Is Machiavelli an Immoral Teacher of Evil?
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:
“â€¦ 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.