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In some Japanese anime one of the characters presented the following paradox:

“What do you do when there is an evil you cannot defeat by just means? Do you stain your hands with evil to destroy evil? Or do you remain steadfastly just and righteous even if it means surrendering to evil?”

Another character denounced the paradox involved when she said "in any case, evil remains." I suppose that paradox is probably famous (or refers/alude to a famous one), but googling about it I can't find its real author. Someone has a clue about it?

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  • Doesn't seem like much of a paradox to me, at least not from a Utilitarian perspective: which is the lesser evil? The bad guy and the actions he'll take if you don't kill him, or killing the bad guy? If he's just going to jaywalk, don't kill him. If he's going to nuke New York City, kill him. In any case, you'll probably have a more fruitful search starting with the English idiom "don't sink to his level".
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 4, 2016 at 17:42
  • That affirmation of yours is true only if we could be sure that the "new evil" will be lesser than the destroyed one. We can picture a scenario where the destroyed evil had born from the same process than this new one, and never recognized how much it decayed (as we humans tend to ignore so much about ourselves). As we cannot evaluate this presented problem, the continuity of evil represents a paradox, as in any given path, evil remains. Dec 4, 2016 at 17:51
  • That's not a paradox, that's uncertainty. Uncertainty is inherent in every decision. We cannot know the future, we can only make the best informed decision we can make at the time, and react accordingly to the outcome. In a more clinical example: should you invest in stocks or real-estate? You won't know til 10 years from now which was the better decision, but does that make the question a paradox? Is there no rational way, now, absent a crystal ball, to make a decision? Of course there is. The cartoon "paradox" is just that - a cartoon "paradox", scare quotes included.
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 4, 2016 at 18:01
  • why don't you send an email to the author of the script? maybe he came up with it originally. I would love to hear the answer.
    – nir
    Dec 4, 2016 at 20:12
  • Can you make clearer the question you have about philosophy. I'm seeing the lines from the anime but what is the objectively answerable question about philosophy?
    – virmaior
    Dec 4, 2016 at 23:04

2 Answers 2

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The problem of dirty hands goes back at least to Machiavelli, but was "resurrected" mostly by Michael Walzer. From the linked-to SEP article:

Should political leaders violate the deepest constraints of morality in order to achieve great goods or avoid disasters for their communities? This question poses what has become known amongst philosophers as the problem of dirty hands. There are many different strands to the philosophical debate about this topic, and they echo many of the complexities in more popular thinking about politics and morality. All, however, involve the idea that correct political action must sometimes conflict with profound moral norms. This entry seeks to unravel these strands and clarify the central normative issues about politics that the cry of ‘dirty hands’ evokes. Beginning with an illustrative passage from a renowned 19th century English novel, the essay traces the dirty hands tradition back to Machiavelli, though its present vogue is owed mostly to the writings of the distinguished American political theorist, Michael Walzer. Walzer’s views are explored in the light of earlier theorists such as Machiavelli and Max Weber and certain vacillations in his intellectual posture are briefly discussed. This leads to the posing of five issues with which the entry is principally concerned. First, is the dirty hands problem simply confused and its formulation the merest contradiction? Second, does the overriding of moral constraints take place within morality or somehow beyond it? Third, can the cry of dirty hands be restricted wholly or principally to politics or does it speak equally to other areas of life, and, where politics is concerned, do only the principal agents get dirty hands or do their citizens share in the taint? This is the problem of scope. Fourth, how are the circumstances that call for dirty hands best described? Fifth, the dirty hands problem has affinities with the problem raised by moral dilemmas, but the question is: should those similarities be allowed to obscure significant differences?

In the course of addressing these issues, the dirty hands challenge is also distinguished from that of political realism, with which it has some affinities, and the resort to role morality to render dirty hands coherent is discussed, as is the issue of the desirability of shaming or punishing dirty hands agents. The relevance of “threshold deontology” is explored, and it is suggested that much of the point of invoking dirty hands comes from an ambiguous attitude to absolute moral prohibitions, combining a rejection of them with a certain wistful attachment to their flavour.

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  • +1 Yeah, this should be selected as the answer. The SEP article is pretty authoritative.
    – J D
    Dec 6, 2023 at 22:06
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    @JD I saw the question on the sidebar for the more recently bountied one that is looking for a source for a quote/proposition, I sort of checked to see how old it was but posted a reply anyway :p hopefully I can "resurrect" the OP poster's presence here! Dec 6, 2023 at 22:14
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In this context it's really more of a trope than anything else; but the philosophical reference might be to Nietzsche (battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, from Beyond Good and Evil).

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