If man is not inherently immoral then security can be achieved without the iron fist of the state and Machiavelli’s justification of the immoral acts performed by a prince in order to preserve security fails. Such acts may have been expedient at a time of political anarchy but are no longer relevant as mankind has arguably advanced since then. A common analogy is ‘the prince is to the corrupt political community what the doctor is to the sick patient: a “saviour” of life, an indispensable person. Medicine (force) should be applied for the sake of the patient, not for the personal satisfaction or gain of the prince.
‘(12) This obviously replies on society being ‘sick’ in the first place, though most would agree that some measure of ‘medicine’ is necessary to maintain order. If we do accept that man is naturally violent and selfish then Machiavelli is justified in attempting to find a political system that takes account of this. He does this by making the distinction between public and private morality. He said that what may be considered immoral in the private, individual sphere might not be so in the public sphere where the prince operates.
Machiavelli was not an advocate of immoral behaviour to satisfy one’s own ends; he still broadly believed that the prince should act morally the only exception being when the security of the state was at risk, ‘a prince must not worry about the reproach of cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and loyal; for with a very few examples of cruelty he will be more compassionate than those who, out of excess mercy, permit disorders to continue, from which arise murders and plundering, for these usually harm the community at large, while the executions that come from the prince harm particular individuals'(3).
It is not the cruelty per se that should be judged but the appropriateness of the use of brute force and the likelihood of it preventing further harm. This principle is one still used in the assessment of ‘just war’; the use of violence in order to prevent further violence is a widespread moral position. The preservation of the common good at the expense of certain individuals sounds distinctly like Bentham’s utilitarianism, albeit taken to its worst excess.
But it is true that modern society seems to adopt many Machiavellian principles, considering them to be moral. At times of national emergency it is considered prudent to impede the life and liberties of certain individuals in order to preserve the common good. One might cite the current internment without trial of suspected terrorists as an example of a Machiavellian act. Machiavelli believed the difference between action in private and public spheres was so vast that the public acts of the prince could not be judged by the same criteria as the citizen.
Private conscience was completely distinct from politics (4). What is moral for the individual may not be moral for the prince as his key objective is the maintenance of an independent state not obedience to his private conscience. He goes on to describe the qualities that a prince should have and behaviour that is acceptable. When describing how princedoms are gained Machiavelli states that the previous prince’s family should be sought out and killed so that the peace is not disturbed by those loyal to the former prince.
Also, that customs and traditions should be observed but that a common language should be imposed in the name of unity and that land should be taken and re-distributed to the prince’s own people. If these conditions are imposed then the local population will either submit or disperse; this strategy seems to be taken directly from the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic was of course hugely successful but it is also generally viewed a morally dubious. However this kind of imperialism still exists, less so in a an military sense but certainly in an economic sense
This kind of disrespect for the rights and property of the population completely departs from the liberal tradition in which we live today. However, though we may frown upon it is a strategy still employed today, even by Western government who regard themselves as more ‘civilised’. For example after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein it was seen as politically expedient to eliminate anyone with ties to the old regime. This transgression of private moral codes by statesman in the name of stability is unquestionably a Machiavellian act.
Few people would consider such acts to be moral but many still consider them to be necessary; once again people would argue that the rights of the community override the rights of the individuals. If we consider Machiavelli to be immoral then we must also reflect on our own political tradition, as ‘it is impossible for any reader of Machiavelli to avoid some sort of application to the affairs of the world of his own age. ‘ (11) Machiavelli states that it is better for a prince to appear miserly than generous, as one who uses taxes prudently will be afforded greater respect by the people.
However, he seems to advocate generosity as long as it is not recognised and is exercised in a ‘wise and appropriate’ manner. ‘If generosity if publicly recognised, then the ruler must distort it, turn it into excess, in short become lavish and bring ruin’ (5). It is also said that cruelty rather than mercy as ‘nothing uses itself up as fast as does liberality; as you practice it, you lose the power to practice it, and grow either poor and despised or, to escape poverty, grasping and hated.
‘ (6) He cites the example of Scipio who, though he was moral in his private life failed as a leader because of showing too much mercy, whereas those who show no moral fibre in their private lives tend to make excellent statesmen. Similarly with honesty; Machiavelli does not deny that honesty is desirable and that one should be honest under normal circumstances but also asserts that ‘a wise ruler cannot and should not keep his word when such an observance of faith would be to his disadvantage and when the reasons which made him promise are removed.
‘(7) The qualities highlighted above allow the prince to avoid submitting to the uncertainties Fortuna with virtu. The traditional virtue that he does not condemn is selflessness; all the immoral behaviour he justifies is out of a desire to maintain order and preserve the life and liberties of the citizens on the whole. One might argue that it is impossible to differentiate between a prince that acts out of concern for his citizens from a prince who is merely in the grip of megalomania.
For Machiavelli this distinction might not be significant, his philosophy is distinctly consequentialist. He is credited with the expression ‘the ends justify the means’, so however the state is preserved and the motivations of those who enforce it are really inconsequential. It might be argued that it is hard to call Machiavelli a ‘moral thinker’ as he spends a great deal of time justifying immoral actions without specifying what constitutes a moral life.
His cynical view of human nature seems to be at odds with his belief in moral action in the private sphere. However, Machiavelli seemed to consider this moral deficiency a consequence of the anarchic state of Italy and it was his intention to create a political model within which private conscience could flourish. His admiration of private conscience seems to be as great as his admiration for public ruthlessness. For Machiavelli politics was about the pursuit of political good not the ruthless pursuit of power that has come to be associated with his name.
His theories conflict with most other moral theories. The immoral actions of the prince would be condemned as inherently wrong by the deontologist and even the most hardened modern consequentialist would probably find fault with them. In light of modern states it is apparent that the prince, who may be likened to many modern dictators, would find it extremely hard not to submit to the desire for personal gain at the expense of his people.
However, these are practical difficulties and although Machiavelli may have been wrong about what constitutes a good political leader it is hard to argue that his works have no moral dimension. Machiavelli readily acknowledges the worth of the moral good but believes that in order for it to exist the political good must take primacy. References 1. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli, Trans. George Bull, Penguin Books Ltd. 2003 2. The Discourses, Niccolo Machiavelli, Trans. Brian Richardson, Penguin Books Ltd.
1983 3. The Prince, Op cit. Chapter XVII 4. A Guide to the Political Classics, Forsyth, M. Ed. Oxford University Press, 1988 5. The Prince, Op cit. Chapter XVI 6. Ibid. Chapter XV 7. Ibid. Chapter XVII 8. Ibid. Chapter XVII 9. Discourses, Op cit. Book1, Chapter XII 10. The Political Calculus – Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, Parel, A. Ed. University of Toronto Press 1972. Chapter I 11. Ibid, Chapter I 12. Ibid, Chapter II. 13. Political Theory in Retrospect, Williams, G. Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
1991, Chapter VI Bibliography 1. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli, Trans. George Bull, Penguin Books Ltd. 2003. 2. The Discourses, Niccolo Machiavelli, Trans. Brian Richardson, Penguin Books Ltd’ 1988. 3. A Guide to the Political Classics, Forsyth, M. Ed. Oxford University Press, 1988. 4. The Political Calculus – Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy, Parel, A. Ed. University of Toronto Press 1972. 5. Political Theory in Retrospect, Williams, G. Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd. 1991.