Sunday, July 15, 2012

Do Machiavellianism and Moral Relativism Go Hand-in-Hand?

In a recent discussion Jack Camwell claimed that he is Machiavellian but most adamantly denied being a relativist. I have consistently claimed that he is a moral relativist because of his positions on abortion and gay "marriage".  Let's take a look at the definitions of Machiavellian and moral relativism.

Machiavellian -- Definition from Collins English Dictionary 


1. of or relating to the alleged political principles of Machiavelli; cunning, amoral, and opportunist


2. a cunning, amoral, and opportunist person, esp a politician

Definition of Machiavellianism from Wikipedia: 

Machiavellianism is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct", deriving from the Italian Renaissance diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote Il Principe (The Prince) and other works. The word has a similar use in modern psychology where it describes one of the dark triad personalities, characterised by a duplicitous interpersonal style associated with cynical beliefs and pragmatic morality.[1] "Machiavellian" (and variants) as a word became very popular in the late 16th century in English, though "Machiavellianism" itself is first cited by theOxford English Dictionary from 1626.

Definition of Moral Relativism from Wikipedia: 

Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and culturesDescriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral; meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

Definition of Moral Relativism from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

 Most often it {moral relativism} is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons. Sometimes ‘moral relativism’ is connected with a normative position about how we ought to think about or act towards those with whom we morally disagree, most commonly that we should tolerate them.

As you'll notice above the definition of Machiavellianism is more applicable to politics and government policy while Moral Relativism applies to issues of morality.  

In Peter Kreeft's article (1) The Pillars of Unbelief  he calls Machiavelli "the inventor of 'the new morality.'”  Kreeft shows how Machiavelli expounded upon moral relativism and explains how Machiavellianism is a political form of moral relativism. 

For all previous social thinkers, the goal of political life was virtue. A good society was conceived as one in which people are good. There was no “double standard” between individual and social goodness — until Machiavelli. With him, politics became no longer the art of the good but the art of the possible. His influence on this point was enormous. All major social and political philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey) subsequently rejected the goal of virtue, just as Machiavelli lowered the standard and nearly everyone began to salute the newly masted flag. 
Machiavelli's argument was that traditional morals were like the stars; beautiful but too distant to cast any useful light on our earthly path. We need instead man-made lanterns; in other words, attainable goals. We must take our bearings from the earth, not from the heavens; from what men and societies actually do, not from what they ought to do. 
The essence of Machiavelli's revolution was to judge the ideal by the actual rather than the actual by the ideal. An ideal is good for him, only if it is practical; thus, Machiavelli is the father of pragmatism. Not only does “the end justify the means” — any means that work — but the means even justify the end, in the sense that an end is worth pursuing only if there are practical means to attain it. In other words, the new summum bonum, or greatest good is success. (Machiavelli sounds like not only the first pragmatist but the first American pragmatist!) 
Machiavelli didn't just lower the moral standards; he abolished them. More than a pragmatist, he was an anti-moralist. The only relevance he saw morality having to success was to stand in its way. He taught that it was necessary for a successful prince “to learn how not to be good (“The Prince, ch. 15), how to break promises, to lie and cheat and steal (ch. 18). 

Machiavelli ascribed to either realism or neorealism, political theories which advanced a political cause "to explicitly disavow absolute moral and ethical considerations in international politics in favor of a focus on self-interest, political survival, and power politics, which they hold to be more accurate in explaining a world they view as explicitly amoral and dangerous." In his work The Prince Machiavelli wrote "...there will be traits considered good that, if followed, will lead to ruin, while other traits, considered vices which if practiced achieve security and well being for the Prince."  

Machiavelli completely disavowed, tossed aside absolute moral and ethical considerations when dealing with international politics.  Plato believed that political leaders should follow a virtuous path but Machiavelli had no problem with employing vices in the political arena.  

