Machiavelli Essay, Research Paper
Machiavelli Students of political philosophy are well acquainted with the liberal scholars who laid the foundation for democracies in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere Indeed, many of these philosophers, including John Locke, are revered. At the other end of the popularity spectrum, however, is the philosopher Niccolo Machiavellie. To him, acts of morality or benevolence on the part of a political leader or ruler could undermine political stability and national interests. Because of these reasons, Machiavelli argued that lying, cheating, and even acts of brutality were virtuous qualities in the pursuit and maintenance of political power and national interests. Simply put, Machiavelli called for a separation of morality from the political arena. While his views are often considered disturbing, Machiavellie often appears misunderstood, and his scholarly contribution is an important one. Some even contend that his views reflect empirical inquiry, and that his impact on modern political science is often overlooked The purpose of this essay is to discuss Machiavellie’s thoughts regarding the separation of morality or ethics from the political arena. It will then evaluate his thoughts and argue that morality does, in practical terms, need to be separated from certain government activities or objectives. Finally, some concluding remarks will be offered. To begin, however, it is necessary to provide some background. Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence (Italy). He served as a bureaucrat and diplomat for this city-state republic. Over a period of about 14 years, he helped organize Florence’s militia, and was involved in several diplomatic missions throughout Italy and Europe. Over time Machiavelli received a practical education in the realities of diplomacy and politics (Jones, p. 22). More important, he gathered day-to-day insights into the ways in which powerful men kept and extended their power. For instance, he was sent to Romagna as a representative to Cesare Borgia. Here he gained a respect for Borgia’s boldness, deceptive tactics, and his ability to use cruelty (Jones, p 24). But in 1512 Florence was conquered and the Medici family (monarchs) was restored to power. However, because Machiavelli was a republican, he was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned (Jones, p. 24 ). He was later released, and retired to a farm where he focused on his writings. It was there that Machiavelli completed his best known work, “The Prince.” The book was actually a letter intended for the restored prince, Guilano Medici. Some believe his book was simply an attempt to gain Guilano’s favor, and encourage him to restore Machiavellie in some political capacity. However, the Prince was largely indifferent to his writings, and Machiavelli languished outside the center of political power. While best known for his book, “The Prince”, Machiavellie also wrote the Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence among others. Many scholars contend that Machiavelli’s other works offer a better sense of the scope and complexity of his thoughts. This may be one reason Machiavelli appears to be misunderstood. At any rate, the purpose of “The Prince” is really quite simple. It is essentially a practical handbook for a monarch (or despot) to retain power and flourish. The underlying objective is to gain and maintain power, regardless of moral considerations and the effects this may have on others. ones, p 39). He simply says if the prince wants to retain power, he must follow the steps in his “handbook”. The sheer audacity of his book’s advice largely explains why Machiavelli is considered despicable (although a few famous tyrants owe him their thanks). What distinguished “The Prince”, however, is that the person (the prince) seeking power must engage in immoral acts. Machiavellie’s prescriptions for power include lying, deception, brutality, and cruelty. For the individual, or prince, these immoral prescriptions are not options; instead, they are conditions for power (Zeitlin, p.71). It is here that Machiavelli makes a distinction between political morality and private morality (e.g. a moral duality). In fact, Machiavelli refers to acts of immorality as “virtues” (Jones, p 42). The concept of “virtue” in Machiavelli’s mind, as in the Greek tradition, is not whether something is “good” or “bad”. Rather, something is virtuous if it fulfills its function . In Machiavelli’s view, dishonesty, brutality, etc. are all virtues. This is because they are behaviors that will keep the Prince in power (e.g. I will lie as a means to secure my power, therefore lying is virtuous). The following words of Machiavelli provide a good synthesis of his views: “How laudable it is for a prince to keep good faith and live with integrity, and not with astuteness, every one knows. Still the experience of our times shows those princes to have great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men’s brains and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation….A prince being thus obligated to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from the wolves, One therefore must be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves…Those that wish only to be lions do not understand this. Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith whereby doing it would be against this interest….If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are all bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.” (Jones, p 44) What Machiavellie shows here is that a good prince knows when to be a lion and when to be a fox. At times, political opponents might need to exterminated. There are other times, however, when lies and deception will serve better. Ultimately, the “good” prince is an expert at dispensing the right immoral medicine in the right situation. Other good examples of Machiavellie’s ruthless prescriptions for leaders can be found in the art of ruling. For example, when despots or rulers have recently overthrown republics, Machiavelli endorses cruelty as a necessary means to gain immediate control. He says, “…that the conqueror must arrange to commit all cruelties at once, so as not to have to recur to them every day…. “(Jones, 45). But perhaps he best know assertions is that, “..it is better to be feared, than loved” (Jones, 43). What this means is that acts of intimidation, threats, and brutality offers a better foundation for security than “love”. Other important lessons Machiavellie offers the prince includes the use of persuasion, how to act decisively, and how to maintain a strong army. Clearly, Machiavelli offers the prince some disturbing advice. But before answering the question first posed, it is important to place his philosophy and theory in an appropriate context. First, Machiavelli’s thoughts were reflections of historical events (Zeitlin, p.74). His writings are filled with references to events where weak leadership ultimately lead to political chaos. Many historical leaders, as he points out, lacked the resolve, will, or constitution to make decisions which were ultimately in the best interest of the state. In other words, Machiavellie was a realist, and used history to make is point. His suggestion that there are two kinds of moralities was, in some senses, was an empirical insight (Smith, p. 97). As opposed to other philosophers who explain morality and ethics in more abstract terms, Machiavellie injected a dose of honesty . Again, he observed the dark side of human political behavior through history and then used the resulting insights to provide prescriptions for those acting in the political arena. Thus, Machiavelli offered some measure of objectivity ( approximating even empirical insights). Further, he believed that acts of immorality in the short-run would eventually lead to peace, stability, and security, conditions which all citizens could benefit from.
