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?