Myth

Niccolò Machiavelli said, "the ends justify the means."

Did Machiavelli Actually Say, “the Ends Justify the Means?”

Niccolò Machiavelli never said, “the ends justify the means”, although he did elude to a complex version of the concept in his Prince. [1][2][3]

Essentially Machiavelli implies “the means matter” and “the ends” don’t magically justify them, but sometimes it is worth accepting all the ramifications of “unjustifiable means” and the damage they do to one’s reputation for the end goal.

Furthermore he points out, that as far as the opinion of others is concerned, appearances matter more than action (“Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand… one judges by the result”).

Both of the above concepts are notably different than the idea that “any means are magically justified by ends – PEROID”.

The above can generally be gleaned from the Prince chapters 6 – 9 (especially chapter 8 where he describes “criminal virtue“) and chapter 18 (where the misquote comes from; as far as I can tell).

With that in mind, although it isn’t fully misguided to attribute this line of thinking to the Father of Modern Political Science Niccolò Machiavelli, this consequentialist misquote is an over simplification of Machiavelli’s actual realist Republican philosophy and the actual phrase never appears in his work. Below we further explain this stance.

The Difference Between Consequentialism and the idea that “the Ends Justify the Means”

Before we dig into what Machiavelli did or didn’t say, we should quickly explain consequentialism.

Consequentialism (AKA Utilitarianism, the Greatest Happiness theory, justice, fairness, the core theory of moral philosophy) is often mistaken as the philosophical idea that “the ends justify the means – Period”.

That snappy justification for everything sounds good on paper at first, but in practice it is a slippery slope to despotism and immoral horrors (see Hitler, eugenics, and other fun stuff like that).

A simple maxim like this is bound for revision, and certainly the actual utilitarian theories of everyone from Plato, to Bentham, to Mill, to Rawls (AKA all good theories from the original utilitarian theory of Morals and Ethics on) essentially refute the overly simplistic take on the concept.

So it is no surprise Machiavelli, the Father of modern Political science, presents a more complex argument than the famous, but overly simplistic, pseudo-consequentialist quote eludes out of context.

Proving Machiavelli Never Said “the Ends Justify the Means”

Although we can generally point to different parts of the book, including most of chapters 6 – 9 to make the points on this page, the best evidence in the book has already been pointed out correctly by CSMonitor. The closest Machiavelli comes to actually saying “the ends justify the means” quote is from Chapter XVIII of “The Prince” :

Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.

In other words, in this passage, Machiavelli is saying “one judges by the results”, not “do anything necessary to get your desired ends with no regard for virtue”… and is poking fun at Princes (read it closely)…. which sort of fits with the idea that the Prince is essentially written as satire and is trying to teach virtuous leaders how to overthrow tyrants and people how to form Republics.

The Prince is written to look like a realist guidebook for hereditary princes, but is actually a mix of underhanded insults and of underhanded tactics for virtuous leaders who lacked the criminal virtue needed to ensure power in a world full of con men and tyrants. As Rousseau says, “his is the book of Republicans”. How Machiavellian!

In words, Machiavelli is hinting, both in his stated words and in his sly, that “if a virtuous leader came along to overthrow a tyrant by force, that the ends would justify the means, that they would be judged by the results, not the action of overthrowing”… but he is also just using backhanded language to lambast the Medici family who had him arrested, tortured, and exiled from government when they took over his Republican Florence and turned it into a a hereditary principality.

Beyond this, Machiavelli is more just taking a realist tone and exploring the idea in chapters 6-9 that Princes who come to power through might tend to have an easier time retaining power. He suggests [speaking in terms he didn’t use but eluded to] that “criminal virtue” is helpful for ensuring a show of strength when rising to rule. He notes that criminal acts are not those of great leaders, but also notes that it is perhaps better for a good leader to use a few calculated wicked tactics than for that leader to lose to a truly wicked leader who employees criminality naturally.

Thus, the point is nuanced, but Machiavelli is hardly just saying “the ends justify the means, morality doesn’t matter, feel free to use this for a justification for any questionable policy”. Not at all.

Machiavelli’s core point then is no different than the other philosophers, the point is that one should seek “the greatest happiness” and in doing so, one must be willing to embrace some vice and sacrifice some virtue. Still, that point is summed up in the first line of Mill’s utilitarianism… it is the rest of the book that describes secondary principles that temper this first principle and further nuance. The same is generally true for Machiavelli, we can read a section as a call for shady tactics, but his work in total is just a realist account of political tactics, history, and a general call for Republicanism.

No, our political fathers and philosophical moralist greats did not condone all means to a desired ends, their theories are much more enlightened…. even an uber-realist like Kissinger knows this.

PHILOSOPHY – Ethics: Consequentialism [HD].

DO THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS? The ends can sometimes justify the means, sure! And the ends are often more important than the means. And sometimes, one must muster up criminal virtue to ensure an ends which brings the “greatest happiness”… but one must understand, we are talking about “greatest happiness” theory here. And thus, people look to rule-Consequentialism (where we consider the morality of the means, not just the ends). Machiavelli as a political great, virtuous master, and Republican would no doubt apply the same sort of reason to the seeking of a more perfect happiness theory.

An Introduction to Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince- A Macat Politics Analysis.

ALL STATES, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities. – The first line of the Prince

“… the governments of the people are better than those of princes.” Book I, Chapter LVIII of Livy



Conclusion

People don’t seem to understand Machiavelli, but a close reading of the book proves that Rousseau is right, unsurprisingly, like every other Republican in history, Machiavelli was one of the good guys and didn’t have overly simple ideas like “the ends always justify the means”. He is the father of political science, not a brain dead power hungry Tyrant. “For the love of liberty”, let us stop smearing the man’s name with our oversimplifications.


Citations

  1. The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli Written c. 1505, published 1515 Translated by W. K. Marriott
  2. Political misquotes: The 10 most famous things never actually said
  3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract page 37).


"Machiavelli Said, “the Ends Justify the Means”" is tagged with: Happiness, Liberalism, Niccolo Machiavelli


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