An analysis of “the ends justify the means”
Last week, we read the first few chapters of Machiavelli’s The Prince and his famous quote “The ends justify the means” was discussed in most discussion sections. When my discussion section passed judgment on Machiavelli’s quote (which seemingly summed up his amoral psyche), almost every group believed Machiavelli’s ideals too cruel and not applicable to those with an ounce of morality.
However, a point was brought up that inspired a bit of thought concerning this quote, “Where can we put cheating in this spectrum?”. The ends for cheating are not to learn, but to get a good grade. The ends of cheating also include the risk of getting caught. So, if I wanted to do something to get a good grade and possibly get in trouble (or didn’t care about getting in trouble), with no concern when it came to learning, cheating could be a viable option. When spun a certain way, my particular ends do justify my particular means.
When my discussion section further denounced Machiavelli’s quote, we brought up names like Hitler, or Malcolm X. Hitler brought Germany’s economy out of the slum it was in, but did it with events like the Night of Knives and the Holocaust. Upon first look, the ends clearly do not justify the means. I am not saying Hitler’s means are justified in any way shape or form, but that Hitler’s reign in Germany cannot be used as an example to invalidate Machiavelli’s quote. Hitler’s ends were to bring Germany back as a world power with clearly little reservation when it came to doing things amorally. Hitler’s ends were to bring Germany back up by any means necessary. To Hitler, his means were justified. To rest of the world, he was a cruel dictator.
Another reason Hitler cannot be used to pass judgment on Machiavelli’s quote is because Machiavelli certainly wouldn’t approve of Hitler’s rise to power. While Machiavelli seemingly writes off morality, a close reading shows that he is not ready to denounce it. In chapter 17, where Machiavelli declares it be better to be feared than loved, Machiavelli suggests that being thought of as cruel is not a bad thing: “a ruler ought not to mind the disgrace of being called cruel, if he keeps his subjects peaceful and law-abiding, for it is more compassionate to impose harsh punishments on a few than, out of excessive compassion, to allow disorder to spread” (p. 35). Machiavelli never completely discounts morality, but in fact believes it to be one of the more important parts of princedom–I think that is something that is overlooked when people read Machiavelli. He further states, “Employ policies that are moderated by prudence and sympathy” (p. 35).
On the opposite spectrum of morality, Martin Luther King Jr. showed that “the ends justify the means” can be used in a positive way. MLK made sure that his ends were not only in compliance with moral code, but non-violent, and to further a call for desegregation. He did everything, including non-violent sit-ins, and the peaceful March on Washington. MLK’s desired ends were reached, and they certainly justified his means.
So, in conclusion, “the ends justify the means” is not an absolute statement. It depends on who is using it and for what means. In the hands of an amoral leader, with a disregard for morality and compassion, the quote seems responsible for much damage. However, those who hold a positive moral code when compiling their ends will follow through with the proper means. And by that standard, Machiavelli’s quote is simply a motivator–there is not right or wrong.