Lying, Cheating and Deception
Niccolo Machiavelly and his political philosophy
The philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli can best be understood in terms of its central focus on the characters that well define a good, if not powerful, leader. While it is certainly true that the leader should have characteristics that substantiate his or her personality above the rest especially to those whom he or she rules over, it can hardly be denied that the leader should all the more be a role model for his or her people.
Machiavelli is considered to be one of the major political thinkers not only during his time as he was able to handle some of the highest ranking positions in the Italian government. His philosophy well stretches up to contemporary times, influencing some political leaders whose leadership styles slant towards the totalitarian form of leadership reminiscent of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il (Lukes, p. 561). There are notable characteristics of the leader in the Machiavellian philosophy: the ability to lie, cheat and deceive. Apparently, these three characteristics of the leader are also considered by Machiavelli as virtues.
In order to have a better grasp of Machiavelli’s treatment of lying, cheating, and deception as forms of virtues necessary for the leader, it is important to consider the fact that Machiavelli viewed the leadership environment as primarily composed of the other political figures and those who were ruled. The political environment, for the most part, is considerably a ‘hostile environment’ for politicians or leaders alike for several reasons. Perhaps the most important reason is the presumption that every political figure, even one’s closest allies, is a potential rival in the leadership structure. That is, Machiavelli’s perception of the participants in the leadership scheme as probable leaders each of them having individual desires to obtain the highest ranks.
If indeed it is the case that every participant in the leadership structure is a probable rival in the ranks, then it should be the case that the leader remains vigilant of all of these people which includes even his closest allies. In essence, this perception embodies the thought that in politics there are no permanent allies as every politician or leader is a probable competitor or threat to the position of the leader.
As the general environment of politics is seen as one which is filled with people coveting for the ranks especially for power, another notable aspect to be looked into in terms of Machiavelli’s philosophy is the group of citizens in the society. While leaders or potential leaders in the political arena may vie for political positions, the common individual on the other hand does not expect any of these. Rather, the ordinary citizens view the leader as a role model, one who embodies the entire citizenry. Further, the leader is also seen as the ‘provider’ for the needs of the people as he is the central force in guiding the whole society. It is one of the many intrinsic responsibilities of the leader attached to his acquisition of power or of his position in his domain (Nederman, p. 617).
With these two things in mind—political rivals and the people—one can have a better glimpse of the relation of deception, lying and cheating with Machiavelli’s political philosophy and of Machiavelli’s treatment of these three elements as virtues. But before proceeding with that part of the discussion, one final aspect should be looked into. It is perhaps the perfect essence of Machiavelli’s entire political philosophy—his famous concept of the end justifies the means (Geerken, p. 351).
The end justifies the means
In the end justifies the means, two things should first be considered: the end and the means. In essence, the concept of the end is synonymous with the concept of goal while the means are the objectives used in achieving the goal. The statement the end justifies the means partly describes the actions of the leader. But more to that, it resembles the idea that the actions of the leader should be towards the maintenance or sustenance of the leader’s power or position apart from anything else.
By pushing forth the idea of the end justifies the means, it is expected that the leader should make actions which are ultimately towards the achievement of its goals. These actions would certainly have to correspond to certain goals, otherwise these actions by themselves would be futile attempts in nature. Therefore, it is an imperative that the actions would have to be aimed at goals, and these goals are goals which will prolong the leader in his rank or position as we shall see later.
With the idea of the end justifies the means, there is the implicit assumption that the end far outweighs the means in terms of merit (Seamon and Fallon, p. 544). That is, the goals are more important than the ways in which these goals are obtained. Hence, the concerns of whether certain actions are good or bad in terms of their very nature are out of the question. What matters most is the merit of the ends in themselves as these ends are ultimately what the leader and his people are looking forward to.
With the presumption that the ends outweigh the means and the apparent disregard for the merit or value of these means, it is inevitable that certain actions aimed at certain ends will only be justified if, first, the objectives are able to satisfy the goals and, second, the goals have been fully realized. In effect, actions ranging from what one may call as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are permissible so long as the ends are obtained and realized. For instance, political killings, genocide, the merging of political factions or groups or the voluntary resignation of a president are considered to be for the ‘good’ of the society if in fact these situations are able to meet the ends to which they were done for. Otherwise, if a failure to achieve the ends even with the completion of certain tasks or objectives, it cannot be said that the end justifies the means precisely because the end was not obtained in the first place.
Going back to the two major elements in the political environment—political rivals and the people—it can then be stated that the actions of the leader should be aimed at the goal of maintaining power or acquiring power regardless of the ways in which these goals are achieved precisely because the end justifies the means. One must be reminded that the political environment, given the proliferation of potential rivals and the mounting wishes or needs of the people, is seemingly chaotic or filled with uncertainties. These things inevitably necessitate the leader to take certain actions in order to maintain his position. And this is the part where lying, cheating and deception come into play.
Lying is perhaps one of the most common human actions, denying several things for several reasons. In the context of Machiavelli’s perception of the political environment, ‘lying’ can be done by the leader in various ways. In spite of the many ways in which the leader can practice lying, all of these ways boil down to the goal of maintaining or acquiring power. At this point it should be already obvious that the central task of Machiavelli’s political philosophy is the attainment or maintenance of power by the leader.
The concept of lying in Machiavelli’s political philosophy rests on the presumption that the leader should lie in order to maintain his rank in the political environment. The reasons may most likely come from the necessity of denying accusations such as fraud or corruption in the leadership in order to destabilize the rule of the leader and eventually place him out of his position. This is founded on the assumption that the political environment is filled with potential rivals who seek power and will use almost any tactic in order to dispose of the status quo or of the leader. This is why the leader should lie in order to deny any accusations made against him or his method of leadership so as to stabilize his leadership and continue ruling in his position. In essence, it is one of the parallels to the concept of the end justifies the means.
