Is Machiavelli a Teacher of Evil?
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Published: Wed, 09 May 2018
This essay will consider whether or not Machiavelli was a teacher of evil, with specific reference to his text ‘The Prince’. It shall first be shown what it was that Machiavelli taught and how this can only be justified by consequentialism. It shall then be discussed whether consequentialism is a viable ethical theory, in order that it can justify Machiavelli’s teaching. Arguing that this is not the case, it will be concluded that Machiavelli is a teacher of evil.
To begin, it shall be shown what Machiavelli taught or suggested be adopted in order for a ruler to maintain power. To understand this, it is necessary to understand the political landscape of the period.
The Prince was published posthumously in 1532, and was intended as a guidebook to rulers of principalities. Machiavelli was born in Italy and, during that period, there were many wars between the various states which constituted Italy. These states were either republics (governed by an elected body) or principalities (governed by a monarch or single ruler). The Prince was written and dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici who was in charge of Florence which, though a republic, was autocratic, like a principality. Machiavelli’s work aimed to give Lorenzo de Medici advice to rule as an autocratic prince. (Nederman, 2014)
The ultimate objective to which Machiavelli aims in The Prince is for a prince to remain in power over his subjects. Critics who claim that Machiavelli is evil do not hold this view, necessarily, because of this ultimate aim, but by the way in which Machiavelli advises achieving it. This is because, to this ultimate end, Machiavelli holds that no moral or ethical expense need be spared. This is the theme which runs constant through the work. For example, in securing rule over the subjects of a newly acquired principality, which was previously ruled by another prince, Machiavelli writes:
“… to hold them securely enough is to have destroyed the family of the prince who was ruling them.” (Machiavelli, 1532: 7).
That is, in order to govern a new principality, it is necessary that the family of the previous prince be “destroyed”. Further, the expense of morality is not limited to physical acts, such as the murder advised, but deception and manipulation. An example of this is seen in that Machiavelli claims:
“Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful.” (Machiavelli, 1532: 81).
Here, Machiavelli is claiming that virtues are necessary to a ruler only insomuch as the ruler appears to have them. However, to act only by the virtues will be, ultimately, detrimental to the maintenance of the ruler, as they may often have to act against the virtues to quell a rebellion, for example. A prince must be able to appear just, so that he is trusted, but actually not be so, in order that he may maintain his dominance.
In all pieces of advice, Machiavelli claims that it is better to act in the way he advises, for to do otherwise would lead to worse consequences: the end of the rule. The defence which is to be made for Machiavelli, then, must come from a consequentialist viewpoint.
Consequentialist theory argues that the morality of an action is dependent upon its consequences. If the act or actions create consequences that, ultimately, are better (however that may be measured) than otherwise, the action is good. However, if a different act could, in that situation, have produced better consequences, then the action taken would be immoral.
The classic position of consequentialism is utilitarianism. First argued for by Bentham, he claimed that two principles govern mankind – pleasure and pain – and it is to achieve the former and avoid the latter that determines how we act (Bentham, 1789: 14). This is done either on an individual basis, or a collective basis, depending on the situation. In the first of these cases, the good action is the one which gives the individual the most pleasure or the least pain. In the second of these cases, the good action is the one which gives the collective group the most pleasure or the least pain. The collective group consists of individuals, and therefore the good action will produce most pleasure if it does so for the most amount of people (Bentham, 1789: 15). Therefore, utilitarianism claims that an act is good iff its consequences produce the greatest amount of happiness (or pleasure) for the greatest amount of people, or avoid the greatest amount of unhappiness (or pain) for the greatest amount of people.
This, now outlined, can be used to defend Machiavelli’s advice. If the ultimate goal is achieved, the consequence of the prince remaining in power must cause more happiness for more of his subjects than would otherwise be the case if he lost power. Secondly, the pain and suffering caused by the prince on the subjects whom he must murder/deceive/steal from must be less than the suffering which would be caused should he lose power. If these two criteria can be satisfied, then consequentialism may justify Machiavelli.
Further, it is practically possible that such a set of circumstances could arise; it is conceivable that it could be the case that the suffering would be less should the prince remain in power. Italy, as stated, at that time, was in turmoil and many wars were being fought. A prince remaining in power would also secure internal peace for a principality and the subjects. A prince who lost power would leave the land open to attacks and there would be a greater suffering for the majority of the populous. On the subject, Machiavelli writes:
“As there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws.” (Machiavelli, 1532: 55)
This highlights the turmoil of the world at that time, and the importance of power, both military and lawful, for peace. Machiavelli, in searching for the ultimate end for the prince retaining his power, would also secure internal peace and defence of the principality. This would therefore mean that there would be less destruction and suffering for the people.
