Machiavelli in Our Daily Lives – A Primer

November 5, 2011

Political Theory

Debating what and how political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli’s ideas and beliefs can be applied to modern-day issues and examples can seem an elusive business.  One example of an application of his concepts is that of President George W. Bush’s provocation and justification for the Iraq war.  Ultimately, this decision was made because it was in the interest of the state.


Can we be sure that George Bush didn’t benefit from the war, personally, professionally, or politically, and if so, does that violate Machiavelli’s principles? How do we know whether or not “good” came from the war? We are ten years in and it is still hard to decipher the message here. What would count as good? Who gets to decide what is “good” for people? Because we “won” the war, we are able to say that the invasion was “good” for Iraq, but does that mean that the Iraqi people think it was? Does it matter?


George W. Bush took America into Iraq - Machiavellian?

Some arguments against the concept of dirty hands, as it applies with this example here, are: How do we know that leaders do not have a personal stake in the issue? If what they are doing seems cruel, maybe that is because it is, in fact, a selfish practice.

  • Are we sure enough of what is “good” to justify actions that we know are bad (or at least undesirable)? E.g., should we wage a war that will have thousands of civilian casualties just to secure the way of living for millions of people? (And we could tie this in with Bush, the war in Iraq, and oil). Engaging in immoral means for a moral end seems to put a lot of faith in our ability as humans to judge when something is “worth it.”

Some arguments in favor of dirty hands are that there are, in the course of events, to be times when someone who is able to intercede in a particular situation is morally obligated to act. If 100 people were going to die unless you killed one person, and you did not kill that person, then would you not be responsible for 99 deaths? Such hands are 99 times dirtier than if you were to commit the initial murder, are they not?
Deciding whether President Bush’s motives for entering the war were selfish or not is not a political theory question; it is an empirical one.
If I, as I mentioned in a political theory discussion section, help out a homeless man on the street;  I do not simply give him money, or a cup of coffee, or even a hamburger, but I tell him I will help with two things: I want to

Try to help him with two things: I want him to have a place to sleep for winter, at least, and a job, in some capacity.  He tells me he is a convicted felon with a record.  I, having the power as both a University student, and a member of a productive society, try to find him a job, and solve these issues and others in his life, but lie and get myself in myriad degrees of trouble.  Is this Machiavellian? Does the theory of dirty hands apply? Why or why not?

In our discussion section, we discussed that one of the core factors for determinacy of whether or not these theories can be applied is whether or not the person to whom we are attempting to apply the theories is in a position of political power, but do I have power in this case?

(As a side note, he will most likely have housing for winter, and is nearly secured into a variety of positions, so clearly I had some level of influence / power).  Debate.  How do Locke and Hobbes play into this? Clearly, in the state of nature I wouldn’t have helped him, but beyond that, what would our two political theorist friends have thought of my going beyond just helping and injuring myself? How do these two philosophers’ theories correlate or contradict Machiavelli’s in this way?

How and in what ways does my example of power, influence, and justification for invasion of spaces correlate or contradict President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and his methods for doing so?



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