Machiavelli – Ends and Means

Machiavelli – Ends and Means


“Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In discussing whether the end justifies the means I plan to spend as much time on the relationship between ends and means as on the justifications, moral or otherwise. In this essay, I shall argue that it is not true that the end justifies the means but rather that it is the means that condition the end. Thus the means (bloodshed and violence) conditions the end (political instability).I will start by looking at competing and universal ends followed by how political decisions can be viewed within different ethical frameworks. I will be asserting that mankind is a progressive being which is why I will outline some recent political examples where these philosophical ideas have played out.


In ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli was quite clear that the end the Prince should aim for is the acquisition and holding down of power, the long term stability of the state, the maintenance of order, prosperity and thereby the promotion of the ‘greater good’. The states that Machiavelli sought the Prince to emulate were those of ancient Rome or Sparta and in articulating this vision we can see how the individual citizen’s (or Prince’s role for that matter) is simply to contribute to the ideal of a strong and splendid state.The end for Machiavelli was not riches and glory for the aspiring Prince, nor was it individual freedom or liberty for the populace.In fact it is interesting to note that ancient Rome and Sparta shared another commonality, that of not producing any great art or poetry.Machiavelli’s vision was for a political state not a cultural one and as such had he lived in the early 20th Century he might have been in favour of the kind of state promoted by the Nazi’s.

This is not the say that Machiavelli didn’t believe that individuals couldn’t pursue lives based on Christian virtues in anticipation of a heavenly afterlife, but rather that in a World of competing ends the Prince that could and would act by any means would triumph.

So is it true that the common good is the only end worth pursuing?I would argue that Machiavelli’s philosophy was a reflection of his position in history and that the common good is achieved not by states but by individuals.Machiavelli saw individuals as pawns in a giant political game of chess whose role was to work towards the achievement of a republican ideal.The view was moulded by his direct experiences living as one of the 80,000 citizens of the republic of Florence in a time that was marked by constant wars between opposing states.In 2009 we live in a World not of city states, not even of national borders but of trading blocks involving billions of people.Today there is a plurality of ideas of what the ‘end’ should be.I argue that the power and stability of the city state has been replaced by the freedom and flourishing of the individual within a Global community.Therefore I am just one person among many in my country of the UK, and my interests are no more or less important than yours.I am willing to see my country as just one among other countries, and my interests as no more or less important than those in other countries.Taking this rationalist and post-Enlightenment view to its conclusion it can be argued that we should have equal concerns for all human beings.Or as Havelock Ellis put it more poetically “we have failed to grasp the fact that mankind is becoming a single unit, and that for a unit to fight against itself is suicide”.

I am well aware that Machiavelli might have scoffed at this idea as the ravings of someone overly optimistic about the basic nature of his fellow humans.Machiavelli offered us Savaronola as proof that this wishy-washy thinking thought too highly of human nature.Granted the leaders of today’s countries may act like Renaissance Prince’s in their double dealing but the sands have shifted.The end for today’s political leaders is not so much the glory of their state but the flourishing of the individuals within it.However whether you think that the end should be a state in the mould of Sparta or a civilisation marked by individuals each pursuing their own vision we should not believe that all the ends must be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another.That is a monist idea and Machiavelli hinted at a pluralism of ends, which I agree with him on.Where I differ is that politics should have the individual not the state at its centre, permitting people, within agreed limits, to pursue their own ends for which there is no map.


At this point I would like to set out for the reader a common misconception of Machiavelli, namely that he immoral or amoral.Firstly the charge that he was amoral can be countered with his distinction between the actions of Borgia and Agathocles.If Machiavelli judged politics and the Prince to be out with the moral realm then why did he criticise the actions of Agathocles but praise those of Borgia?The reason is that for him politics was part of the moral realm, just not the same as the one held by those who were shocked by Machiavelli’s advice.As such Prince’s were moral agents, however they had to have a distinct moral framework from which to operate from.

If you believe that there is only one true moral code and that code was a Christian non-naturalistic one then Machiavelli was indeed immoral.If on the other hand Machiavelli aspired to the common good recognisable to ancient Romans then under no circumstances could he be judged to be immoral, he simply had a different frame of reference for morality.His morality was based on a Pagan, naturalistic and classical view of morality which was less about a list of ‘that shall not’s’ and more a set of psychological attributes required for the ‘good life’.

