an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 11, January - March 2014, ISSN 1552-5112



Kant or Machiavelli?


Anthony H. Lesser


A key theme in The Prince is, as is well known, the impossibility of combining successful governance of a state with consistently acting in a way that is under other circumstances morally right. Thus at the end of chapter 15 (1950, p. 57), Machiavelli says that the ruler “must not mind incurring those vices without which it would be difficult to save the state, for if one considers well, it will be found that some things which seem virtues would, if followed, lead to one’s ruin, and some others which appear vices result in one’s greater security and well-being”.  In chapter 18 (1950, p.65) he says that “a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which are good in men, being often obliged, in order to maintain the state, to act against faith, against charity, against humanity and against religion”. What is under normal circumstances wrong is not merely permissible but obligatory when the safety of the state is at stake; and given human wickedness this situation often arises. One could add that, while in this work Machiavelli is considering the needs of a monarch, even though his preference was for a republic, the same conflict of values arises in a democracy.


This means, first of all, that the prince should certainly seem to be virtuous, and should practise the virtues whenever it is safe to do so, but must be ready to abandon virtue when necessary: “it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful you may be able to change to the opposite qualities” (ibid). Indeed, one virtue, that of generosity, is so dangerous, because of the way it depletes a prince’s financial resources, that “a prince must care little for the reputation of being a miser, if he wishes to avoid robbing his subjects, if he wishes to be able to defend himself, to avoid becoming poor and contemptible, and not to be forced to become rapacious” (p.59). The prince also “must not mind incurring the charge of cruelty for the purpose of keeping his subjects united and faithful…he will be more merciful than those who, from excess of tenderness, allow disorders to rise, from whence spring bloodshed and rapine” (p.60). The case of honesty is somewhat different. A “prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when so doing would be against his interest and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist” (p.64). But “it is necessary to be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler”, this being made easier for the prince because “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived” (p.65).


A point Machiavelli himself does not make, but with which he might have agreed, is that there would seem to be some virtues which a ruler should always possess but which he might have to appear to lose at times. S/he should presumably always be self-controlled; but it may occasionally be a good tactic, though one available only to a single ruler, to throw a tantrum. S/he (or they) should always be courageous, but when the safety of the state is at stake it may be necessary to back down from a challenge in a way that a courageous private citizen would not. And—though this varies—at times it may be useful for the ruler to be more prudent than anyone realises.


It is important to be clear that Machiavelli is not advocating systematic neglect of the virtues, but a readiness to use either good or bad qualities as the situation requires. He gives examples of Roman emperors, such as Commodus, Caracalla and Maximinus, whose cruelty led to their downfall, but also the examples of Pertinax and Alexander, who because of their good character refused to indulge the army at the expense of the people and as a result were conspired against and murdered: “hatred is gained as much by good work as by evil” (p.71). 


The crucial point is that the ruler must be prepared when necessary to break faith. A prince must, as appropriate, imitate both the fox and the lion, “for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves” (p.64). His example of someone who was both a fox and a lion is the emperor Septimius Severus. When Severus was made emperor he had two rivals, Nigrinus in the East and Albinus in the West, and considered he was not strong enough to divide his forces and attack both. He therefore marched successfully against Nigrinus and showed friendship to Albinus, only accusing, attacking and killing him after Nigrinus had been defeated and killed (p.73).


Earlier in the book Machiavelli gives the example from his own time of Cesare Borgia. When Borgia took over the Romagna, it was “a prey to robbery, assaults and every kind of disorder” (p.27). To restore order he appointed Messer Remirro de Orco, “a cruel and able man, to whom he gave fullest authority” (ibid.). Once order was restored, Remirro de Orco was replaced by a civil court of justice. Borgia knew that the necessary harshness had engendered some hatred: wishing the people to blame his minister and not himself, he found an opportunity to have him murdered, and his body, in two pieces, placed in the public square at Cesena, causing the people “both satisfaction and amazement” (ibid.).  Machiavelli concludes, after describing Borgia’s whole career, of which this is only part, “Reviewing thus all the actions of the duke, I find nothing to blame. On the contrary, I feel bound, as I have done, to hold him up as an example to be imitated by all who by fortune and with the arms of others have risen to power” (p.29).


