Machiavellian Utility

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.

One thought on “Machiavellian Utility

  1. TAGGED UNDER

    Machiavelli
    Broadcast/Online News
    How to Govern
    School-Yard Bullies
    School-Yard child
    The Classic Twisted Tale
    Governance
    Diplomat
    Ruthlessness

    Learned people are so closed-minded sometimes that centuries can go by with everybody asleep at the helm.

    One such twisted tale is how we have misread Machiavelli’s “the Prince” and made bad politicians.

    People have always been able to see through politicians, when governing like school-yard bullies.

    Yet getting away with school-yard bully style behavior is not a sure thing anymore.

    Many recent political event in Canada, British Columbia and elsewhere in the World during 2007, 2008 and 2009, has clearly shown this.

    Note 1: With the help of the Internet and other recent personal communication tools, people are giving quick feedback to broadcast/online news to voice their opinions on current issues.

    You see, everybody behaves sometime or all the time like school-yard children or bullies as children often will do.

    Guess what, as children, things get twisted from the original meaning all the time.

    Did Machiavelli wrote a “How to Govern” book in his “The Prince”? Did it become the book to refer to when called upon to govern.

    Yet, I am sure that his sole intention for writing “the Prince” was NOT to teach nor to tell people how to govern.

    Machiavelli wrote the “The Prince” just to show the Medici how smart he is and wants to serve in their court, as he did for the Republic in the past.

    To show his smartness he sucked up, he was trying to legitimize the Medici’s actions of ruthlessness.

    He smooth over their bad behavior by saying that the people needed it. The Medics’ were already doing things at will, but nobody protested, because everybody were afraid.

    Politicians ever since has thus determined to govern just like the Medici, because Machiavelli had said so by writing the definitive book (isn’t that what everybody thinks) on governance . Can he be wrong?

    He was not wrong, but everybody took it wrongly. How’s that! Or That’s how! The classic twisted tale.

    Is there any other book that people could study to learn how to govern? Politicians have also observed that Machiavellian ways seems to work. So they use it non-stop.

    The reason Machiavellian ways seems to work is because politicians up till now, was able to get away with it, by using the police and the army if need be like Trudeau (a much-loved and hated Canadian politician), or by ignoring what is not in their plans.

    People were slow to react, because everybody were so stunned by their bad behavior and the politicians start to think, that this “or reaction” is a sign of acceptance. Of course the news media serves the bosses, who in turn serves the . . ..

    Later, people start to believe that politicians could and should get away with anything.

    That it is their God-given right by being a politician.

    So nobody cared or dared to say things.

    It is still going on this way.

    I heard Carole James (a left-wing politician from British Columbia, Canada) speak in those terms!

    Wake up CAROLE. There was never a way to voice opinions until now.

    Note 2: The internet made it impossible for politician to act badly anymore. they have to really hide their intentions.

    The Medici sure got away with it because they had the army (mercenaries) as their own paid police.

    They knew nothing about governance, what do you think!

    It is all about power and the ways to get it, the people never mattered, but for the taxes.

    You think Machiavelli knows how to govern, NO he has no clue, how could he, he was a diplomat, he job was to watch and report.

    So he is good at observing and he reported what he saw of the Medics’ so called or lack of governing ways in “the Prince”.

    He did not write the first thesis on governance.

    He wrote what he saw and he buttered it up to pull the wool over the Medics’ eyes because, he glorified them.

    It worked for him and he got to write their history.

    Note 3: Of course he is going to say that they are good ruler, even when they are actually governing like school-yard bullies.

    Note 4: If and when you govern, try kindness, fairness and sincerity and you won’t go wrong. People won’t sneer at you, as they normally would now! do you enjoy being sneered at? I did not think so!

    So don’t use Machiavellian ways and constantly ask yourself whether you are behaving like a school-yard child or worse a school-yard bully.

    This is the start of the changes we need in politicians everywhere. Heaven see you always.

    Yours truly,

    desolationjohn@ymail.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s