So for Machiavelli the end was noble but the means required a different sort of morality.It is to the connection between the means and ends that I now wish to turn.


I believe Machiavelli was wrong on two fronts.The first, as discussed previously was that his end was not the best in order to achieve the common good in the modern sense.Secondly was that he mistakenly believed that means in the form of violence and bloodshed could deliver a stable state and with it the common good.

At this point it is interesting to think of Machiavelli as having a consequentialist streak to his character (ie that acts are considered according to their consequences).Therefore a consequentialist might argue that lying is wrong because of the negative consequences produced by lying but that lying may also be allowed if it produced certain foreseeable consequences.This is why he permits The Prince to lie if it will produce favourable consequences and why he was a stepping stone to the later Utilitarian’s even if he would not have signed up to their ends.

However for all the examples Machiavelli provides to show why lying in certain circumstances can produce the desired result there are a host of modern day examples that counter this.

Four years ago Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohamed was detained in Guantanamo and allegedly tortured by his captors.The reason was that the US Government believed that the means (detention without trial, water boarding) justified the end (to safeguard America and its citizens).For many the US’ actions were immoral but the administration argued that the means were justified.However is the USA and its citizen’s any safer?Instead it could be argued that this case and those like it acted as a recruiting sergeant for those looking to do harm to the USA who in future will create greater instability and disorder for that country and its inhabitants.If this was a case of a government acting with ‘dirty ends’ then they have dirtied their flag and their founding fathers dream in the process.

Another example would be that of the Indian independence movement.The work of Mahatma Gandhi can be seen as the antithesis of Machiavelli.Gandhi chose not to take up arms for independence not because he subscribed to a non-naturalistic world view but simply because he believed it was the best method to achieve his ends.The independence movement could have used force to get rid of the British but what kind of state would it have left in its wake?Violence begets violence, violence is a condition of violence, is a consequence of violence.

Sparta and Ancient Rome were constantly at war for this very same reason.If a Prince had followed Machiavelli’s instruction in virtu then how long would that state be stable for?

Even though Machiavelli was tortured himself at one point he would have believed that torture was justified should it be for the common good.My argument here against torture is not primarily on moral but practical grounds.John Locke showed only a century later that torture created the wrong sort of belief and I would add to this that in torturing others, even in the belief that it will help us achieve our ends, we devalue those very ends in the process.

We are an evolving species whose ‘fight or flight’ responses come up against what Robert Trivers called our hardwired ‘reciprocal altruism’ that has one human providing a benefit to another human in the expectation of future reciprocation.Machiavelli looked back and asked the question ‘what could the State be like again’ whereas he should have asked ‘what should the future vision of the State be’.


Machiavelli was a product of his age; he was a practical man for practical times, a realist and a pragmatist.However we live in different times and if the past ten years have shown us anything it is that we have a choice.Do we accept a level of morality that allows us to commit acts justified by the belief that it will deliver the desired ends even if that end is questionable and the acts aren’t guaranteed to deliver it?Or do we instead acknowledge that “we reap what we sow” and the quality of the means affects the quality of the ends?

The first part of my essay showed that while Machiavelli acknowledged there existed a plurality of ends he believed that a strong State was the best way of achieving the common good.If totalitarian states have shown us anything it is that the common good is not achieved by States but by individuals, each of whom is allowed to pursue his or her own ends.

Secondly by resorting to any means we are in danger of destroying the end that we aim for.If Machiavelli wanted to live in a warlike state then perhaps the means he prescribes are best because if a Prince were to follow his advice he would not be at peace for long.

Therefore I believe it is not true that the end justifies the means but rather that it is the means which condition the end.Thus the means (bloodshed and violence) conditions the end (political instability).Machiavelli’s life lived with virtu conditions a warlike and totalitarian state because there is a direct causal relationship between means and ends.

Finally I’d like to end with a quote from the 20th Century Indian philosopher Raghaven N. Iyer who in describing the role of politics put forward a very un-Machiavellian ideal that of “a morally progressive society in which neither the State nor any social organization is allowed to flout with impunity the sacred principle that every man is entitled to his relative truth and no one can claim the right to coerce another, to treat him as a means to his own end.”

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