Imparare a «poter essere non buono»: Machiavelli tra utilità e morale

Anno XLIX, n. 209, gennaio-aprile 2014
Centro Einaudi
Articolo completo/Full text


Dirty hands problems arise when morality clashes with some other rational necessity of a profound kind that correctly overrules it. Non-moral ‘oughts’, on this view, can legitimately trump moral ones in circumstances of extremity. This scenario is seen to be especially pertinent to the realm of politics, where conventional moral standards are often deemed to be inapplicable. For Croce and other commentators, Machiavelli was a theorist of ‘dirty hands’, who placed the political process above or beyond morality. While some of the Florentine’s utterances can support such an interpretation, I shall argue that the preponderance of evidence – both textual and circumstantial – points to a different conclusion: that his defence of cruelty and deception expressed not a suspension of morality but a different understanding of morality. According to Machiavelli, a right act produces the best outcome in terms of preference satisfaction or communal happiness. In a typical political situation, there is a choice between two evils, and the right choice, morally, is the lesser evil – even if it requires us to violate the deepest constraints of traditional morality. In such cases, the statesman’s hands are ‘clean’ as opposed to ‘dirty’. This interpretation is reinforced by Machiavelli’s desire to banish the idea of transcendence from political life. Most thinkers of the Renaissance celebrated the ‘intellective soul’ as man’s ‘essence’. Machiavelli, on the other hand, saw human beings merely as bundles of appetites. The purpose of political life was not to actualise man’s essential nature but to tame it. Politics is therefore about utility rather than virtue or salvation. This being the case, the interior motivations of political actors are irrelevant. We judge them and their policies not by intentions but by observable results.  Machiavelli’s consequentialist approach to morality laid the foundations for modern political science, which also focuses on empirical processes, verifiable through sense perception, and tends to ignore the superstructure of constitutional pieties and noble intentions. Machiavelli’s determination to purge political analysis of its preoccupation with spiritual concerns and to reduce the complexity of the world to its external evidence allowed him to underline the distinction – essential to the science of politics – between things as they appear and things as they really are.