Bringing Machiavelli and Kant Back in on Morality and World Politics

Date01 October 2019
Published date01 October 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Bringing Machiavelli and
Kant Back in on Morality
and World Politics
Pavan Kumar1
This article is an attempt to understand the idea of morality in two of the most
influential philosophers Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince and Discourses) and
Immanuel Kant (Perpetual Peace and Metaphysical Elements of Justice). Machiavelli
and Kant are chosen because both of them are the most cherished philoso-
phers in their fields. Machiavelli’s name is associated with realism, and he got a
bad name because of his alleged cruel advice to maintain the state. His name is
equalled with cunningness, murder, treachery. On the other hand, Kant is the
founding figure of idealism in politics. His focus on categorical imperative and
human capabilities to attain the higher moral goals made him one of the most
well-known philosophers on idealism. To understand the ethical problems of the
day emphasis is given to the classic writings of scholars who have written exten-
sively on morality, justice, state, power, human rights and individual freedom.
This article is an attempt to answer the following questions: Is the state in itself a
highest moral actor? Can there be an individual morality above the state? What
should be the yardstick to judge an act—the act in itself or the outcome of the
act? What are the duties and rights of the individual in domestic society and can
there be a similarity of morality at the level of political leaders in international
politics? The paper argues that both Machiavelli and Kant were dealing with
different contexts and societies, and morality for them had different meanings.
However, the end justifies the means dictum is not the right way to understand
Machiavelli on morality.
Human nature, international politics, Kant, Machiavelli, morality, necessity
1 International Politics Division, Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament,
School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Pavan Kumar, Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International
Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110067, India.
International Studies
56(4) 292–307, 2019
2019 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881719863284
Kumar 293
In Melian Dialogue (History of Peloponnesian War), Thucydides makes a point
that morality and ethics are not a matter of concern in politics. In Melian Dialogue,
Athenians asked Melians to surrender; otherwise, they will be crushed and
destroyed. However, Melians do not listen to their advice. Melians offer a moral
argument for not killing them.1 In the next paragraphs, Melians ask Athenians to
be lenient and not make them slaves. Athenians are very much realist, and they
argue that the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what
they are forced to accept. In the views of Athenians, this is the true morality.
On the other side, however, more than 162,000 people were killed in the Iraq
War from 2003 to 2011 (Iraq Body Count, 2013). Around 40,000 people became
the victims of war in Afghanistan (Crawford, 2011). The number is much higher
in World War II, where death toll crossed 60 million people. More than three mil-
lion children died of malnutrition in 2011 (Alexander, 2013). There is enough
food, but everyone does not have enough food. In the Syrian conflict, within 3
years, more than 170,000 people were killed (Karam, 2014). More than one mil-
lion people were killed in Rwanda. Millions of people became victims of Cold
War politics in Vietnam and other parts of the world. The story continues.
However, scholars of International Relations are still not convinced about the
moral issues in international politics. Domination of realism and their love for
value-free analysis of world politics is argued as one of the primary reasons for an
inadequate debate of the moral issues in international politics (Frost, 1996).
Judging some actions as moral or immoral is a very difficult task. In domestic
politics, we have a code of conduct through establishing a body of law where
actions of individual actors are restricted by enforceable nature of law; but in
international politics where there is no such binding law on the actors, it becomes
difficult to establish a code of conduct with responsibility. Moreover, it gives an
ample amount of confusion for the philosophers and statesmen to do the right
thing. Morality is about doing the right thing, but how would you define the right
thing, is a matter of debate. Who decides about the right thing in international
politics? Is this right thing just or unjust? Who is the key actor in international
politics, and who should be given the authority to decide about the right thing?
In domestic politics as well as in international politics, actors cannot run away
from their ethical obligation; that is why we always see an explanation of justifi-
cation of the acts by the statesmen. The Iraq invasion of 2003, Afghanistan project
since 2001, Vietnam War, Indian Intervention in East Pakistan in 1971 and the
Israeli attack on the Palestinian people, suppressing the voices of dissent in India,
Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are all the cases where concerned actors justified their
action. However, their reasoning for justification was different in all places. This
reasoning ranges from a Machiavellian logic of necessity to liberal conception of
democracy promotion. However, the deontologist Kant gives priority to dignity
and capacity of individuals to use their reason. For Kant, the moral aspect of an
act cannot be justified by its outcome; means have to be as ethical as an outcome.
We should not treat individuals as a means to an end, even if it guarantees the
general happiness of the society (Donaldson, 1996).

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