Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
5 December 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:30am

Morality and politics

In the face of terrorist attacks Machiavelli's debate on the place of morality in politics is more r

By Maureen Ramsay

In The Prince Machiavelli puts the case for political expediency in its starkest, most electrifying form. Here, he is associated with the divorce of politics from conventional morality; the justification of all means even the most unscrupulous in the quest for political power. As a result, he has been denounced as a man inspired by the devil, as an immoral writer, an anti-Christian, an advocate of cruelty and tyranny and a deliberate teacher of evil.

Others disagree. They see Machiavelli as amoral, a pragmatist who recognises the harsh realities of political life. Machiavelli is praised as the first person to recognise the true nature of ‘reasons of state’ the place of ‘necessity’ in political conduct. According to the doctrine of ‘reasons of state’ what is necessary to preserve the interests and security of the state takes precedence over all other considerations. ‘Necessity’ knows no laws and morality has no place when the interests of the state are a stake.

In contrast to these views, there are those who claim that Machiavelli did not subordinate moral standards to political ones. Machiavelli is concerned both with what means and what ends are right. Machiavelli advocated ruthless strategies not to preserve power for its own sake, but to create and maintain a strong state, the moral purpose of which was the good of the whole community.

Moreover, Machiavelli never actually says that the end justifies the means. This is a caricature and a travesty of a more complex position. Machiavelli shows how well intentioned morally good actions can have worse results than supposedly immoral but bold and resolute actions.

At times, force and violence, cruelty and deceit are justified as a lesser evil. Machiavelli implied that the morality appropriate to politics is not one based on ideals, but is a consequentialist morality where actions are judged according to the good consequences they promote for the general good of society.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

The case for consequentialism in political life rests on the claim that it is unrealistic and naïve to think that good ends can be achieved without resorting to dubious means. Politicians who keep their hands clean will sometimes cause the evil of the status quo to continue or worse evil to result. In these circumstances it would be self-indulgent, irresponsible and morally wrong to insist on doing the ‘right thing’ regardless of how bad the consequences might be.

These arguments have taken a new lease of life in recent times, if ever they needed one. In the face of terrorist attacks upholding absolute rules against torture and arbitrary detention, rights to a fair trial, freedom of conscience, thought and expression has been dismissed as naïve. Politicians and academics have justified infringing these rights as a lesser evil, necessary to protect national security. But those who oppose such violations are not other-worldly idealists.

They are deeply suspicious and highly cynical about the veracity of politicians stated goals and the justifiability of their true policy objectives. They question whether morally dirty decisions really do serve the general interests or common good. All too often in politics private, corporate or commercial interests and controversial ideological ambitions masquerade as general interests.

Those who are suspicious of the Machiavellian art of the politician also question the supposed ‘necessity’ of the dirty means they use and find that such claims are often exaggerated, counterproductive or simply fraudulent. Suspending rights, using fraud, force and violence are rarely the best and only alternatives in politics, even if national security really is at stake.