So, this said, does there need to be two standards of morality, one in the political world, and one in the private? In strict philosophical and theoretical terms, not necessarily. With radical changes the world could evolve into some type of Utopian society , where notions of morality are culturally transcendental and pervade all aspects of the world’s political, economic, and social systems. In practical terms, however, this possibility is far fetched. The world is comprised of nation states that possess constitutions. They define the role of governments, their powers, and the rights of citizens. However, governments often share conflicting /competing goals. Where there are competing objectives and self-interests, immorality usually follows. The role of governments, and the politicians who run them, is to serve the best interests of their respective peoples. In the United States, for instance, the government helps uphold the rights and obligations of economic laws and contracts. In the international arena, the government’s military helps protect economic assets or interests. However, the constitution, obviously, does not prescribe remedies for all situations. Most people assume that the government will project a noble foreign policy stance. But when self-interest is at stake, the public may implicitly support government actions that include lies (propaganda), deceit (ignore treatise), or brutally suppress (i.e. military) a population to achieve desirable objectives. For instance, political or economic bargaining (diplomacy) at the nation-state level is sometimes mutually beneficial and, in other cases, zero sum. But usually one of the nations comes out ahead. A free trade agreement, for example, is negotiated with the view that nation A will try to leverage more benefits or advantages from nation B. Negotiators do not announce that they will engage in lies, deceit, or other immoral means to leverage better results (and if they caught lying, the perception is that the ends usually justify the means). They are well aware that noble qualities of complete honesty and transparency should best be reserved for “fools”. When everyone assumes dishonesty, deceit, and the promotion of self-interest are underlying realities, there may not even really be an issue of morality. Perhaps morality has been reduced to a smile and a handshake? The point is that there is a tacit understanding between leaders and their constituents that negotiators will use whatever means they can to leverage benefits. What is at stake is the greater good for their country. The broader public implicitly sanctions whatever means are necessary to achieve the socially desirable goal. There may be some internal “moral” dissent regarding the means to achieve the socially desirable goal, but it is usually pushed aside. Moreover, it seems that immorality has been institutionalized. A good example of this in the international arena is the CIA (or KGB). It has a long history of using immoral means to promote the US’s self-interests. At times the CIA s has been implicated in reprehensible acts that have shocked the public. Likewise, certain Middle East governments have been implicated in immoral acts that have shocked their own public. But these types of institutions continue, because they are considered expedient. The survival of these types of institutions reflects a tacit agreement on the part of their respective populations that there are two types of acceptable morality; one in private, and one in public. This said, it appears that politics, especially at the international level, demands a different moral standard. Perhaps morality is not really even desirable at this level. For instance, in some wealthy Western and Arab states, we enjoy high standards of living. But what this means is that parts of the world consume more, and some consume less. When the US entered NAFTA, it was not thinking of dividing up the world’s resources more equitably or giving Mexico concessions on moral grounds. Likewise, when OPEC discusses oil price increases, it is not thinking about how its actions might affect the balance of payments of some developing nations. The implications of these actions may very well be immoral. Yet these implications go unchallenged, because they serve our own self-interests. However, political immorality at the nation-state level has not destroyed private morality. For the most part, many developed nations are moral, functioning societies. While concepts of morality have changed, the people of most developed nations respect laws, feel safe, and enjoy a high standard of living. Though some would argue differently, political immorality has not caused the breakdown of private morality. In conclusion, we have seen that Machiavelli offers some dark yet compelling insights regarding political power. By substituting the “prince” with “nation-states”, this paper has argued that actions of political immorality at the government level is necessary, mainly because immorality has become institutionalized and pervasive. The reality is that nation-states are competitive, and will use deceit, etc. to gain advantages over others. At the same time, actions of political immorality have been tacitly approved by the broader public since these actions often support their own self-interests. The truth is Machiavelli’s insights largely reflect reality. He has, however, been demonized for delivering some honest observations almost five hundred years ago. Perhaps the more recent attention Machiavelli has received by business scholars (e.g. strategies in the “brutal global economy” ) offers him some vindication. Sources Cited Jones, W.T. Masters of Political Philosophy. New York: Core Collection Books, 1978 Smith, Bruce J. Politics and Remembrance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985 Zeitlin, Irving M. Rulers and Ruled. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997