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Machiavelli and Ethics

When someone calls an action “Machiavellian” it tends to imply that person acting is doing so entirely out of a desire to acquire and retain power, without any regard to ethics. The thing I’ve always found so interesting about most unethical behavior – political, financial, social – is that in the best of situations, it’s generally a wash. That peon you’re screwing over to win favor with your boss – she might be your boss in five years. Not too bright, Machiavelli. That social program you’re shutting down? It might be saving your budget this year, but the problems it causes are going to cost taxpayers much more than what you’re saving. That river you’re polluting to save yourself the cost of upgrading your plant? You’re going to have to pay the piper eventually, whether it’s when legislation catches up and you have to pay to clean it up, or you get your ass sued off for giving a bunch of people leukemia. Somehow, I don’t think that Machiavelli was such a short-term thinker. A fast power grab today is not a good idea if it permanently tarnishes your reputation in the future. I think you can be a heartless bastard and still understand this fact.

I think the orientation towards long-term thinking is the rational side of ethics. We’ve so divorced ourselves from the “softer” side of our humanity in regards to work, that it’s sometimes difficult to argue for ethical, respectful behavior. There seems to be a gulf between what is “professional” and what is “ethical”, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years contemplating why this may be. I have some theories, but they’re not ready for prime time.

What I do know is that I can make a damn fine argument for behaving ethically to the most self-interested person on the planet. The thing is, I’m a fairly big fan of the free-market economy, in theory. But that economy is currently so short-term focused, that ethical atrocities seem to be taking place unchecked. If we could all pull our heads out of our collective asses and look down the line a few years, we might come to understand that instant karma may not get you instantly, but it is going to get you eventually. So the next time you humiliate an employee just because you can, or you vote against a needed social program because you don’t want to pay $200 more in taxes per year, think about the potential long-term cost of those actions. Machiavelli would be proud.