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An analysis of “the ends justify the means”

October 2, 2010

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.

  1. Madeline Smith permalink
    October 2, 2010 10:32 PM

    This is a very interesting idea- I’m wondering how dirty hands would tie into this. When you can no longer keep a positive moral code what responsibility does machiavelli’s quote take on?

  2. matteric9 permalink
    October 3, 2010 1:21 PM

    I appreciate that you used Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of a man who’s ends justified the means. Dr. King did a very good job of proving that goals can be accomplished without violent means. Dr. King did not hesitate to break the law if he tried exhausting a legal path first. Although he broke the law on a number of occasions, he never harmed anyone, which gave him the positive reputation he still holds today.

  3. Andrew Berman permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:40 AM

    I agree with you in saying that “ends justifies the means” shouldn’t apply to Hitler and Nazi Germany. Hitler wanted to create a unified Germany and expand his empire to create the Third Reich. His intentions seem to be just wanting to help Germanys economy and bring them out of the gutter, however he has other selfish intentions of power and supremacy. For these selfish reasons at the expense of millions of innocent lives “ends justifies the means” cannot be pertinent in this case.

  4. jbrasspolsci permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:57 PM

    This article really got me to think about how justifiable the saying “ends justify the means” actually is. When reading how what Hitler did, his ends definitely did not justify the means. What he did, killing millions and millions of Jews was obviously morally unjust. To something as outrageous and pitiful as Hitler’s actions, “ends justify the means” should absolutely have any relation. However, from Martin Luther Kings perspective, “ends justify the means” definitely should be incorporated. He was being discriminated against, and he was standing up for what he believed in. His sit-ins, his decisions to get arrested was justifiable for what he was protesting.

    I really enjoyed this perspective on when “ends justify the means” can actually be appropriate. When I first learned about it, I really thought as long as there was success, the ends actually did justify the means. When putting it into the context of Hitler, the situation does a complete 360 degree turn.

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