Machiavelli & the Role of Ethics in Politics


Politics is an essential human activity — essential in building societies and communities based on rules, laws and a balance of conflicting interests. It requires a high level of responsibility and commitment from citizens, political parties, parliamentarians, government executives, the judiciary, the media, businesses, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and religious and educational institutions. But, politicians, almost in all parts of the world, are often seen as selfish and corrupt who pursue their own vested interests instead of the common good of the populace. This highlights the role of ethics in politics because trust in, and respect for, politics and politicians is vital for living together in communities and societies, especially in democracies.

There have been different discussions regarding the role of ethics in politics. To some, it is impossible to separate these whereas some opine that separation of ethics from religion is imperative to ensuring proper political development. Among the political philosophers who founded the idea of separation of ethics from politics, the Italian political philosopher and politician Niccolò Machiavelli is the most prominent. Before Machiavelli, politics was strictly bonded with ethics, in theory, if not in practice. According to an ancient tradition that goes back to Aristotle, politics is a sub-branch of ethics — ethics being defined as the moral behaviour of individuals, and politics being defined as the morality of individuals in social groups or organized communities. Machiavelli was the first theorist to decisively divorce politics from ethics, and hence to give a certain autonomy to the study of politics.

Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” to serve as a handbook for rulers, and he claims explicitly throughout the work that he is not interested in talking about ideal republics or imaginary utopias, as many of his predecessors had done: “There is such a gap between how one lives and how one should live that he who neglects what is being done for what should be done will learn his destruction rather than his preservation,” he writes. To Machiavelli, the state was not a means to an end but was an end in itself, with its own interests. State power was an end in itself and not a means to gig her moral end of promoting social welfare.

Public necessity knows no law. State actions were not to be judged by individual ethics. Machiavelli prescribes a double standard of conduct for the ruler and for the individual citizens on the basis that the ruler is a creator of law and also of morality for moral obligations must ultimately be sustained by law. As such he is above both. It will be the ruin of the state, were it to be weighted down by individual ethic. Public and private standards of conduct were different. It was always wrong for an individual to tell a lie but sometimes necessary and good for the ruler to do so in the interest of the state. The state has no ethics. It is a non-ethical entity. Machiavelli believed that the justice of the state was the interest of the sovereign. The safety of the state was the supreme law. “It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong,” says Machiavelli in this regard.

Machiavelli believed that the state was the highest form of human association and had a superior claim to a man’s obligations. Reasons of state must outweigh any ethical considerations. Public interests were the most potent of all motives for political action. Public standards of action were different from private standards. It is wrong for a private individual to kill but it is not wrong for the state to kill by punishment for crime. The state hangs a murderer because public safety demands it and because public interests are more important than private interests of the criminal. Private interests of ethics have nothing to do with public action. Public conduct is neither inherently good, nor bad. It is good if its results are good. A good citizen may be a bad man of whom patriotism is the only moral law. Citizen acts for himself; the state acts for all and therefore the same principles of conduct do not apply to both. The state is neither moral nor immoral but is non-moral. It is not a moral entity like the individual and, therefore, individual ethics do not apply to it.

Machiavelli had little place for ethics, or for that matter, for religion, in a system or political philosophy and that formed the chief difference between him and the medieval writers. Aristotle had already distinguished ethics from politics but had not separated the two whereas Machiavelli brought about a complete divorce between them. Moral virtues had their own value but he refused to assign them any place in his scheme of things. Machiavelli agrees that qualities like liberality, mercy, fidelity, courage, chastity and sincerity make a good man and adds: “It would be most praiseworthy for a prince to possess all the above-mentioned qualities which are held to be good.” But, “one cannot call it a virtue to murder one’s fellow citizens, to betray one’s friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion.” Here, the word virtue is used by Machiavelli in the conventional sense. Morality was not denied but was subordinated to politics and, therefore, Machiavelli, is not immoral but unmoral in his polities. To him, there is no absolute good or evil. That is good which serves the interests of the individuals and of the community and which brings security. With the end justifying the means, Machiavelli may be called the “founder of utilitarian ethics”.

Machiavelli not only separated morality from politics, but also relegated religion to a very subordinate position in his political system, and it is because of this that we think that the modern study of politics begins with Machiavelli.

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