The Virtue of Expediency: Hobbes, Machiavelli and Moral Relativism Name Class Professor Date 1 The Virtue of Expediency: Hobbes, Machiavelli and Moral Relativism In 1532, Niccolo Macchiavelli penned what has become accepted as the definitive treatise on political power in the history of Western literature…
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The morality that The Prince espouses has immortalized the famous notion that the ends justify the means, that a ruler should not concern himself with abstract concepts of virtue and ethics in the effort to hold power. In this realist construct, since the ruler is power, the idea of sacrificing power in the interest of the virtuous rule is not only an irrelevant idea, it becomes illogical. In this perspective, Machiavelli argues that the ruler must “learn to be able not to be good and to use this and not use it as necessity dictates.”1 “Necessity” is the operative word in this idea, and emphasizes the “real-world” morality of Machiavelli’s invention. “The Prince must govern in the real world with men as they are, and not in some ideal world where men behave as they ought to.”2 To Macchiavelli, actions bear an intrinsic “virtue” of their own, regardless of whether those actions can be identified as “evil.” In other words, if the ruler, by his actions, is able to solidify his power and thus keep his rule secure from those who seek to supplant him, then he has, by definition, done good. Though Thomas Hobbes disagreed with Macchiavelli concerning the role of the state, the two agreed on this 2 point: “In stressing the power of the sword and the inefficacy of mere words, Hobbes was following Macchiavelli.”3 Both Hobbes and Macchiavelli concur in the political “virtue” of fear and power, and that “there should be no limitations placed upon the rights of rulers.”4 For both Hobbes and Machiavelli, metaphysics has no place in the real world of men, the world in which power is the only real currency. The effective ruler is never one who would consider virtue to be anything more than an abstraction, which can in no way aid him in wielding and maintaining power. Morality has a slightly different meaning for Hobbes, who proposes a “natural condition of mankind,” in which there is chaos, a condition devoid of political organization or power.5 In this natural state, Hobbes argues that there is no possibility of morality because there is nothing to give it context and meaning. Hobbes counters that in a commonwealth, the organized political state in which all have a place, it is essential, and the individual’s bounden duty, to obey those who hold power. Hobbes may have followed Machiavelli in the fundamental beliefs concerning the primacy of power and authority over ideas and moral ethic, but he diverges from Machiavelli over the doctrine that morality is something that not only exists within the bounds of the political state, but is something that the individual must concede to the state for his own well-being and that of society. Hobbes was writing from firsthand knowledge about religious warfare, specifically, the horrific experiences of the English Civil War, the outcome of which had forced Hobbes to flee England to avoid Cromwell’s wrath over his proposition that obedience to unrestrained royal authority must be absolute. 3 Hobbes postulated a form of human equality for which Machiavelli does not allow. Yet Hobbes’ “equality” is not in the same vein as that of the ancient Greeks, or the great philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment. In Hobbes’ view, “men should be seen to be equal politically because of a decisive point of equality: every human being, even the strongest and smartest, is susceptible to being killed by others.”
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