Machiavellian Ethics Analysis

At Issue

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The ideas of Niccolò Machiavelli have been associated with the darker side of politics. To be Machiavellian has for centuries meant to be willing to do anything in the quest for power. Machiavelli has been viewed as a political devil, advising leaders to embrace the arts of treachery, force, and cruelty in order to be successful. These notions derive almost wholly from his work The Prince (1513), and although they have persisted, they are exaggerations of the substance of Machiavelli’s ideas. Machiavelli also wrote plays, poetry, and histories. His most expansive work was Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1636). In it, the breadth of Machiavelli’s political thinking may be seen, and especially his high regard for republican government.

Machiavelli’s Ideas

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Machiavelli’s attention to the mechanics of government in The Prince made political and military affairs paramount. He separated these from religious, moral, or social considerations, except as these might be politically expedient. The purpose of the state is to preserve power, and the one criterion of evaluation is success. Machiavelli was indifferent regarding whether a policy was brutal or treacherous, but he was aware that such qualities might affect the success of policy. Hence, Machiavelli preferred that policy be perceived as honorable and fair, but he emphasized that one should never risk failure for moral considerations.

In The Prince, Machiavelli openly discussed the advantages of skillful immorality. He was not immoral; instead, he advised princes to embrace political amorality, which encouraged virtuous behavior among subjects but accepted a rulership that transcended morality. This double standard for rulers and subjects is a hallmark of Machiavellian ethics. Machiavelli never advised cruelty for its own sake, but attempted political objectivity. This unabashed objectivity did not make him a devil, but he did exaggerate the quest for power and confuse the objectives of politics with the game itself.


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Machiavelli’s ideas were precursors to many modern political attitudes. He addressed human nature, rulership, the character of the state, and the role of popular government. His observations about skillful policy were based on the assumption that the primary human motivations are selfish and egoistic. Machiavelli assumed that government derives from human weakness and the need to control the conflict that grows out of human self-interest. People are naturally aggressive, and the role of the state is to provide security.

This perspective on human nature led Machiavelli to emphasize the role of lawgiver and ruler. He argued that moral and civic virtues grow out of law and government; they are not inherent in human nature. The ruler represents the law and implements morals but is above morality. For this reason, the ruler must be both a “lion and a fox.” When necessary, a ruler must disguise the real intent of policy by controlling outward appearances. At other times, a ruler will have no recourse but to use brute force. Force must be used discreetly and effectively, but the ruler cannot flinch when the preservation of the state is at stake. Machiavelli argued that a ruler should be both loved and feared but stated that it is difficult to have it both ways. Thus, if one cannot be both loved and feared, it is better to be feared that to be loved. The ruler must have the virtues of strength and vision, and the flexibility to adapt to the whims of...

(The entire section is 417 words.)


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Berlin, Isaiah. “The Question of Machiavelli.” New York Review of Books 17 (November 4, 1971): 20-37.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Myth of the State. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.

Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Discourses. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Edited and translated by Thomas G. Bergin. Arlington Heights, Ill.: AHM, 1947.