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Prior to reading The Prince, I had heard of the aphorism:

The ends justify the means

This was Machiavelli's identifying line to many people, and in my conversations with them, I got the impression that Machiavelli meant the following: that, given an ends profitable enough, any means, even a very immoral one, is justifiable.

Thus, I lived with this impression for a while, until I actually read The Prince and got to the line in question (at the end of Chapter 18). In specific context, its meaning seems very different:

In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court to appeal to, one looks to the end. So let prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone.

Here, Machiavelli does not seem to be making an ethical argument, but rather a sort of psychological one. It appears (to me) he is arguing that to the people, the ends justify the means, not that "the ends justify the means" is some moral code. Specific phrases that give me this impression are "the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone."

So, my question is this: among scholars, what is the generally accepted interpretation of this line? Is Machiavelli saying that the ends really do justify the means, or that the people often perceive it to? Is there some other common interpretation? What evidence is there for each perspective?

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Ah, good Old Nick! Your closer reading definitely strikes me as more careful/robust: the point does seem to be that the effective truth is worth more than any abstract ideal. –  Joseph Weissman Feb 22 '12 at 13:53
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Do note that The Prince is specifically about the ruler of a nation-state. It's not an ethical handbook for common people. As such, it's likely that Machiavelli would have seen both of your readings as accurate/equivalent. But the aphorism "the ends justify the means" is not what is argued/defended in The Prince. –  Cody Gray Feb 22 '12 at 20:50
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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Beginning with Constantine (2007), we have the passage in question rendered in English thus:

Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few feel what you are, and those few will not dare oppose the opinion of the many who have the majesty of the state behind them: In the actions of all men, and particularly the prince, where there is no higher justice to appeal to, one looks at the outcome.

The prince ought to do what he needs to do in order to maintain his position as the prince. This is his virtue. What this requires him to do will depend upon circumstance. Sometimes he will be able to appease both his personal conscience while keeping himself in power, during other times he will have to sacrifice his own sense of what is good just to keep himself in good standing with whomever is powerful at the time.

Notice that this in no way reduces to a devil may care attitude to justice, both what the common people consider to be just, or to what the noble class may consider to be just, should the two parties have a difference in opinion. One quotation in chapter eight bears mentioning:

If one weighs Agathocles's actions and skill, there is not much that can be attributed to Fortune. As I have pointed out, he did not gain his principality through anyone's favor, but rose to it through the ranks of the army with a thousand privations and dangers, and then kept possession of the principality through many bold and dangerous feats. And yet we cannot define as skillful killing one's fellow citizens, betraying one's friends, and showing no loyalty, mercy or moral obligation. These means can lead to power, but not glory. Because if one considers Agathocles's skill at plunging into and out of danger, and the greatness of his spirit in enduring and overcoming adversity, he cannot be judged inferior to the most excellent leaders. In other words, one cannot attribute to Fortune or skill what he attained without either of them.

In this long excerpt we find M. calling for restraint towards the same virtues that may bring a prince to power. The Roman sense of virtue: of manliness, of martial skill and ability, are on some occasions subordinated to ostensibly higher values of "loyalty, mercy or moral obligation." From this I conclude that a general may make a fine prince, but princely duties are not to be reduced to martial ones.

So what obligation does a prince have, in general? It's simple, really. To keep himself in power.

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Thanks for a great answer! I don't know if this is possible, but can you give any references of this being the "generally accepted interpretation" like my question requested? If I accept this interpretation, I want to be sure it's considered accurate. –  commando Feb 26 '12 at 15:32
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Machiavelli argues that a ruler should do everything he can in order to maintain his position of power, especially when there is no authority where his actions can be challenged. The circumstances alone will determine the specific actions he will need to take to do this. While taking these actions, he will not always be able to keep his conscience clear. There will be situations when he will have to sacrifice his moral judgement for the sake of realpolitik.

The very next line of the text reads, “So let the prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honourable, and will be praised by everyone”. Machiavelli gives primacy to holding on to power over ethical considerations to meet that end. He argues that power is always celebrated and is an end in itself, that means are immaterial. Once achieved, power justifies all means.

He argues that the acts of the powerful are considered noble by most, even though similar acts might normally attract ethical scrutiny if committed by a common man. The silent minority, who may understand the ethical transgressions, will likely be too frightened to counter the majority opinion.

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The point to remember here is that the basic assumption behind an advocacy of such conduct is the absence of a higher authority to judge. If these assumptions don't hold, the argument crumbles.

In a world where perception matters a lot and more and more sovereigns are opting for democracy, the rulers may still follow the dirty tricks of realpolitik but will have to be doubly sure of how well he can manage the public impression around his action.

A basic tenet of liberalism is the fact that an action may well be considered good, even if it doesn't yield the expected outcome, if the methods followed to achieve the same were good.

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