We may now compare this with what Kant says in the Appendix to Perpetual Peace (370-386), of which the first section is entitled “On the disagreement between morals and politics in relation to perpetual peace” and the second section “On the agreement between politics and morality under the transcendental concept of public right”. These two titles imply that Kant recognises Machiavelli’s problem but wishes to give it a different solution. Kant and Machiavelli agree about the corruption of human nature, the “inherent wickedness” in people of which Kant speaks in a long footnote (376). They also, I think, agree that it is not that people have no awareness of morality and justice, but that they act unjustly and wrongly despite this awareness. Finally, they agree that a major cause of their acting unjustly is their belief that this is how other people will treat them. Thus Machiavelli follows his recommendation that a ruler ought not to keep faith when it is against his interest (see above) with the comment that “If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one, but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them” (p.64).


Here Kant parts company from Machiavellianism. He holds that even if other people are not likely to keep faith with you, there is still a moral duty, or duty of virtue, to keep faith with them: if other people are likely to break their contracts, the appropriate moral reaction might be, from a Kantian point of view, not to make contracts with them at all, rather than making and breaking them. Kant also holds that one has a clear moral duty to work to bring such a situation to an end, and to replace it with one in which everyone has a reasonable expectation that other people will treat them justly. Kant expresses this, in section 44 of the Doctrine of Right, as an obligation to leave the “state of nature”, in which everyone “does what seems good and right in his own eyes”, and contributes to a civil society, subjecting themselves to “the external restraint of public compulsory laws”.


The “state of nature” for Kant is like that envisaged by Locke, rather than that described by Hobbes. It “need not be represented as a state of absolute injustice” (ibid); but it is a state in which there is no authority to settle disputes and in which “no one can be secured against violence” (section 42). In this state, although people have a notion of what is just, there is no authority other than their own consciences to require them to act in accordance with it. Hence a) there is a strong, and for some an overwhelming, temptation to act unjustly when this is to a person’s advantage, and b) when two people genuinely disagree about what is just and the demands of both cannot be satisfied (e.g., when they lay claim to the same property), the dispute can be settled only by force. Whether Kant thought such a state had actually existed prior to “civil society”, or even still existed in some parts of the world, is not quite clear. But he was clear that in any such state there was a moral obligation to replace it with civil society, i.e. with a state governed by laws and with force being used whenever necessary to obtain obedience to the law, so that there may come into existence juridical as well as moral duties, i.e. duties that may rightly be enforced, as well as duties of virtue. Moreover, “it is…reasonable that anyone should constrain another by force to pass from such a non-juridical state of life and enter within the jurisdiction of a civil state of society” (section 44).


With much of this Machiavelli might well agree. He lived before political theorists talked about the “state of nature”; but he might well have taken the view that not only had states of nature preceded civil societies but civil societies were often in danger of falling back into a state of nature, not because there was no law but because the law was ignored and the authorities too weak to enforce it. Hence, he would probably have agreed with Locke that the sense of justice existed in the state of nature but was often ineffective; and with Hobbes that the state of nature was characterised by frequent violence against persons and property. The Romagna, before Cesare Borgia and Remirro de Orco got to work, would be a good example.


So Machiavelli would agree with Kant that it is praiseworthy to force people in a state of nature to accept government by law. And Kant might agree with Machiavelli that some degree even of cruelty may be necessary. But there is a very important difference between them, regarding the duty of a ruler or ruling group. Machiavelli regards it as the business of a ruler to produce order and stability. To do this he (as Machiavelli would say, though some historians regard Elizabeth I as a particularly successful Machiavellian) should use whatever methods are necessary, however cruel or dishonest: the only restriction is that there should be no needless cruelty or breaking of faith. The exact nature of the order does not matter, provided that as many sections of the population as possible are sufficiently contented not to rebel, and the rest are too powerless to organise a revolt.


