Today, many people use the term "Machiavellian" to refer to, in business or politics, people or moves which are morally questionable, power-seeking, and self-serving. To be sure, Machiavelli advocated for the seeking of power and the serving of the self, but even for all of that, his treatise The Prince is not immoral or evil in any way. And yet, strangely enough, it seems that most often, these charges of being Machiavellian center around the morally suspect nature of whatever is being criticized.
It is surely easy enough to see how this conception of being Machiavellian as being evil in some way arose. With Machiavelli, in The Prince, urging many things which are themselves traditionally immoral, how could people not misinterpret the message of the treatise? Of course, when Machiavelli says things such as "A new prince must always offend those over whom he becomes a new prince," "A prince must never care about the infamy of his cruelty", and "It is far safer to be feared than loved," he advocates these principles only so far as they go towards achieving the goal of getting and keeping power. So it is that the most important philosophical point in Machiavelli, and the point which, in truth, is the one that should be morally questioned (rather than the specific instances and examples which are directed towards and addressed to Lorenzo de Medici and which are obviously, through the historical examples provided, catered to the political climate and conditions of Medieval Italy), is the famed doctrine of the ends justifying the means. Machiavelli's ultimate idea, implied throughout the entire book, is, precisely, and against the moral judgments of modern day critics, that the means one uses to achieve goals should not be worried over as immoral or cruel or harsh, as long as the ends toward which they aim are achieved and are, in fact, good. This is key. In the doctrine of ends justifying the means, at least as put forth by Machiavelli, a moral judgment is not removed. Instead, the judgment is implied in the terming of the ends of the actions as good.
Machiavelli himself was examining merely one historical case and applying this doctrine to it. In The Prince, as has been said, Machiavelli recommends several actions which are, in general, considered morally wrong. However, these actions themselves are, in Machiavelli's system, above judgment. The thing that is not above judgment is the goal towards which these actions aim. In The Prince, Machiavelli recommends these things as steps towards the de Medici's attaining power and using it for the, to Machiavelli, unquestionably, in every sense, good goal of unifying the Italian peninsula under a single political power. One criticism which has been made of Machiavelli is that he thinks only of the people in power, and not of the masses, or, he thinks of the masses only so long as they pose a threat to the people in power. However, this point on Italian unification seems to counter this. Who does the unification of Italy benefit? Of course it is not the current nobility of each individual principality, as they will be killed or driven into exile in the coming struggle. The de Medici's benefit, obviously, but, in fact, it is not just them. It is the masses of Italians, who will no longer have to deal with the rape of their land by foreign powers and mercenaries, and who will no longer have to be embroiled in a bitter civil war against men who share far more, culturally and experientially, with them than other people. Is this not a good goal? Is some cruelty, in fact, necessary, to prevent far greater amounts of cruelty, bloodshed, and divisiveness?
In this manner, Machiavelli's argument can almost be read as a sort of utilitarian argument. A prince must not only be strong, cunning and cruel, but, in doing so, he must provide more happiness, over a longer period of time and for a greater number of people, than his cruelty inconveniences and than would experience hardship had he not come to power. In fact, Machiavelli makes clear that, indeed, the only purpose of the cruelty of the prince upon his coming to power should be to accustom people to his rule so that they may, in the long run, obey the good plans he has in store. Again, here we see the moral judgment shifted to the goal: the good plans the prince has for his principalities.
And how can the prince's long term plans be anything but good and just? Machiavelli directly advises against the alternative, counseling against cruelty for cruelty's sake and advocating against the seizing of property and the infringement of citizens' privacy and personal safety. In Machiavelli's thought this has a very practical aspect, as a prince who is unnecessarily cruel and unjust becomes hated by his people, and that is not a way to retain power. Machiavelli even says that if one attempts to make oneself feared, "the prince should make himself feared in such a way that heavoids hatred." To be sure, these goals are self serving and power seeking. That is, in Machiavelli's book, the entire point. But, again we must look beyond that.
Machiavelli's advice in The Prince is comprised of three main levels. These levels must be applied to any "ends-justifying-the-means" system. The first level is what course of action, specifically, to take. In The Prince, this level includes all of Machiavelli's advice on not trusting the masses and acting accordingly, repressing dissent, killing old ruling families, generally being harsh, and "offending the inhabitants." The second level is the goal towards which these actions aim. In The Prince, this level is only the attainment of power by Lorenzo de Medici (or, we may assume, any other Italian prince so fortunate to read and adequately understand Machiavelli's treatise). The third level (only generally implied in The Prince, but the most important) is the ultimate goal at which everything below aims. This is the level upon which the moral judgment must be made, though the judgment we make must then be reapplied to the direct goal of the actions, that is, the second level. Is Lorenzo de Medici's (or for that matter, any Medieval Italian nobleman's) attainment of power a truly morally good or just goal? No. It is, in fact a morally neutral goal. Instead of having its own moral character, the goal of the second level, in this system, is morally flavored by the third morality level. Are the actions taken, to continue the example, by Lorenzo to achieve power morally good? If he follows Machiavelli's advice, most of them are not. Some of them may be, but most of them will not be. He will be forced to kill and oppress people. However, is the ultimate purpose of Lorenzo's attainment of power morally good? This question, directed towards the third level of this aforementioned system, is what truly matters as it morally flavors both the first and second levels. To Machiavelli, the ultimate purpose of Lorenzo's attainment of power would not be Lorenzo's personal satisfaction. This would not be, I believe, enough of a goal for Machiavelli to justify the means he advocates. Instead, to Machiavelli, the ultimate purpose of Lorenzo's attainment of power would be the political unification of Italy and the end of the civil wars and foreign invasions which plagued it. This is a morally good goal. Therefore, in this system of analysis where the first level is morally characterized by the goal of the first level, which is itself morally characterized by the moral character of that goal itself, the goal of Lorenzo attaining power is, in fact, not immoral at all, but quite moral.
So it is that, as was said before, this type of analysis must be applied to every decision made on an ends-justifying-the-means basis. Only then may we truly determine the moral character of the decision. It is, however, very important to note, that in no way whatsoever does this Machiavellian system absolve us of a moral judgment. The moral judgment must still be made, by onlookers and by those of us ourselves who may choose to act in a Machiavellian way. It must, however, be made based on our ultimate goals and successful realization of them, not merely on the methods we use to attain them.