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Cruel to be Kind

October 2, 2010

In Machiavelli’s The Price, he seems to be making an ambivalent statement about morality; he defines it politically by referring to cruel actions with just means. As Walzer  compares it to a comment by Hamlet in his writing, Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands, “I must be cruel only to be kind” (Walzer 170). Regardless of Walzer’s own opinions of Machiavelli, he does bring up an interesting point about  the moral dilemma of cruelty and kindness. Machiavelli certainly seems to suggest that cruel action is acceptable as long as the desired outcome is achieved. Is this applicable to our own lives today?

There are certainly situations that suggest necessity in being “cruel to be kind” in our modern life, save Nick Lowe’s hit “Cruel to Kind.” While I don’t think he was referring to Machiavellian theory, it is still a great song nevertheless and I encourage you to listen to it.

Chart hits aside, Machiavellian principal is applicable in today’s society. As we discussed in lecture, as well as agreed to as a class,  politics today are extremely Machiavellian. In campaigns, politicians often play dirty and do cruel things in order to achieve success in gaining positions; perhaps this is in the hope that they might do kind things once in office.

Thinking on a more personal level, I might argue that parenthood requires somewhat of a Machiavellian hand in the raising of a child. Parents play an important role in shaping their child’s understanding of the world. This means that  children look to their parents in guidance of how to behave in society. If a parent were to let a child get their way all the time (eat sweets, fight with other children, throw tantrums, act selfish, etc.,) then let’s face it, that child would turn out to be a complete brat. In this sense, parents have an obligation to act cruelly towards their children. They must enforce rules, bedtimes, and behaviors that the child may object to. Parents must also serve adequate punishment. While for a certain time, the kids might resent their parents for their cruel actions, they may be more grateful when they realize this strange act of kindness has allowed them to become normal acting people.

In a similar sense, we talked about in discussion the Machiavellian approach to the relationship between GSIs or professors and their students. As a student, I may feel that my GSI is acting cruelly when they give me bad grades and judge my work. However, this cruelty is both necessary and kind. I am still learning to become an informed person, and my GSI is seeking to help me achieve that through criticism. By pointing out my mistakes and punishing me accordingly, I may actually learn to better myself as a student in the long run.

So although Machiavelli may seem like a really old guy with guidelines for princes, his comments on morality do leak through to today’s society. Whether you be a parent, politician, or professor, he has something to say to you– “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind, in the right measure”– or at least that’s what Nick Lowe’s love interest has to say to him.

7 Comments
  1. matteric9 permalink
    October 3, 2010 12:18 PM

    I would not go as far to say that American politics is as Machiavellian as you suggest. Although a significant portion of our politics has Machiavellian roots, there are never instances where we would go as far as Machiavelli would have gone. For Machiavelli makes it clear that he will not hold back at all during the pursuit of power. Even though politics today have gotten a negative impression, there are large amounts of restraint that is practiced that Machiavelli would not have agreed with.

  2. jaclburr permalink
    October 3, 2010 5:16 PM

    I agree on some parts. People in positions of authority must sometime take actions that may seem cruel to certain others in order to fulfill their purpose. However, I feel that we also have moral systems that allow us to check those actions, such as when a politician comes out with scandalous information. People have the moral vision to see that these things are wrong, can then judge them accordingly and decide if the ends really did justify the means. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t.

  3. Neil Rabinowicz permalink
    October 3, 2010 8:36 PM

    Yes, sometimes you do need to be cruel in order to be kind, but I don’t agree with everything you said. For starters, how do you define cruel? When you talk about parenting, cruel could mean different things, depending on the parents’ idea of how to raise a child or how they were raised. I know people that spanked their kids when they misbehaved and then I have met parents that are against hitting their kids and rather use more psychological approaches to punishments. So how is each approach Machavellian?

    On another note, politics aren’t as Machiavellian as you say. According to Machiavelli, a ruler should be willing to kill in order to achieve what he wants. While politicians do have dirty hands and sometimes have to go against their beliefs in order to achieve what they want, that’s just the way politics has been throughout history. Some Machiavellian characteristics can be seen in today’s politics, but I strongly believe that the ideas in “The Prince” don’t apply to the present day, but are rather meant as advice to monarchs and individual rulers, not politicians in democracies or communist nations.

    Overall, I like the points you made. However, I would reconsider the many different relationships between parents and children as well as the relationships between students and GSI/teachers. Some Machiavellian ideas could be applied to such relationships, but there are too many variables that you didn’t consider when making the assumptions in this post.

  4. crorey permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:10 AM

    I totally agree with this post. There are plenty of times where one has to be cruel to be kind. As long as there is a distinction between when one is being cruel to be kind and when he/she is being cruel because they are a sadist, then this process is fine. If one is a sadist, they are just going to cause pain and suffering instead of gain and growth. There is definitely a necessity to differentiate between being cruel to be kind as in machiavelli’s case, and being cruel because you are a saddist.

  5. Andrew Berman permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:32 AM

    Parenthood is very tough and one of the most difficult jobs to accomplish successfully. That is why i disagree with your point in that parents must be Machiavellian. One thing that Machiavelli says is that the ruler (parents) must know when to be cruel. There shouldn’t be an ‘obligation’ to be cruel, rather the parents should pick and choose their battles. Kids are very stubborn (like most populations) and dont always respond well to punishment and cruelty. Parents (like rulers) should only be cruel when they have to. If a child wants to stay up past his bedtime it might not be necessary to punish the child. Instead there could be additional family time while the child stays up.

  6. aaronyan1123 permalink
    October 5, 2010 3:08 AM

    You are absolutely right. I believe the modern world is required Machiavellians to run it. I have a good father, which is a great leader too. He used to examine me with punlishment when I made mistakes. I was mad angry with him. However, I appreciate that he made such a cruel decision shaping me with punlishment when I grow up. Therefore, from my personal experience, I definitely agree a Machiavelli’s ‘being cruel to be kind’. with right measure.

  7. Jameson McRae permalink
    October 5, 2010 1:48 PM

    I believe that all kids need Machiavellian principles to shape them. As you go though school everyone develops differently, and it is often easy to spot out the differences in everyones upbringing. The people with the ‘stricter’ more Machiavelli like parents behave far better than those with the ‘nice’ parents. Without seeing consequences for your actions you are never forced to think them through. Machiavelli can help all of us become not only much better people, but much better thinkers. We must all know that every action you perform has some consequence and you must think every action over thoroughly. The only way your kid will ever be responsible on their own is through discipline, not through letting them make mistakes and finding out for themselves as ‘nice’ parents would say. A simple grounding or time out will typically suffice, there needs to be no violence as Machiavelli might preach. Sometimes “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind”.

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