The Machiavellian Challenge to Business Ethics

35 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2008

Date Written: February 2008


No political philosopher is better known in the business world than Niccolo Machiavelli, whose fame there rests entirely on his authoring of The Prince. Over the last two decades, no less than ten books have been published in the popular business press on the Renaissance Italian thinker, most of them attempting to show the relevance of his realpolitik world-view to the sorts of issues that a contemporary manager is apt to face. The popular view, though, of Machiavelli as a hard-headed thinker has been challenged by scholars pointing to his advocacy of republics in the Discourses on Livy, his other great work. Interpreted along these lines, Machiavelli can be invoked to support participatory structures in business along with the cultivation of publicly spirited virtues.

We argue that the common perceptions of Machiavelli are on the right track. His analysis of republics uncovers weaknesses germane to business that render The Prince more suitable to commercial life. As such, Machiavelli's overriding point is that in a competitive arena, like that of modern-day business, individuals holding leadership positions, or aspiring to them, must be prepared to go beyond conventional morality and live by a different and, indeed, icy set of rules. Being good in business, Machiavelli warns, will only lead to personal ruin.

Machiavelli goes further than this, calling for a trans-valuation of values, wherein the praiseworthy qualities of leaders are redefined so as to take into account the competitive realities of business. In this new ethic, virtue is connected to acquisitiveness, moral flexibility, image management, reaching its culmination in the entrepreneurial task of founding a great company.

Keywords: machiavelli, business ethics, leadership, virtue, vice, image management, entrepreneurship

JEL Classification: A12, A13, B10, B31, M00, M10, M12, M13, M14

Suggested Citation

Bragues, George, The Machiavellian Challenge to Business Ethics (February 2008). Available at SSRN: or

George Bragues (Contact Author)

University of Guelph-Humber ( email )

207 Humber College Boulevard
Toronto, Ontario M9W 5L7
416-798-1331, Ext. 6049 (Phone)
416-798-3293 (Fax)

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