In contrast, Kant holds that the obligation, on us all and not only the rulers, is to work not simply to produce an ordered society but to produce a just society, in which the basic human right, to be free to act in any way which can co-exist with the freedom of all others, is upheld and protected. This means both that, as was said above, in a state of nature there would be an obligation to work to replace it with a civil society, using force if necessary, and in civil society, “once a fault that could not have been anticipated is found in a nation’s constitution or in its relations with other nations, it becomes a duty, particularly for the rulers of nations, to consider how it can be corrected as soon as possible and in such a way as to conform with natural right” (Perpetual peace, 372).


This, of course, assumes that there is an objective justice, about which everyone agrees, even when they ignore it in practice. Machiavelli would not quarrel with this, but others might. However, for the purposes of this argument it is sufficient to say that a just society is one in which the persons and property of all citizens are protected from attack by violence or deceit, whether coming from their rulers or fellow-citizens, and in which people honour their contracts and promises. This leaves various questions unanswered: how this is derived from the basic innate right to freedom, how the basic right itself is justified, how we decide when property has been legitimately obtained and therefore should be protected,  how short of this ideal a society can fall and still be considered just, and what else justice involves? But it represents Kant’s main concerns in the parts of Perpetual Peace and the Doctrine of Right which are concerned with justice in general terms. Also, it is true that almost everyone would regard respecting property and keeping promises as just and right, even when disregarding justice in their actions. So we can agree with both Kant and Machiavelli, who do not differ on this point, that justice involves these two principles and that we have an obligation to be just. The difference between them is that Machiavelli thinks that this obligation is often outweighed by the need to obtain and preserve stable government, and Kant denies this.


One reason for his denial is that for Kant the obligation of justice is not derived from its consequences but is independent of them, a moral obligation to which the politician, like everyone else, is required to conform irrespective of its effects. Thus at 370 he says that “Honesty is the best policy” can be challenged, whereas “Honesty is better than policy” is unanswerable. Right has to be a “limiting condition of politics”. For Machiavelli the aim of politics is a stable society, and justice is to be pursued whenever it contributes to this end, but overruled when it does not. In Kant’s terminology, Machiavelli is trying to be “a political moralist, i.e. one who forges a morality to suit the statesman’s advantage” (372). But Kant considers this to be impossible: the “political moralist” has not forged a new morality, but produced a set of prudential precepts, or even, Kant might admit, an art of politics, and called this purely prudential system a morality. In contrast, the “moral politician”, who “so interprets the principles of political prudence that they can be coherent with morality” (ibid.) demonstrates how, in contrast to some versions of popular wisdom, politics and morality can be made entirely consistent.


Machiavelli’s retort might be “Indeed they can, but at the cost of failing as a statesman, and increasing social disorder”. Kant’s reply to this would be that, although the obligation to be just is not based on its good social effects, nevertheless a just society has a much better chance of maintaining order than an unjust one. There are three reasons for this, which Kant does not state explicitly, but which are implied or presupposed by what he does say. The first is that there is a clear moral duty to support and maintain a just society, acknowledged, on Kant’s view, by all. This moral motivation is often overridden by considerations of self-interest, but nevertheless does have its effect and its influence. If Machiavelli were to reply that there is equally a moral obligation to maintain order, even in an unjust society, Kant would probably agree, unless the injustice was extreme, but would certainly see the motive to action based on it as being in practice less powerful and less effective.


Secondly, if a society is a just one, everyone has a long-term interest in maintaining it, because no group is strong enough, even if they are successful in obtaining an unjustly powerful position, to maintain that position indefinitely. Indeed, it is the more unjust societies that have been most often overthrown, though they have sometimes been replaced by something even worse. Admittedly, strong government can be enough to maintain a state, and justice is not always enough to save a state from destruction, especially if foreign powers get involved. Just as morality may lose out against self-interest, so long-term self-interest may lose out against short-term morality. But the best chance for stability is to be found when there is both strong government and a commitment to justice.


