Niccolo Machiavelli, born on May 3, 1469, lived during a period of turmoil and constant war in Europe. Machiavelli believed that political life cannot and should not be governed by a set of moral or religious absolutes. However, he also believed that in the interest of securing the state, acts of violence and deception that would be unethical and indefensible were permissible.
This essay will seek to prove that the statement “the end justifies the means” is not morally defensible. It will explore the implications of the statement itself, the rudiments of the social contract, the principles of Machiavelli and solid empirical evidence. The belief that the end entirely justifies the means is merely an extreme version of the commonly held belief that moral considerations cannot apply to the means except about ends or that the latter have a moral priority.
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Gandhi wrote, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.”1 Thus, one cannot have an end entirely independent from its means. If any worthwhile end can justify the means to attain it, a proper ethical foundation is lost. But the end does not justify the means. If that were so, then Hitler could justify the Holocaust because the end was to purify the human race. Stalin could justify his slaughter of millions because he was trying to achieve a communist utopia. The end never justifies the means.
The means must justify themselves. A particular act cannot be judged as good simply because it may lead to a good consequence. The means must be judged by an objective and consistent standard of morality. In the Machiavellian paradigm, the prince acts with a view to his gain. He is advised to capture, consolidate, and defend his authority from all challengers. But how do the people fit in? Machiavelli does admit that a principality should rest upon the support of the people. But later on, he clarifies that the “moral goodness of the masses” stems only from their gullibility and willingness to be misled.
Moreover, Machiavelli argues that a ruler must necessarily act against the interests of his people. To Machiavelli, the people do not know what is best. Thus, the prince must utilize cruelty, fear, deception, and brute strength to subdue the people’s interests. This is morally indefensible since it infringes upon the most basic human rights to life and liberty. A classic Machiavellian prince is Idi Amin, who came into office saying, “I am not an ambitious man, personally,” “I am just a soldier with a concern for my country and its people.”Two However, months later, to secure his regime and ostensibly the state, Amin launched a campaign of persecution against rival tribes and Obote supporters, murdering between 100,000 and 500,000.
This is a highly immoral act that is not morally defensible. Machiavelli says, “for when the safety of one’s country wholly depends on the decision to be taken, no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, to kindness or cruelty, or its being praiseworthy or ignominious”3. This statement though pragmatic, leaves out some essential elements. The U.S.A under a perceived threat of danger from another “principality” Iraq, attacked and removed the government and has been trying since then to establish peace and order. The strategy was classically Machiavellian – taking over the government and not changing current laws and taxes.
Once the country is taken over, it is easy to rule. However, the rampant deaths of Iraqis and Americans alike prove that this is not foolproof. The elements he rules out are threefold. First, he forgets that the people may not want to be ruled by foreigners and may revolt. Secondly, he forgets the situation where an attack on a principality to protect the integrity of one’s state causes one to lose the state just because the other principality may be stronger than one may be. Thirdly he forgets that other nations or states may disagree or, in extreme cases, rise against him. The “end” in this situation was to find and disable weapons of mass destruction. The means were possible to achieve the end and the result; indefensible deaths of both combatants and non-combatants alike.
In Chapter 15 of Prince, Machiavelli draws a distinction between the two moral worlds of the private and the public. He thinks that the private and public life is to be distinct and the basis of moral judgment in the private world should not be applied to the public. The reason behind this is that in order for a prince to hold his position, he must acquire the power to act without moral restraint. In addition, the ruler should not exhibit virtuous tendencies as he would have to “distort it”4 in order for it to show in the public world.
This position of not being morally accountable and not virtuous may have held in Machiavelli’s time amidst a deteriorating, corrupt, totalitarian, 16th Century political infrastructure, but his theory does not hold in today’s society. This is simply because of the complexity of the social contract as it exists today. The more advanced a society becomes the more social contracts are evolved between that society and its surrounding states. Bonds of economic and technological ties are formed to benefit each involved state. Also, these social contracts lead to the creation of institutions like the World Bank, the U.N.O and the International Court of Justice.
These institutions are the law, uphold the law and enforce the law within member states. These contracts allow only people of high private moral standing to be in public office since such people are representative of the integrity and credibility of the social contract. An excellent example is the impeachment of Bill Clinton as a result of his private affair with Monica Lewinsky. Immoral acts are simply far easier to apprehend in today’s world and simply morally indefensible.
A similar problem occurs over the goodness of the consequences. Tens of millions of people died in order to bring about a communist “workers’ paradise,” a society without want, greed, crime, or even government, in places like the Soviet Union and Maoist China. Such an idea has existed in many forms, but rarely with the belief that it could be effected by mass murder and slavery. In this case, it depended on no more than a certain theory of economics and history. The “end” envisioned seemed so “good and humane”, that this theory made it possible to rationalize murder, torture, and slavery on the ground that these were only wrongs from a “bourgeois” point of view, and so in fact “revolutionary justice.”
Thus, the “end justifies the means” really became a way of denying that the means were even wrong. In conclusion, Machiavelli in The Prince took a good analytical look at politics as it was and examined the principles of successful government. Yet the statement “the end justifies the means” is to a very large extent morally indefensible. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “protecting the rights of even the least individual among us is basically the only excuse the government has for even existing”
- Forsyth and Keens-Soper (1992) “The Political Classics”
- New York; Oxford University Press
- Machiavelli, N (1998) “The Prince”, (Harvey C. Mansfield, Ed) (2nd Edition)
- London; University of Chicago press
- Jeremy Bentham (1988) “The Principles of Morals and Legislation”
- New York; Prometheus Books
- Raghawan, N. Iyer (Means And Ends In Politics)
- Means And Ends in Politics, Chapter 28
- The Political Classics, Pg 99
- The Price, Chapter 16