On Machiavellian Ethics


Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli 1469-1527

In his thoughtful opinion piece headed "The disappearance of morality" Raja Senanayake bluntly declares that the present Government is "following only the Machiavellian ethics of politics which boil down to no ethics at all." (The Island 5 July). The conventional view is that Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) the Italian political theorist was indeed "Old Nick" i.e. the devil himself. In his book titled Machiavelli in the Past Masters Series, Quentin Skinner, Professor of Political Science at Cambridge University makes a new non-judgmental historical assessment of Machiavelli’s works. He says that as an acute observer of political men and matters of his time, Machiavelli merely recorded what rulers actually did, and not what they ought to have done to attain and retain power. M’s political philosophy derived from the practice of politics of the rulers he observed. In his History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell avers that what M approvingly records is indeed shocking. But, says Russell, it is shocking only because M was intellectually honest about the need for successful rulers to be politically dishonest when the occasion demanded it. In M’s book called The Prince he sought to justify the view that if necessary the "Ideal Prince" should use even amoral or unscrupulous means to attain and retain power, in order that he might serve the best interests of the State he governs. We must remember here that M was deeply concerned about the unification of Italy which in the 15th century was in a state of disarray. As BR points out, in the 15th century few rulers in Italy were legitimate and even some popes secured the papacy by corrupt means. The prevailing ethic in Roman Catholic Italy at that time was that the end justifies the means. For example, Pope Leo X was a member of the rich Italian banking family called the Medici who seems to have secured the papacy in 1513 by dexterous manipulation. Having become Pope he is a reported to have joyously said "since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it."

Biological role of religion

I cite these facts only because Raja Senanayake appears to be irked, distressed, perplexed and saddened by the involvement of many Buddhist monks in our country’s current politics. RS complains that some Buddhist monks are campaigning for political goals that "have nothing to do with Buddhism preached by the Buddha." If so, they are really no worse than some Popes were in Renaisance Italy vis-a-vis Christianity preached by Jesus Christ. I think if RS reads a little more biology when he is not reading economics and theology, he will realize that religion is a biological phenomenon that evolved in early human societies as a strategy to promote their survival on Earth. In a recent book called The Faith Instinct published in 2009, Nicholas Wade cogently explains how an instinct for faith, (like the instinct for language) became hardwired into the human brain in the course of biological evolution. There is evidence that at least for the last 50,000 years human beings have practised religion and some form of worship based on a belief system has been a universal human characteristic. Religion binds people of a tribe together and motivates individuals to put the interests of their tribe above their own private interest, which is what morality ought to do. Unfortunately each tribe developed a religion of its own (just as each tribe developed a language of its own.) So religion and language came to distinguish one tribe from all other tribes. The religion of each tribe encouraged moral behavior towards members of the tribe ("us") and if necessary aggressive behavior towards those of other tribes ("them"). Thus arose the distinction between "us" and "them" such as in our day between Buddhists and Muslims or between Buddhists and Christians which RS alludes to.

Recent social evolution

It was only during the last 3000 years or so that the great religious teachers like the Buddha and Jesus appeared in history. They comprehended intellectually the oneness of the human family and preached universal "maithree" or love. Most of their ordinary followers, however, are not sufficiently evolved intellectually and emotionally to comprehend the oneness of the human family and practise universal compassion. Survival on Earth is the name of the biological game that living things are indulging in day in, day out. Under circumstances in which the economic "law of scarcity" (most things people want are in short supply) operates in a big way on a wide scale, a fierce struggle for limited resources is inevitable. The impact of the geometric (Malthusian) principle of population growth, (2, 4, 8, 16...) aggravates the struggle for existence. This is what we have been experiencing in our country during the past few decades. In fact, the man - elephant conflict, the crocodile - man conflict, the monkey - man conflict, the Sinhalese - Tamil conflict, the Buddhist - Muslim conflict, Buddhist - Christian conflict, are all expressions of the biological struggle for survival in our grossly overcrowded Island with limited resources.

Perplexing questions

Two questions in particular seem to perplex RS:

1. How is it that there so much religious preaching and ritual and so little disinterested active kindness (maithree) practised in our country?

2. Why is behavior that would be regarded as being selfish, contemptible and morally reprehensible if practiced in relations between private individuals in society often condoned and even acclaimed and rewarded when practised in relations between nations?

These are complex sociological questions to which there are no simple answers. That is surely why even so astute and scholarly a commentator as Raja Senanayake is puzzled by them. I myself don’t know the right answers, if any, to those questions, but I can hazard an opinion for what Amartya Sen calls "public reasoning." As to the first question, my simple-minded answer is it is so much easier and cheaper to indulge in religious rituals than to be unselfish and generous and kind as demanded by the practice of true religion. For example, to listen reverently to bana or to a Sunday sermon or to repeat the five precepts or pray to God five times a day for peace on Earth is a very easy, self-gratifying indulgence, whereas to actually feed a starving child or minister to a sick person is much more difficult and demanding and expensive. The difference between the two appears to be the difference between the feel-good, illusion of fake religious behavior and true religious behavior. That is surely why there is more religious ritual than true religious practice.

Ethics of nations

Concerning the second question, my naive understanding is that what is good for an individual in a nation, may not always be best for a nation as a whole. Although individuals make up a nation, nations are more than the sum of its individuals. At the level of individuals comprising a nation, there is a higher authority with coercive power in the form of the government of the nation, to adjudicate over conflicts of interest between individuals. In the world as presently constituted, there is as yet no higher authority in the form of a World Government equipped with coercive power to adjudicate over conflicts between nations. For all practical purposes, therefore, nations live in a state of Nature, which in Lord Tennyson’s famous phrase is "red in tooth and claw". So if a nation does not protect itself and its territory it is destined to perish and disappear sooner or later. Altruism is a matter for individuals to practise, not for nations. If long term survival on its territory is the categorical imperative of a nation, it cannot afford to squander its resources in acts of collective generosity. I think that is why nations tend to behave selfishly. And that is why to my knowledge territorial boundaries have always been settled by war and never by negotiations. I am really confused about this matter. I feel the need of a political scientist with a special interest in political ethics to clarify things for me. I wonder whether our erudite political scientist Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka could help me to understand the difference between the ethics of individuals comprising a nation and the ethics of a nation in relation to other nations.

Carlo Fonseka

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