Friday, 30 August 2013

The Morality of Hobbes and Machiavelli

It has come to my attention that there are parallels between my thinking with regard to ethical structures and some of the thinking of Hobbes and Machiavelli.  I’d like to take this opportunity to point out the specific parallels where I see them.


Hobbes was a tutor to the prince who later became Charles II of England, during the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651).  These hostilities had a great impression on Hobbes who came to think that, for a state and the subjects of that state, nothing was remotely as bad as civil war.  Specifically, he saw that any excesses of a sovereign were the price that should be reasonably paid for the protection provided by that sovereign.

Where Hobbes begins to approach my theory is when he explains the nature of the relationship between the subjects of a state and the sovereign, which he described in terms of a social contract.  What is important to note here is that social contract is neither real nor explicit, but rather it is a notional agreement between each individual and the state.

Without this social contract, Hobbes argued, the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Similarly, without the morality that derives from our communal ethical structures (or rather, perhaps, the common aspects of individually held ethical structures), our lives would likely be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  I have postulated that individually held ethical structures also have, as their lowest tier, social conventions – the meat and potatoes of a notional social contract, not so much with a sovereign but with society in general.

So, in effect, there are similarities between the social contract implied by the concept of an ethical structure as I developed and the social contract discussed by Hobbes, and they have the same objective – survival.

If there are other parallels, I’d be interested to discuss them, but until then, no other similarity between my ponderings about ethical structures and Hobbesian social contract theory should be assumed.


With regard to Machiavelli, I must hasten to point out that he was not an ethicist per se and many observers (or at least those who take him literally) characterise Machiavelli’s argument that the end justifies the means as immoral, if not evil.  That said, Machiavelli did write about morality in relation to seizing and maintaining power in The Prince.

I acknowledge two aspects of similarity between Machiavelli’s thinking and my own (although, as with Hobbes, I’d be interested in discussing other perceived parallels – but please don’t assume that my thinking parallels Machiavelli in all areas).

Machiavelli noted that while a prince is praised for keeping his word, he is also praised for seeming to keep his word and it is this seeming that is key (Ch. 18).  Appearing to be moral (conformant) is certainly key in my arguments regarding ethical structures.  For the purposes of promoting your survival it is essential that you are seen to be moral with regard to your peers and superiors and somewhat less important that you are moral.  If you are scrupulously honest, but appear to be a lying, conniving cheat, you fail to benefit from your honesty.  You would actually be at a disadvantage with respect to a lying, conniving cheat who works hard at appearing to be scrupulously honest, and you would benefit neither the veneer of honesty nor the fruits that derive from being a lying, conniving cheat.  Note the inclusion of the words “works hard” – it often requires more of an effort to appear to be scrupulously honest when one is a lying, conniving cheat than it is to be honest.  Therefore, for the lazier among us, it is rather more convenient to be truly honest, rather than just pretend.

However, there are situations in which honesty is not the best policy.  For example, there are times when the risks associated with obeying the injunction against killing others are greater than the risks associated with being identified as a killer.  When morality no longer features strongly in the optimal course of action, Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince becomes salient:

(The Prince) should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.

Machiavelli describes this skill – knowing when to be uncompassionate, faithless, guileful and profane – as a “virtue”.  This should however be taken in context.

Machiavelli was a hardened realist rather than an idealist, and in the pages of The Prince, he was providing (possibly ironic or satirical) advice for successfully taking and maintaining power.  He had recently witnessed the rise and fall of the House of Borgia and at the time of writing The Prince, the Medici family had recently returned to power in Florence.  One of first acts by the Medici on retaking power had been to arrest, torture and banish Machiavelli – notionally for “conspiracy”, but possibly as payback for his involvement in expelling the Medici in 1494, his earlier successes with his citizen-militia and his efforts to defend the city-state republic of Florence against the return of Medici in 1512.  

So, The Prince was written in exile during a period of considerable political instability.  One could argue that Machiavelli’s situation was analogous to that of Hobbes’, although whether he experienced what could be considered a state of civil war is a matter of interpretation but the Borgia had tried, quite brutally, to unify what is now central Italy.  Such an argument finds support in the fact that Machiavelli appeals to the Medici, who had tortured and banished him, to unify central Italy.

If, like Hobbes, Machiavelli had come to the conclusion that stability was paramount, then it should be no surprise that there should be some parallels between their thinking.  The difference lies in the perspective.  Hobbes was saying that, for the subject of a nation, subordination to the sovereign (despite the behaviour of the sovereign) is the path to security.  Machiavelli was saying that the security of the sovereign (or Prince) relies on the sovereign acting in whatever manner necessary to remain in power.  In this sense, knowing when to act immorally would indeed constitute a “virtue”.

Subordination to a weak sovereign offers a subject little protection, so one can see that Hobbes might well have argued that immoral behaviour that is necessary to maintain the security of the sovereign would be entirely justifiable (although he may have stopped short of labelling sovereign-maintaining immorality as virtuous).

Similarly, in respect to ethical structures, I have argued that the survival benefit provided by acting morally is potentially negated if – when being moral is no longer the strategy that will promote your survival – you are unable to “be the opposite”.

Note, however, that this sanctioning of immorality is caveated – both on the part of the sovereign (or Prince) and the individual.  Immoral behaviour for the sake of immoral behaviour is not justified and can be deleterious to security.  Excesses can lead to the removal of a sovereign - even Machiavelli, who rated fear more highly than love as a motivator for the subjects of a Prince, warned against letting fear become hatred.  Untimely immorality on the part of an individual can lead to punishment, withdrawal of privileges, exclusion or even death (see The Bible for an extensive list of infractions occasioning capital punishment).

I’d like to stress that although there may be some similarities between what Hobbes and Machiavelli had to say and my musings on ethical structures, this should not be taken as meaning that I subscribe unreservedly to either the Hobbesian or Machiavellian schools of thought and that neither of them were (at least not directly nor intentionally) sources from which my thinking was derived.

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