My philosophy teacher and I are having a little disagreement regarding The Prince:

He argues that although the book's context is a letter to Lorenzo de' Medici advising him and recommending a course of action to unite Italy, ultimately this is just a "cloak" for an almost purely ethical argument. My teacher believes that all of Machiavelli's political philosophy and recommendations on how a Prince should effectively act also represent Machiavelli's idea of right and wrong, and how a Prince should morally act. Thus, when he says:

So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. (XVIII)

My teacher would say (I think, from our conversations) that Machiavelli thinks it right, morally correct to do so. Likewise, when he says:

For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able to not be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity. (XV)

My teacher would argue that Machiavelli thinks it not only effective, but ethical to not be good when the need arises. The examples could go on endlessly, but this is my teacher's general idea.

I, however, disagree. It seems to me that although The Prince may have certain ethical implications, it is primarily a work concerned with political philosophy, and not moral philosophy. I would argue regarding the above that Machiavelli is making assertions on how a Prince should act to maintain power; whether it is right or wrong is not a concern of his, but whether it is simply effective is what he is discussing. As a matter of fact, Machiavelli seems to be intentionally avoiding the use of "right" and "wrong" at all, let alone in moral context (my copy's glossary indicates that neither appears with any significant meaning anywhere in the book).

So, who is right? Just how much ethics does The Prince argue? I realize that my teacher being a teacher, he's probably right, but I don't quite see how - somebody enlighten me, please.

  • 1
    Q: How much ethics did Machiavelli convey in The Prince? A: None.
    – user678
    Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 1:39
  • 2
    @bwkaplan Please do support that claim. My research seems to indicate at the very least Strauss would disagree with you, so I'm not sure it's quite as clear-cut as your comment suggests.
    – commando
    Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 2:00
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    @commando His enamoration of Cesare Borgia is enough support. His strategizing of what the prince ought to do or not do is intellectually titillating, but let's make no bones about it. His calculation is certainly done in a moral and ethical vacuum, or rather to the extent that his prince appears moral or ethical, that is also merely another calculation to curry favor with the people, assuming he needs them to acquire or keep his power.
    – user678
    Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 2:24

4 Answers 4


No expert on the subject, waiting for some great answers myself. This is my take:

I would sustain your interpretation. The claim that "learning to be able not to be good" is an ethical precept is odd. The Prince is all about cutting off political philosophy from moral precepts, a mix that was customary in virtually all Catholic and scholastic conceptions before him. From this older perspective Machiavelli's move was seen as highly immoral, of course. The possibility of metaethical moral nihilism simply wasn't considered a conceptual option in ethics at the time.

Thinking of it, I see the possibility that an additional interpretation is possible: Machiavelli does not only advocate an instrumental use of reason (most effective means to given ends regardless of moral precepts), but he also puts forward a set of moral goods (the ends of self-maintenance, power, etc.) that the prince should hold. Now, if this is a normative move (i.e. if Machiavelli advocates those moral goods himself) depends on the question whether Machiavelli is introducing them on its own or if they where already customary in the political philosophy of his time. The former is a normative claim, the latter would make The Prince a simple conditional argument ("Given these ends, what are the most effective means?"). I don't know what the answer is here though.

This additional interpretation, to be sure, is not the same as your teacher's. In a nutshell, your teacher seems to attribute to Machiavelli the view that to employ exclusively instrumental reason is a moral good (as opposed to simple effectiveness). Again, this seems to me an odd claim to make. What this additional interpretation considers is whether Machiavelli presupposed or advocated the valued ends attributed to the prince.


A lot. Of course, we should not reduce "The Prince" to mere book of ethics, but you can view it as such.

Ethics is a study of what actions are right and wrong, and concrete system of ethics provides a methodology to separate those two. Such methodologies may differ vastly, and produce very different results, but that does not make such ethic systems un-ethical.

If we will look at Prince, we can see two distinct signs:

  • moral relativism (ethics of Prince should differ from ethics of servs)
  • consequentialism (correct moral conduct is determined solely by a cost-benefit analysis of an action’s consequences)

According to wikipedia article on consequentialism, Machiavelli is placed under Teleological ethics category, which is quite reasonable.

Machiavelli seems to be intentionally avoiding the use of "right" and "wrong" at all, let alone in moral contex

No. Machiavelli in Prince explicitly tells his reader which prince's actions he considers right and wrong, what things he should and should not do. Then, he explains his reasoning behind such decisions (and this reasoning is often: "the end justifies the means"). And that is consequentialism, which is a sub-field of ethics, and so - your teacher is right.


This analysis by Issaiah Berlin, may be useful to you.


The brief summary of this article is that Machiavelli is saying that there exist two entirely incompatible set of virtues (of personal morality and politics), it is impossible even in principle to visualize a ideal. Machiavelli questions the very idea of the existence of a universal human ideal. There is no overlap between these two ethical codes, that of personal morality and public organization. They are completely incompatible. If one, choses to follow one code, he must give up the hope of the other. If one choses personal morality, he should give up the hope of a stable, and glorious society, where men can flourish. Similarly, if one takes up the code of politics, he would not be able to quench his personal anxiety. He shows that even if the ultimate goal is same, entire sets of values can contradict without any possible rational solution.

So Machiavelli's prince can be seen as a work on ethics, but questions the very claim that a set of compatible ethical ideas can be put down.


There is absolutely NO moral basis for Machiavelli's Prince and his Theory of Power. It is only within the realm of Academically oriented moral relativism that a Teacher-(not surprisingly), would find a labyrinthine way of "justifying" a Philosophy, which explicitly "justified", an amoral-(and perhaps even an immoral) approach towards the consolidation and maintenance of power.

Machiavelli was no fan of the populace and could've cared less about the well being of the citizenry. The Prince, was the ultimate Puppeteer and Master Manipulator of all things that would protect, insure and even further his Power over the populace and the State at large.

Only Moral Relativists and of course, enthusiastic followers of Machiavelli, could find a unique way in "justifying" the anti-democratic views of Machiavelli as being virtuous and morally sound.

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