chapter  VI
22 Pages

A Clear View of Interest

That success in government depends upon success in knowledge of human nature is not, of course, a tenet particular to utilitarian political theory. Any manual of instruction to a statesman, or to someone with political power, only succeeds if it explains what he has to do in order to carry out his desired projects; and since these will depend upon getting people to act in particular ways, this explanation must depend upon knowledge of what the varying actions of people depend upon. The end, the desired projects, might be quite other than utilitarian ones; successful realisation will still depend upon knowledge about how to make people behave in particular ways. So a book of advice to a prince, such as Machiavelli’s, might take as the desired end that the prince wished to maintain his ‘state’, that is, his position or power. To be successful, the advice will have still to be based on an accurate understanding of people; that is, of what the prince should or should not do to those people who are his subjects if he wishes to stay in his job. Unlike earlier books of advice to princes, Machiavelli thinks that he has such understanding: it is important to realise that ‘so many [people] are not virtuous’ (Prince, 91). Given the actual nature of people, the prince is advised to depart from standard virtues like promise-keeping or generosity. Of course, he does even better if he succeeds in looking as if he is upholding standard virtues even on the occasions he is departing from them. There is here the same sort of distinction between what should appear to happen and what should really happen as is often thought typical of utilitarianism, and (related to this) a distinction between those courses of action which should be promoted as a general rule and those courses of action which should be promoted in every particular case. The reason for these distinctions is the same: the introduction of the possibility of calculation based upon a (real or supposed) knowledge of the nature of human beings; hence a knowledge of how they can be manipulated to promote a given end. Yet the ends are sharply different. The Machiavellian prince has the selfish end of holding on to his position. The Benthamite legislator has the altruistic end of promoting general happiness. Nevertheless in both cases we get similar manipulation of human beings; in both cases pain is threatened in order to achieve desired results in a precisely calculated manner; and in both cases such economy, such efficiency in the use of threats, depends upon the possibility of accurate knowledge of human nature.