It is evident that a follower of the Machiavellian philosophy, when trying to apply it to ethics or morality, can range in belief from moral relativism to amoralism since to follow Machiavellianism in a strict sense would mean to disavow absolute moral and ethical standards in favor of whatever means necessary to attain power while following him loosely could mean the belief that every political idea is equally legitimate no matter how unethical or amoral the methods used to attain power are.  Machiavellianism is a term which is applied to political philosophy, government foreign relations policy, and leaders who use any means necessary to attain more power but is not used when discussing issues of morality such as abortion, euthanasia, and gay "marriage".  Jack Camwell may be a Machiavellian in his political philosophy but when he justifies abortion in the name of prudence that is considered moral relativism in the ethical realm.  


Anonymous said...

Where do we begin.

Machiavelli himself has been widely mischaracterized over the centuries for his work The Prince. This is mostly because people rarely ever put that work in its proper historical context before they start gleaning any meaning from it.

Machiavelli wrote The Prince for the Medici that shamed and exiled him. The book wasn't necessarily satire, but it was very close. If you actually read The Prince, you detect the sort of tongue-in-cheek nature of it.

If you read some of Machiavelli's other works, and if you read a little more in depth scholarship about him (Pocock's "The Machiavellian Moment" is an excellent source, if a bit inaccessible) then you'll truly understand Machiavelli and where he was coming from.

Machiavelli believed more in the "manly" virtues of Aristotle than Christianity. Machiavelli also believed in Domina Fortuna (or Lady Luck if you want a very crude translation). Machiavelli believed that there is no plan, and that things happen out of sheer luck. Machiavelli's virtue was based on a man who could harness that and use Fortuna to his advantage.

Machiavelli was not a relativist, nor was he amoral. Machiavelli was, however, a realist. He's not incorrect in anything he says in The Prince. If you want to be a Prince with an iron grip on his power, then you must do some pretty nasty things to keep that power.

But Machiavelli was a republican. He believed that the best, most just form of government was a republic. In fact, if you read The Prince, Machiavelli says that in that particular book he would not discuss the merits of republican government, because that was not the purpose of the book. At no point does Machiavelli indict republican government to be a bad thing, just a lot more difficult to control.

Machiavelli can be summed up in one sentence from The Prince:

"for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil."

In a world such as this, the pious often get gobbled up. They are like lambs among the wolves, as he says. At no point does Machiavelli ever explicitly say that the "ends justify the means." At no point does Machiavelli make any claim supporting amoralism or moral relativism.

He understood that in a world that is so evil it is incredibly hard to be good, especially if you want to survive.

I'm not a relativist, and neither was Machiavelli. Both he and I understand that we're only as good as the world allows us to be. The acts that he talks about in the Prince ARE EVIL. There's no way around that.

But as I tried to explain to you, morality and prudence don't always match up. We humans are going to do what we need to do to survive. The difference between most people and me is that most people will rationalize what they did to feel better about themselves; if I perpetrate an evil, I will readily admit that I did so, and I will be honest with myself about it.

Teresa said...


Thank you for your comment. This is not me being snarky but just trying to understand more about Machiavelli and you. I looked at a good number of articles on Machiavellianism/Machiavelli with every single one having pretty much the same interpretation of him and his philosophy, the view where you claim that he is mischaracterized, but how can so many people be in the dark and misunderstand him whereas you see the light?

If you allow society to determine your morals isn't that the opposite of moral absolutism? While you seem to recognize certain universal truths at the same time you seem to be saying that if society allows the rejection of those universal truths then it is okay to abandon those truths? So do you believe that no person is right or wrong in deciding whether or not to have an abortion? As in if one person decides to have an abortion and the other doesn't do you think that both their decisions are morally equivalent?

Anonymous said...

The most easily accessible scholarship agrees on the mischaracterization of Machiavelli. That's not a dig against you or anything, that's just because it's an easy mistake to make.

My source is Pocock. I had to read him for a graduate class on the history of democracy, and I can tell you that it's insanely difficult to understand. My professor at the time, who had been teaching political science for over 40 years, said that even he has difficulty fully grasping the work, because it requires an enormous depth and breadth of BASE knowledge just to get it.