Thirdly, and here again Kant disagrees with Machiavelli, despite the “radical evil” of human nature, and the fact that there is always a potential, and often an actual, gap between what we ought to do and what we want to do, there is a natural tendency for people to improve. Kant calls this an assumption of his, rather than something demonstrable, but nevertheless he says “since the human race’s natural end is to make steady cultural progress, its moral end is to be conceived as progressing towards the better. And this progress may well be occasionally interrupted, but it will never be broken off.” (Theory and Practice (short title), 309).  Now Kant makes an absolute distinction between juridical and moral duties, between duties of right and justice, which may and should be enforced, and duties of virtue, which may not. But the existence of justice is a strong encouragement to virtue. It not only makes it against a person’s interest to break the law, but also creates an environment in which there is a general expectation that people will honour their commitments, including those not supported by the law, and will not try, even by legal means, to obtain property to which they have no right. Allied to the natural tendency to improve, this can result in an increase in virtue among the population, and this in its turn will result in an increased observance of juridical duties. Virtue and Right are different, for Kant, but they support each other.


Conversely, in an unjust society the natural tendency towards progress may be interrupted, and injustice and moral wrong-doing may encourage each other, so that stability becomes more and more threatened. In short, Kant’s answer to Machiavelli is that, given the universal sense of justice, the long-term advantages of justice and the capacity of humans to improve, stability and order always have a better chance in a just society, in which people have some measure of trust in their rulers and their fellow citizens, than they do in a society where fear of the rulers has imposed a measure of order but this trust is lacking. People do not always listen to their sense of justice, their long-term interests or their instinct to improve; but they are much more likely to listen to them in a just society.


 Kant insists, as said above, that justice should be pursued for its own sake, irrespective of the benefits it brings. But he also believes that justice, as well as being required in itself, will in fact do good rather than harm. At 379 he endorses the saying “Fiat iustitia, pereat mundus”, literally “Let justice be done, though the world perish”, but he says that this means in German (by which he may mean, in plain German), “Let justice rule, though all the rogues in the world go to the grave”. The only “harmful” consequence of justice would be that bad men perish, and “The world will certainly not cease to exist if there are fewer bad men”(ibid.).


This does not mean that justice “trumps” all other duties. One does not have “permission simply to press with the utmost vigour for one’s own right (which would be contrary to one’s ethical duty)” (379). Kant cannot have read Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas, which was not published even in part until 1808, four years after his death, but it seems clear that, had he read this account of the terrible consequences of insisting on vindicating one’s personal rights regardless of the consequences, he would have regarded Kohlhaas as being entirely wrong morally as well as prudentially.


Rather, the principle means that those in power have an obligation “not to deny or diminish anyone’s rights through either dislike or sympathy”. It also means that a nation must have “an internal constitution founded on principles of right” and has an obligation to form a union with other nations in order to settle their differences legally (ibid.). From this there follows, a point that Kant makes earlier in Perpetual Peace (at 372), that there is a duty to correct any injustices in a state’s constitution as soon as is practicable (see above for his exact words). But Kant goes on to point out that it is contrary to morality as well as prudence to “sever a bond of political or cosmological union before a better constitution is prepared to put in its place”. Hence to try to improve things too rapidly or too violently is both unwise and wrong. At 373 Kant refers to people who try to do this as “despotic moralists”.


One might say that Kant is here agreeing to a limited degree with Machiavelli, in that he holds that it is necessary to put up with injustice if an attempt to improve things, or even the actual removal of this particular injustice, would make matters worse rather than better. A historical example would be the events of 1938: a genuine injustice to the Sudeten Germans was removed, but at a terrible cost of massive injustice to the Czechs and Slovaks and perhaps even at the cost of making the Second World War inevitable. But he still maintains that it cannot be right actually to perpetrate injustice, whether as a single act or as an unjust law or policy. He also still maintains that, though not everything can be done at once, to aim at justice, provided one is not a “despotic moralist”, is part of what is politically best as well as what is morally right. It should be followed because it is morally right, but it is also the best way of achieving political stability and a basis for prosperity. Hence in the penultimate paragraph of the section “On the disagreement between morals and politics in relation to perpetual peace” Kant says that objectively there is no conflict between morality and politics. Subjectively, there is a conflict between the “self-seeking inclinations of people” and what is right. But the idea that human frailty and corruption entitle or require us to behave unjustly is a “deceit of the evil principle in ourselves”, a piece of self-deception that has to be admitted as such and rejected. (see again 379).


