An essay on Machiavelli‘s The Prince.
Can cruelty be used “well?” If “those who use [cruelty well] can, with God and with men, somehow enhance their position”—do immoral means justify moral ends?
One question on many lips during and after the long second Bush presidency was: Do the ends justify the means? Were the admirable goals of bringing democracy to Iraq and taking down a bloody, destabilizing dictator worth a seven-year war? Was the intelligence gained from some captured terrorists and insurgents worth the illegal and immoral torture tactics? Was the supposed boost to businesses worth removing Clean Air and Water Act safeguards? President Bush came into power promising compassionate conservatism with Christian virtue and a humble position in the international arena. The question of how important virtue is to a leader – in Machiavellian terms, a prince – is an important one. Power makes cruelty and injustice easy. Unjust actions can have benefits for leader and nation, but a leader who relies on injustice is no longer a prince; he is simply a tyrant.
In order to achieve and maintain power, a leader must be willing to set virtue aside. Virtue (good faith, a clear sense of right and wrong, and restraint) can sometimes hamper a prince and prevent him from taking beneficial or necessary actions. Machiavelli notes that “it is necessary for [the prince] to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet… not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.” Virtue should be a leader’s guide, but sometimes the net benefit from taking unjust actions is greater than the benefit from not doing so. When the ends provide more benefits than the means do harm, it is justified for leaders to use immoral or illegal means to achieve their goals.
Unjust tactics have particular benefits as well. Efficacy cannot always be achieved in good faith, and deal-cutting can be a more effective way of furthering a leader’s agenda. Putting pressure on individuals or allies can yield reluctant information or actions beneficial to the state. National security, which always requires some secrecy, can become all-important when a state is faced with an existential threat.
However, unjust actions must be the exception, not the rule, taken only when there is no good alternative. A component of the virtue particular to princely leaders – virtu – is the ability to address all situations, even by disregarding traditional virtues. Unjust actions that are justified in exigency are a natural part of a strong leader’s arsenal. A leader who relies on injustice to maintain his power is nothing but a tyrant, using any possible means (rather than the best means) to keep his seat in his war against his nation. Machiavelli notes that “it cannot be called virtu to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.” An excess of virtue returns weakness; a complete lack of it returns tyranny.
A leader who favors cruel tactics harms himself. He alienates the people and aristocracy, because they live in fear and learn to expect arbitrary and unjust actions. He alienates his allies, who fear him and don’t want to be associated with his reputation for iniquity. His power base is built on an unstable foundation. Blows to his reputation and the loss of allies make him weak politically, and contempt from the people make his regime uncertain. Such a leader has put himself into a corner, decreasing rather than increasing his power. A history of injustices means that he has no choice but to continue to strike out at anyone who could possibly oppose him. While fear and respect for leader and state are necessary, fear and hatred springing from an excess of cruelty indicate a prince at war with his own people. Cruelty and injustice can be used well, but all departures from virtue must be careful and well considered; the exception, not the norm.
In the long run, sustained injustices hurt both leader and nation. No matter how cunning an unjust leader is, an appearance of virtue will eventually be clouded by rumors of injustice. Even if the leader achieves great things, his legacy will be clouded with the shadow of injustice. Machiavelli writes that “he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against.” It follows that an unjust leader tends to make more enemies than a virtuous one, and will have to face acts of vengeance. This is harmful not only to the leader but also to the state, because an unstable government weakens the state overall.
A leader who chooses his actions with cunning, pursuing goals for his own benefit and for the benefit of the state, can rightly be called a Machiavellian prince. His reputation may change frequently, being viewed as a tyrant in his own time but as a wise leader by posterity, or varying with the prevailing political sentiments of the day. The war in Iraq is currently viewed as a mistake by 58% of the population (from a Gallup poll in July 2009). It was initiated with the ideals of spreading democracy and freedom, but lacking any legal justification. The past six years have been worse for the Iraqis than life under Saddam, but ten years from now, Iraq might be an oasis of democracy in the Arab world. The means of entering the war in Iraq were illegal and unjust, but the ends – still unknown – might someday justify it.