exhibition of certain moral vices, such as cruelty, hypocrisy and compromise. 

Key Publications

  • Learning how not to be Good: Machiavelli and The Standard Dirty Hands Thesis. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (2014). DOI: 10.1007/s10677-014-9508-x
  • After The Standard Dirty Hands Thesis: Towards a Dynamic Account of Dirty Hands (under review).
  • The Virtue of Vice: A Defense of Hypocrisy in Democratic Politics. Political Studies (under review).
  • Compromise, Political Integrity and The Ambiguities of Betrayal (in preparation).


  • Research Excellence Award, School of Education, Social Sciences and Law (ESSL), The University of Leeds, 2014.
  • ESRC PhD Grant (stipend), POLIS, The University of Leeds, 2010 to 2013.
  • ESRC PhD Grant (tuition fees), ESSL, The University of Leeds, 2010 to 2013

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