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Means and morality

Opinion

April 17, 2021

Machiavelli, regarded as the father of nationalism, is usually perceived as a proponent of politics divorced from conventional morality and in favour of using all means in the quest for political power, even the most unscrupulous. There are many takers of that view and in most third world countries including Pakistan, morality has no place in the power game.

As against this perception, there is no dearth of people who see Machiavelli as a pragmatist who recognized the harsh realities of political life. In their estimation, he was the first person to acknowledge the true nature of ‘reasons of the state’ and the place of ‘necessity’ in politics.

The concept of ‘reasons of state’ promotes the narrative that the security and interests of the state take precedence over all other considerations. Similarly, it is held that ‘necessity’ recognizes no laws, and morality has no place when the interests of the state are at stake.

The judiciary in Pakistan has over the years been legitimizing military coups by invoking the doctrine of necessity, and dictators have found cover under the self-defined interests and security of the state to derail democracy taking the country away from the course envisioned by its founding father.

In contrast to the foregoing views, there are those who claim that Machiavelli did not subordinate moral standards to political ones, maintaining that he was concerned both with what means and what ends were right. It is argued that his advocacy for the adoption of ruthless strategies was not to preserve power for its own sake, but to create and maintain a strong state, the moral purpose of which was the good of the whole community.

History is replete with examples where politicians and dictators have used the slogan of ‘good of all’ and the strong state as a justification for their actions, even though those steps proved disastrous in the end. The dictators in Pakistan came with an ostensible determination to eliminate ‘rampant corruption’ but lured by the attraction of wielding power became involved in dirty politics – leaving the country in still greater mess as far as corruption goes. Similarly, politicians have also been using the farce of accountability to victimize their political opponents, causing unfathomable damage to political morality and the chances of a system of good governance.

It is also said that Machiavelli never actually said that the ends justify the means. Instead, he showed how well intentioned and morally good actions could have worse results than supposedly immoral but bold and resolute actions. At times, force and violence, cruelty and deceit are justified as lesser evils. Machiavelli implied that the morality appropriate to politics was not the one based on ideals, but was a consequential morality where actions were judged according to the good consequences they promoted for the general good of society.

The case for consequential morality in political life rested on the claim that it was unrealistic and naive to think that good ends could be achieved without resorting to dubious means. Politicians who keep their hands clean sometimes cause the status quo to continue or a worse evil to be created. In these circumstances, it would be self-indulgent, irresponsible and morally wrong to insist on doing the ‘right thing’ regardless of how bad the consequences might be.

These arguments have taken a new lease of life in recent times with the rise of terrorism. In the face of terrorist attacks, the upholding of absolute rules against torture and arbitrary detention, rights to a fair trial, freedom of conscience, thought and expression have been dismissed as naive. Politicians and academics have justified infringing these rights as a lesser evil, necessary to protect national security. But those who oppose such violations are not idealists from the other world. They are deeply suspicious about the veracity of the stated goals. They question whether morally dirty decisions really do serve the common good. All too often private, corporate or commercial interests and controversial ideological ambitions masquerade as general interests in politics.

Those who are suspicious of the Machiavellian art of the politician also question the supposed ‘necessity’ of the dirty means they use and find that such claims are often exaggerated, counterproductive or simply fraudulent. Suspending rights, using fraud, force and violence are rarely the best and only alternatives in politics, even if national security really is at stake.

As is evident from the foregoing discourse, there is no dearth of arguments for and against any issue. People can advance forceful arguments to justify their acts and others can condemn those actions with equal or weightier arguments to prove them wrong. But the reality is that there are certain touchstones developed by human societies to judge the veracity of human conduct including that of politicians and rulers.

The principle of ‘majority is authority’ is accepted and followed by the entire world in all domains of life including the practice of statecraft and governance. Democracy is supported and practised by the majority of nations. People are accepted as sovereigns on whose behalf the state is governed by the chosen representatives as our own constitution stipulates. Rule of law and the protection of fundamental human rights is regarded as an indispensable ingredient of good governance. Any deviation from these universally acknowledged and accepted norms is illegitimate and unjustifiable irrespective of the stakes involved. Legitimacy of the means takes precedence over everything else.

Seen through the prism of the conclusion drawn at the end of the foregoing paragraph, the conduct and objectives being pursued by the PDM are inimical to internationally recognized democratic norms as the means adopted do not justify the ends.

The mayhem caused by the TLP throughout the country is also based on foul means. The action taken by the government to check their onslaught on the writ of the state, therefore, is not without justification.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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