The phrase “the end justifies the means” is often associated with the 16th-century literary work The Prince, written by Niccolò Machiavelli. On the surface, The Prince appears to be a book full of straightforward advice on how to gain and hold political power. In the book Machiavelli continually espouses consequentialist ethics; in many cases he declares that the use of violence, force, and treachery are all perfectly acceptable, provided they serve the goal of maintaining power. At the same time, however, Machiavelli asserts that a political leader –the “prince” or other ruling figure- must also balance such expressions of power and force with deeds that serve to keep those he rules happy and content. As Machiavelli writes in The Prince: “in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result” (Chapter XVIII). While he never actually wrote the phrase “the end justifies the means,” the book is seemingly one long argument for that position. The question of whether the end truly does justify the means –under any circumstances- is a difficult one to answer. With Machiavelli’s work as a starting point, it is possible to examine the issue from several angles, though reaching a definitive conclusion has historically proven impossible.
The first thing to consider about The Prince, and about the argument that “the end justifies the means,” is that Machiavelli may not have meant what he wrote. According to many literary analysts and critics, The Prince is entirely a work of satire; it just happens to be so well-constructed, they say, that it makes a strong case for a position they believe Machiavelli did not actually hold (O’Carroll, n.d.). There is a compelling argument to be made for the notion that The Prince is a satirical work, as it was written after Machiavelli had spent many years in positions of political importance, and had both witnessed and been subjected to acts of brutality and torture. Such violence was nearly always carried out in service of strengthening the political power of those who ruled the state, and The Prince is, in a way, a textbook on how to effectively balance such brutality with benevolence for the sake of attaining and maintaining power.
When considering the notion that “the end justifies the means,” this does not only have to imply that “the means” must inherently be immoral; quite the opposite can be true. An example may be a business or other organization that chooses to use or adhere to so-called “green” policies in order to lessen their impact on the environment. The cost of maintaining such “green” policies may make their products or services more expensive than those of competitors who do not use such means. If the higher costs of doing business according to higher environmental standards means that the company is lowering the rate at which they pollute the environment or use natural resources, however, it may be argued (both by the company and by their customers) that “the end justifies the means.”
Throughout history, arguments have been made for and against actions that will have negative consequences. One of the most significant examples of this in recent history was the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan near the end of World War II. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people; those who argue in favor of this action, however, note that many more might have died had the war continued. The argument is further bolstered by nationalism, in the sense that the United States had to balance the potential loss of American lives if the war continued against the loss of enemy lives if they utilized the atom bomb. In that case, the political leaders in the U.S. determined that the “end” of the war justified the “means” of using the bomb.
The example of the bombing of Japan shows just how difficult it is to say that the end justifies the means. For the U.S. the means were clearly justified, but that only views the situation from one perspective. At the core, the question remains whether actions are moral or immoral regardless of their outcome, or if a positive outcome can justify and immoral act. Although it may be impossible to ever truly answer this question, it does demonstrate that within the context of politics, it is often necessary to make decisions based on their potential outcome. While The Prince may be a work of satire, it also addresses the complexity and difficulty any political leader or organization faces in trying to strike a balance between doing well and doing good.
Machiavelli, N. (2006, February 11). The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. Retrieved September 16, 2013, from www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=3274404&pageno=3
O’Carroll, E. (n.d.). Political misquotes: The 10 most famous things never actually said – “The ends justify the means.” – Niccolò Machiavelli – CSMonitor.com. Retrieved September 16, 2013, from http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2011/0603/Political-misquotes-The-10-most-famous-things-never-actually-said/The-ends-justify-the-means.-Niccolo-Machiavelli