Nobody talks much about it.  It doesn’t fit the normal Western concept that depends heavily on Jesus, Aristotle, Kant, Mill and most of the Enlightenment philosophers.  It is often considered non-ethics and ignored in moral discussions.  It is, however, a very real and practical deviation from humanistic ethics.  It is variously called pragmatic ethics, realistic ethics, success-oriented ethics, or Machiavellian ethics.

 

In fact, it is anathema to most ethicists, even though, if they are honest, they know that it is the basis of everyday human interaction—personal and political—throughout the world. On the moral throne, however, are the many versions of humanistic ethics (and most theories are) that regurgitate in different phraseology this basic admonition: you always consider others and do what you think should be done to you.  That’s Christian, and it smacks of Kant, Kierkegaard, and many others—including J.S. Mill who considers the consequences "to others" in his utilitarian ethics.  It seems to be the basic foundation of today’s meta-ethical rhetoric, especially regarding the several types of social ethics (like communitarianism).

 

We get spoon-fed this altruistic ethics from childhood, through our youth and college years, and have it replenished in adulthood.  In ethics literature and in multitudinous conferences and workshops we get basically the same old Golden Rule, Aristotelian, humanistic, group-oriented virtue ethics again and again.  Of course, scholars like to spin it out, think up new labels, trudge into esoteric jungles, and raise all kinds of questions.   And, of course, when they deal with cases, they "solve" them by evoking some humanistic credo that usually fits their subjective bias.

So, why can’t we face the realistic world?  Why can’t we recognize that virtuous action is a secondary and learned thing, and it is not dominating the everyday lives of weak, sinful people?  It sounds a little like the Bible, no? People are naturally pragmatic, success-seeking, not ethical.  They are basically egoists, not altruists.  They are always willing to retreat from humanism to their own self-interest.  If they want to succeed, they will resort to almost any means.  If they are wronged, they will try to get even.  If they are threatened, they will kill.  They hardly know their neighbors, much less love them.  Seldom do they turn the other cheek.  The "ethical" thing is most often considered the "weak" and unrealistic thing.

In short, people are mainly Machiavellian, willing to use any means to be successful.  They are willing to stretch the bounds of common morality if it is in their interest, and they don’t find it difficult to ignore the advice of Kant and others to treat our fellows as means rather than ends.

Machiavelli, the "Old Nick" of the Catholic Church.  The anti-Christ, the dark side of morality, the devil’s assistant on earth, the prototype of anti-social harmony, the advocate of the strong-willed leader.  Do we want such a figure intruding into our discussions of ethics?  How can we even consider his admonitions as part of ethical discourse?  We know that he is wrong, that egoism is bad, that success is secondary, that concern for others is paramount, that truth is part of virtue, that propaganda is wrong and misleading, that image is not as good as essence, that lying is harmful, that stereotyping and biasing our messages is wrong, and that pretending to be something that we aren’t is inauthentic and to be avoided, that we should be honest in our dealings with others, that we should be good followers, and have no self-centered activities in our lives.  Okay.  So here we have a statement of humanitarian ethics—all the aspects of it that we propound in our literature and oral discourse.

 

Maybe we should challenge some of these assumptions about the wrongness of egoistic ethics, seeing many of them as broad generalizations that admit exceptions.  It could be that egoistic motivation is not unethical, but rather a natural tendency in human beings.  What is good for me may well be something that will be good for others.  If not, then c’est la vie.

  • John C. Merrill is Professor Emeritus, Journalism, in the University of Missouri. Among his three dozen books are many dealing with ethics and morality. Currently living in Montgomery, Alabama, Merrill may be reached by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..