Intro to Ethics: Machiavelli

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 26, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics


Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time, we looked at the radical ethics of Martin Luther. Today, we look at another radical ethical thinker: Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527).

machiavelliFor Machiavelli, the highest purpose of social political life is to attain and hold power. Moral rules, then, are practical rules about how to gain and hold power over others. Thus, you should break a contract whenever it benefits you, because otherwise the other person (who by human nature is wicked), will break his contract with you. You should keep your contracts only when they help you gain and hold power over others.

Machiavelli is the first major thinker to judge actions solely in terms of their consequences. An action is good not because God commands it, nor because it comes from virtue, but because its consequences are the attainment and keeping of power. Most of The Prince is dedicated to explaining how we can measure consequences, and what princes can do to attain and hold their power.

Luther and Calvin had separated the ethics of church and state. Machiavelli had made power the ultimate concern, and set ethics against the background of unchanging human depravity. And all three of them had made the individual the ultimate focus of moral significance. The stage was set for our next great moral thinker, Thomas Hobbes.

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