Another scenario wherein the leader is bound to lie in order to maintain his position or power is the case where he opts to lie to the people. In the event where the people make a dialogue with the leader where questions are aimed at the leader’s stand or opinion on matters of societal concerns, the leader should lie in such a way that he is able to relate to the people the answers that they want to hear. This way, the people are gratified in terms of the fulfilment of their expectations that the leader is able to, say, meet the standards or expectations set forth not only by the people but also by the very nature of the role of the leader.
Another characteristic that the leader should have is his ability to cheat. Cheating, for the most part of the political environment, is considered to be bad or evil since it entails ways in which one is given the capacity to obtain one’s desires by compromising the welfare or interests of others. In the scenario wherein the leader is prompted to acquire information regarding undisclosed items from, say, the opposing political factions, the leader can opt to cheat by acquiring these items through ways not prescribed by the law. This way the leader is able to obtain the information he needs in order to meet his tasks and eventually retain his political power.
Moreover, the leader can also cheat towards his constituents through raising taxes which may not necessarily be a part of the taxation laws. Given the goal of raising the wealth of the society and correspondingly appropriating a considerable budget for, say, military affairs, the action of the leader to ‘cheat’ on his constituents by imposing laws beyond the scope of the law are justified. In essence, ‘cheating’ is justified by the end of raising revenues for the military affairs.
The concept of deception in Machiavelli’s political philosophy can be roughly identified with the concept of ‘camouflage’. For instance, the leader should be able to blend well with the environment he is situated into so that any sign of opposition either from the political rivals or from the people will be pre-empted. For example, the leader can appear to be a religious political figure before the public, attending church masses diligently and consistently over a stretch of time so that the mental state of the people will reflect an image of the leader as a religious individual. As a result, the leader is able to deceive the people in the context of religion when in fact the leader may not at all be attached to any religious principles or beliefs.
Another case of deception that the leader can make manifest is the situation wherein the leader is able to deceive his political rivals that he is willing to take the side of their political principles. The leader can pretend to have an ear for the political suggestions of his rival thereby creating the illusion that the leader has an open ear for the queries and voice of the opposing group. This in effect creates the impression on the rivals of the leader that they have wide chances of altering or influencing the decisions of the leader in terms of economic or military affairs for instance. On the contrary, the leader may in fact be using this tactic in order to reverse the attempts of the rivals and dispose of them in the end through obtaining a significant amount of information on what it is that the leader’s rivals exactly want and denying them of these things throughout the course of his leadership.
The essence of the three virtues
The essence of the ruler’s lying, cheating, and deceiving rests primarily on two things: first is the idea that the political environment is relatively unstable until the ruler is guaranteed of his rule or political power and second is the idea that, as a response to this environment, the leader should act like a lion and a fox.
First, it should be noted that in order for the ruler to successfully maintain his power and position in the society the ruler should make use of actions which will help him achieve his ends. These actions, apparently, include lying, cheating and deceiving either his political rivals or his constituents. Part of the reason why Machiavelli insists on using these three factors is the presumption that the stability of the entire state rests on the stability of the power of the ruler. Given a ruler with a shaky disposition or a vulnerable reign, the stability of the entire state is also compromised.
Thus, in the context of Machiavelli’s political philosophy, it is an imperative for the ruler to use means at his disposal in order to ensure him of his political reign. Otherwise, the chances of the ruler to maintain his power are diminished over time as political pressure mounts up.
Moreover, the leader should imitate both the fox and the lion due to their distinctive characteristics: the fox is able to identify and evade traps due to the wisdom and cunning of the animal while the lion is known for its fearless disposition and strength. Given the combination of these two characteristics, the ruler is then able to identify the traps set forth by his political foes and avoids them in the process inasmuch as he is also able to incapacitate his rival through his compelling political force (Langton and Deitz, p. 1277). With the addition of lying, cheating and deceiving, the ruler becomes a dominant and powerful figure in the political environment able to secure for himself political power and tame his political enemies.
For Machiavelli, lying, cheating and deceiving are not only mere characters of seemingly infamous merit but are more importantly virtues. The main contention behind this claim rests on the presumption that the welfare of the entire state is the utmost good that needs to be met. And the best measure in achieving this end is by enabling the ruler to secure the power he has and keep his position as the leader of the state inasmuch as a large part of the affairs of the state rests on him.
In order to secure the power of the ruler, he has to lie, cheat and deceive the people and his rivals. Although these elements may be considered as evils, they are nevertheless treated as virtues because these elements are essential to achieving the highest good for the whole society. If the ruler does not cheat, lie or deceive the chances of securing his leadership and the welfare of the entire society are compromised in the context of Machiavelli’s political philosophy. And all of these things are best summarized by Machiavelli’s grand statement that the end justifies the means.
Geerken, John H. “Machiavelli Studies since 1969.” Journal of the History of Ideas 37.2 (1976): 351.
Langton, John, and Mary G. Deitz. “Machiavelli’s Paradox: Trapping or Teaching the Prince.” The American Political Science Review 81.4 (1987): 1277.
Lukes, Timothy J. “Lionizing Machiavelli.” The American Political Science Review 95.3 (2001): 561.
Nederman, Cary J. “Amazing Grace: Fortune, God, and Free Will in Machiavelli’s Thought.” Journal of the History of Ideas 60.4 (1999): 617.
Seamon, Roger, and Stephen M. Fallon. “Machiavelli’s Intentions.” PMLA 108.3 (1993): 544.