There is also a difference between the implications and the intentions of a given work. Machiavelli's intentions certainly were not to promote moral relativism, or even amorality. Machiavelli had a clear preference for republican states, but the Prince is not about how republican states are governed: it's about how principalities are governed, monarchies if you will.

The intention was to simply shed light on what it takes for decent men to survive in an indecent world, but the implication was that some would inevitably interpret his work as promoting the notion of "the ends justify the means."

You might be surprised to know that the Founding Fathers were all very familiar with, and generally very accepting of, Machiavelli's works.

Religious texts like the Bible are more concerned with spiritual survival: how to save your soul and keep it in tact. Machiavelli's work is more about temporal survival: how to save your life and keep it in tact. Often times, you can't save your life with your soul remaining in tact, and vice versa.

That's why he's considered the father of pragmatism, and some even say the father of modernism.

Here's a good question: is it worth saving your soul if doing so would cause the death of millions? Harry Truman had 2 atomic bombs dropped on Japan. His decision caused the deaths of plenty of innocent people. Had he not done that, though, hundreds of thousands more would have died in the ensuing invasion of Japan. Either way, he had to make a decision that would taint his soul. He had to make a practical (pragmatic) decision.

That's the whole point of Machiavelli: that we're not always faced with a moral and immoral decision. Sometimes the only choices we have are all immoral. Sometimes, if you want to survive you're going to have to get dirty. That's just the reality of living in this world.

Now, having said that, that's not saying that practical justification equates to moral justification. We can say it was the prudent decision for Truman to make, because either path would have resulted in a lot of good people dying. Either way, he was condemning innocent people to death. Choosing the bomb was all at once the most immoral decision and the most prudent one.

It was immoral because he caused the death of tons of innocent women and children, and the effects of the radiation affected many subsequent generations for years. But, it was the most prudent decision because to let the war drag on would have meant that hundreds of thousands of American troops would have been sent to their deaths.

He stood by his decision, but I'm sure that not a day went by where he didn't ask God's forgiveness for what he felt he had to do.

And that's where Machiavelli is coming from. That's where I'm coming from.

To answer your abortion question: no, they are not morally equivalent. I've said from the very beginning that if someone decides to have an abortion, they are doing something morally wrong, even if it's for a perfectly legitimate reason. So the act is always morally wrong. Killing an unborn baby is never a good thing. But there are reasons for doing it (in my opinion) that are legitimate reasons.

Teresa said...


You have just proven to me that you are NOT a relativist. You are a Machiavellian, though.

You have spurred my interest to want to read more on Machiavelli or read at least one of his works. I would probably start with The Prince.

It has been enjoyable engaging in discussion. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the discussion. I really do appreciate this more, shall we say, tamed tone than what we usually take with each other.

Yes, I'm a Machiavellian. I'll never deny that, and I'm not ashamed of it. Perhaps I should be ashamed, but that's a discussion for another time.

Sincerely, I'm glad I've finally proven to you that I'm not a relativist, haha.

Leticia said...

I have studied a bit of moral relativism and have gotten a lot of backlash on Facebook with my opinion on it, but never really studied about Machiavellianism. Sheesh! I hoped I spelled that right.

This was enlightening. The Mac I will call it, because it's too long to spell out seems like a liberal standpoint and moral relativism is a cop out for some Christians.

You can't have it both ways.

Ducky's here said...

Good point, Jack.

Anyone commenting on The Prince would do well to also read The Discourses.

Teresa said...

Ducky's Here,

Just downloaded both The Prince and The Discourses from Gutenberg. I think Kevin and I are going to first read The Prince together.

Teresa said...


It seems to me that both relativism and Machiavellianism do fall under the liberal philosophy and are similar in some ways. But at least with Mac followers do recognize the difference between what is evil and good. They just believe some things are necessary to do even if it is evil.

One thing I can very much sympathize with, one example that Jack gave, was the bombs we dropped on Japan during WWII. While I don't think that those acts were either good or evil I do believe that drooping the bombs was necessary for the U.S. to win WWII.