Defended by consequentialism, the claim that Machiavelli is evil becomes an argument against this moral theory. The criticisms against consequentialism are manifold. A first major concern against consequentialism is that it justifies actions which seem to be intuitively wrong, such as murder or torture, on not just an individual basis, but on a mass scale. Take the following example: in a war situation, the only way to save a million and a half soldiers is to kill a million civilians. Consequentialism justifies killing the million civilians as the suffering will be less than if a million and a half soldiers were to die. If consequentialism must be used in order to justify Machiavelli’s teachings, it must therefore be admitted that this act of mass murder, in the hypothetical situation, would also be justified.
A second major concern is that it uses people as means, rather than ends, and this seems to be something which is intuitively incorrect, as evidenced in the trolley problem. The trolley problem is thus: a train, out of control, is heading towards five workers on the track. The driver has the opportunity to change to another track, on which there is a single worker. Thomson argues it would be “morally permissible” to change track and kill the one (Thomson, 1985: 1395). However, the consequentialist would here state that “morality requires you” to change track (Thomson, 1985: 1395), as there is less suffering in one dying than in five dying. The difference in these two stances is to be noted.
Thomson then provides another situation: the transplant problem. A surgeon is able to transplant any body part to another without failure. In the hospital the surgeon works at, five people are in need of a single organ, without which they will die. Another person, visiting for a check-up, is found to be a complete match for all the transplants needed. Thomson asks whether it would be permissible for the surgeon to kill the one and distribute their organs for those who would die (Thomson, 1985: 1395-1396). Though she claims that it would not be morally permissible to do so, those who claimed that changing tracks in the trolley problem would be a moral requirement – the consequentialists – would also have to claim that murdering the one to save five would also be a moral requirement, as the most positive outcome would be given to the most people.
Herein lies the major concern for a consequentialist, and therefore Machiavelli’s defence: that consequentialism justifies using people as means to an end, and not an end within themselves. A criticism of this is famously argued for by Kant, who claims that humans are rational beings, and we do not state that they are “things”, but instead call them “persons” (Kant, 1785: 46). Only things can permissibly be used only as a means, and not persons, who are in themselves an end (Kant, 1785: 46). To use a person merely as a means rather than an end is to treat them as something other than a rational agent which, Kant claims, is immoral.
This now must be applied to Machiavelli. In advising the murder and deception of others, he is advocating treating people as merely a means, by using them in order to obtain the ultimate end of retaining power. Though this ultimate end may bring about greater peace, and therefore pleasure for a greater amount of people, it could be argued that the peace obtained does not outweigh the immoral actions required in creating this peace.
Further, it must also be discussed whether Machiavelli’s teaching is in pursuit of a prince retaining power in order to bring about peace, or whether it is in pursuit of retaining power simply that the prince may retain power. The former option may be justifiable, if consequentialism is accepted. However, this may not the case for the latter, even if peace is obtained.
Machiavelli’s motives will never be truly known. Such a problem as this demonstrates further criticisms of consequentialism, and therefore Machiavelli himself. If he was advising to achieve power for the sake of achieving power, he would not be able to justify the means to this end without the end providing a consequentialist justification – if, ultimately, the prince retains power but there is not a larger of amount of pleasure than would otherwise be the case.
To pursue power in order to promote peace is perhaps justifiable. However, as is a major concern with the normative approach of consequentialism, the unpredictability of consequences can lead to unforeseen ends. The hypothetical prince may take Machiavelli’s advice, follow it to the letter, and produce one of three outcomes:
- Power is obtained and peace is obtained.
- Power is obtained but peace is not obtained.
- Neither power nor peace is obtained.
Only in the first of these outcomes can there be any consequentialist justification. However, this then means that there are two possible outcomes in which there cannot be a consequentialist justification, and it is impossible to know, truly, which outcome will be obtained. This is the criticism of both Machiavelli and consequentialism: that the risk involved in acting is too great, with such a chance of failure and therefore unjustifiable actions, when it is impossible to truly know the outcomes of actions. The nature of the risk is what makes this unjustifiable, in that the risk is against human life, wellbeing, and safety. Machiavelli condones using people as merely a means to an end without the guarantee of a positive end by a consequentialist justification.
In conclusion, it has been briefly demonstrated what Machiavelli put forward as his teachings. It was further shown how the only justification for Machiavelli’s teachings is a consequentialist approach. However, criticisms put against Machiavelli and consequentialism, such as the justification of mass atrocities, using people as means to ends, and the unpredictability of the pragmatic implementation, show it to fail as an acceptable justification of his teachings. Therefore, it is concluded that Machiavelli is a teacher of evil.
Bentham, J. (1798). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Accessed online at: http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/bentham/morals.pdf. Last accessed on 26/09/2015.
Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited and Translated by Wood, A. (2002). New York: Vail-Ballou Press.
Machiavelli, N. (1532). The Prince. Translated by Marriott, W. K. (1908). London: David Campbell Publishers.
Nederman, C. (2012). Nicollo Machiavelli. Accessed online at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/. Last accessed on 02/10/2015.
Thomson, J. J. (1985). The Trolley Problem. The Yale Law Journal. Vol. 94, No. 6, pp. 1395-1415.
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