But the Machiavellians still have a partial reply. They could agree with Kant as regards the internal government of a country, but argue that international relations are different. For, it might be argued, nations are with regard to each other always in a state of nature, there being no authority above them. Moreover, it is a state of nature from which it is impossible to emerge. Individuals can form a society and submit to its rulers, voluntarily or through coercion, while retaining their basic human rights, but nations would have to give up their national sovereignty to some larger nation, so that the state of nature among the nations could only be avoided by the whole earth being one nation—certainly not possible in practice, and perhaps not even intelligible in theory.


Kant certainly agreed that at the time all nations were still in a state of nature. Thus in section 54 of the Doctrine of Right he says that states “are naturally in a non-juridical condition”, and “this natural condition is a state of war”, although not always “a state of actual war and incessant hostility”. In section 349 of Perpetual Peace he says “the natural state is one of war, which does not always amount to an outbreak of hostilities but to the constant and enduring threat of them.”


But this condition can and should be replaced by peace. Again, Kant says very similar things in both works. In Perpetual Peace (254) he says “For the sake of its own security, each nation can and should demand that the others enter into a contract resembling the civil one and guaranteeing the rights of each”. In the Doctrine of Right (61), he puts the emphasis more on the moral aspect and says “The natural state of nations, as well as of individual men, is a state in which it is a duty to pass out of in order to enter into a legal state”. So it is both a matter of self-interest and a moral duty for nations to leave the state of nature.


There are three ways in which this might be done, but Kant rejects two of them. It might be done by the creation of one super-state, but even war is “rationally preferable” to a “universal monarchy” (Perpetual Peace, 367). This is for three reasons. First, any state of that size would inevitably be despotic, without genuinely representative institutions or a respect for individual freedom. Secondly, one would lose the healthy competition between different nations, peoples and languages which Kant thinks is the main source of human progress: without it people may have comfort and contentment, but no incentive to improve themselves or resist their baser instincts.  Thus at the end of 367 he compares the peace imposed by despotism, which puts an end to freedom and to any cultural or moral advance, with what can be “produced and secured by an equilibrium of the liveliest competing powers”. And this despotism produces a condition worse than war, in Kant’s view, because of the moral and cultural decline to which it leads. Kant is brief on this point in this particular passage, but makes more of it elsewhere in his work, for example in the essay Speculative Beginning of Human History, at 120. Thirdly, the peace imposed by despotism does not last: “laws invariably lose their impact with the expansion of their domain of governance, and after it has uprooted the soul of good, a soulless despotism finally degenerates into anarchy” (Perpetual Peace, 367). Kant gives no examples of this, but perhaps had the Roman Empire in mind.


On the other hand, perpetual peace cannot be secured merely by treaties, which can produce only a temporary cessation of hostilities for as long as it is to the advantage of all parties: “although a treaty of peace can put an end to some particular war, it cannot end the state of war” (355).  The solution is a federation of nations, not a federal body forming one nation, as in the United States, but a federation of states retaining their independence but having mutually contracted to avoid war and to settle their differences by arbitration or “civil process”. Unfortunately, to bring every nation into such a union is, Kant thinks, impossible, because protection of its individual members becomes impossible if the union is too large: hence there will be at best several such unions, and the possibility of war remains. So perpetual peace is impossible: Kant seems to have had a different view when he published the treatise of that name, but in the Doctrine of Right, published in 1797, two years after Perpetual Peace, as part of the Metaphysic of Morals, he says this explicitly. What is possible, and therefore our duty to work towards, is a situation of “continuous approximation” to perpetual peace (Doctrine of Right, 61). This is very different from the Machiavellian view that we have to accept the state of war, i.e. of a permanent threat of hostilities, (see Kant’s own account of the state of nature, above), and within it to do the best we can for our own nation.


At this point the Machiavellians will say that even this is impossible, because without a powerful central authority to force the contracting parties to abide by their agreements none of these federations of nations will last for any length of time. Kant gives two reasons why, on the contrary, their prospects can get steadily better, even if perpetual peace is unobtainable. These reasons parallel the reasons Kant gives for thinking that civil society is able to perpetuate itself (see above) The first is that we can, even with regard to international relations, expect the human moral sense to improve. Despite the “depravity of human nature”, there is a “homage that every nation pays (at least in words) to the concept of right” (Perpetual Peace, 355); even when waging what is in fact an aggressive war, governments still see to it that the writings of the classic natural law theorists, such as Grotius and Pufendorf, are “always piously cited in justification” (ibid.). This shows that the principle of morality cannot be eradicated, even when people do not act in accordance with it. And at 376 Kant says that people “cannot altogether refuse obedience to the concept of public right (which is particularly important in the case of international right)…they give this concept all due honour, even if they also invent a hundred excuses and evasions to avoid observing it in practice.”


Now, as Kant says in effect in the long footnote to 376, one of the main reasons for these excuses is the belief that other people will pay no attention to considerations of right and justice: “everyone believes of himself that he would truly venerate and abide by the concept of right, if only he could expect the same from everyone else.” Machiavelli himself says that under such circumstances it would be right always to act honestly (see above). In domestic civil society this expectation can be created by having an effective and well-enforced legal system. In a federation of states, where enforcement can be obtained only through voluntary cooperation, the expectation will be lower. Nevertheless, given that the states have entered into this federation for the purposes of peace and justice, there will be some expectation that they will both respect these aims and take action against those who do not, so that one ground for ignoring “international right” has been removed, and some, maybe limited but some, advance in international morality has been made.


Secondly, once the federation is in existence, everyone can see the advantages of maintaining it. In particular (368), “The spirit of trade cannot coexist with war, and sooner or later this spirit dominates every people.” So human nature and self-interest can now work in the cause of maintaining peace. Kant concludes this section of Perpetual Peace, which is entitled “On the guarantee of perpetual peace”, by saying, in effect, that although one cannot say, as a matter of theory, that perpetual peace must develop, we can be confident that as a matter of practical fact, it will. As said above, in the Doctrine of Right he is less optimistic; but he still emphasises that something close to perpetual peace is attainable (section 61).


So Kant has two powerful arguments against Machiavelli, that justice should be pursued irrespective of the consequences and that in fact, long-term stability is attainable only if basic justice has been secured; and he argues that this is equally true, though harder to obtain, in international relations than it is in the institutions of individual states. As a final point, it is worth repeating that Kant is not talking about what he calls “despotic morality”, the pursuit of justice in all its forms whatever the consequences, but about a level of respect for persons and their property and of maintenance of contracts and promises that is at least greater than what is available in a state of nature or of unrestricted sovereignty, and which is attainable not only within states but also on the international level.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 11, January - March 2014, ISSN 1552-5112



Hobbes, T.(1968), Leviathan, ed. MacPherson, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Kant, I.(1952), Doctrine of Right, trans. Hastie under the title “The Science of Right” in Great Books of the Western World, ed. Hutchins, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

Kant, I.(2011), Zum ewigen Frieden, ed. with commentary, Eberl and  Niesen, Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Kant, I.(1983a), Perpetual Peace, trans. Humphrey, in Perpetual Peace and other essays, Indianapolis: Hackett. 

Kant, I.(1983b), “On the proverb: that may be true in theory but has no practical use”, in Perpetual Peace and other essays.

Kant, I. (1983c), “Speculative beginning of human history”, in Perpetual Peace and other essays.

Kleist, Heinrich von(2004), “Michael Kohlhaas” in  The Marquise of O— and other stories, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Locke, J.(1993),  Second Treatise of Government in Political Writings, ed. Wootton, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Machiavelli, N.(1950), The Prince and The Discourses, New York: Random House.

(In quoting Kant, I have usually used the translations of Hastie and Humphrey, but occasionally my own).