Essay One

Action sourcing from the authority of sole individual will never be justified, for can not be moral – and in any situation where the desires of a single human are placed in dominance over a society, no action may be justified. Thus A.J. Ayer’s, ‘no moral system can rest solely on authority’[1]. Nor does the opposite extreme function, for, even if an action is backed by the entirety of a demographic, it is not necessarily moral – as Friedrich Nietzsche states, ‘a moral system valid for all is basically immoral’[2]. The argument today would be expressed in the language of countermajoritarianism. In truth, these theories have the same basic premise: an action must be justified to be moral. Yet the disagreement arises between philosophical models seeing to identify what is needed to maximise moral justice. Aristotle first theorises a teleological justice, whilst Machiavelli argues the actions of an individual are moral if they achieve power, with which Nietzsche corroborates. Bentham’s utilitarianism and Rawls’ libertarianism are similar in their difference from the three philosophies listed: they apply not to the individual, but instead on the individual within society.

Aristotle, circa 384 – 322 BCE, determines the  justifiability of an action on two questions: the action must be teleological and that justice should honour the individual. This has come to be known as virtue ethics. By defining justice through an action’s telos, or purpose, any action which best utilises an individual’s talents any action which meets this is justifiable. It is sufficient for an action to be commanded by someone who is honouring the individual’s actions, for said actions, to be justifiable. Aristotle proposes a neo-Marxist society in which there is a place for each individual according to their best skills and as such all actions resulting from people adhering to this society would be justifiable. For Aristotle envisages no difference between the two.

‘The Prince’, magnum opus of Niccolò Machiavelli, written in the 16th century justifies action if it is born from a desire for an increase in power. Justice is conditional on the sole factor of the position in which the outcome will leave you; any consequence for a gain in authority is justifiable, to the point where it is better to be feared than loved because ‘men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself feared than to one who makes himself loved’[3]. This creation of a new morality was dependent on the context: Machiavelli wrote for the princes of the 16th century, in a century where Spanish and Portuguese expansion, together with the Protestant Reformation, threatened the Italian city-states, and as such strength was needed. In Machiavelli’s justification Aristotelian justice takes a secondary role, for, he argues, the needs of the prince are above the needs of the others, and it is the need for the prince to gain power over others as the only way to ensure justice for the beleaguered Italian city states. This argument assumes two things; the importance of the prince in respect to others, and the context in which it was written –importance, and context are subjective, and therefore constantly in flux. The morality defined by Machiavelli is thus impossible to apply to justify an action sourcing from an authority, whilst Aristotle’s is far more morally equal to all.

Ayer’s full quote reads, ‘no moral system can rest solely on authority, even if the authority were divine’ yet Machiavelli suggest that a supreme ecclesiastical authority can create justice due to its leader having authority from a divine power. The Papal States between the 8th and 18th century grew and flourished thanks to the policy of donations to which the majority of their territorial gain is generally accredited to[4]. Machiavelli underlines that, since a divinity holds a better knowledge than man, despotism by divine power, bests any sense of justice a population can have. Nevertheless this argument is underlined by the assumption of a divinity- absence of proof suggests, that despite the affluence of the Vatican, and earlier of the papal states, it is not prove to be as a result to God guiding them, as such, rendering Machiavelli’s second form of justice, inoperable.

Nietzsche develops Machiavelli’s form of argument to corroborate with a similar suggestion: human action, he defines, is based on the “will to power” and argues that man turns to idealising Aristotelian virtues in an effort to craft consolatory myths for a failure. This can be seen to relate to the Machiavellian principle of gaining power through an action and this alone providing sufficient justification. The huger for power described by Nietzsche is seen by the social construction of the Übermensche which he states, is there to break all social hierarchies and to be ever successful. The ‘will to power’ – Matcheglüst – is dependant on the current beliefs of a society[5]. Power does not translate through the ages; in a pre-Industrial revolution era the source of power is widely different to power in a post-Industrial era. A modern self-emotionist society fundamentally gives far less significance to the Darwinian aspect of natural selection; there no evolutionary pressures on a society which is ‘removed’ from an ecosystem and as such the Nietzschean theory of action, which is justifiable as long reinforces the Machiavellian argument.

Friedrich Hayek (1899 – 1992) also proposes that action does not need to be morally justified, his condition being as long as it is freely conducted. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) first highlighted that since any action which could be justified any other way then as being for the freedom of society as a whole would take people’s intrinsic rights away – human freedom of speech and action – only free action can be justified. However, the egalitarian system is still conditional to one’s actions not endangering another of the social group even as it refutes three aspects of government: state paternalism, removal of legislation promoting ‘accepted’ virtues as decided by the majority to guide action and the redistribution of income to force action. The only universal limit to actions are those defined by John Rawls (1921 – 2002) as those agreed to by the general demographic in an ‘original position’ behind a ‘veil of ignorance’[6]. That is to say the creation of a moral and social contract decided by a group without knowledge of variables to which they will later be subjugated i.e. class, wealth, health. This is fair on the basis that the choice will be the same every time, specified as: equal basic rights for all citizens – namely freedom of speech – and socio-economic equality, to give a society the ‘difference principle’, in which any monetary inequality is in favour of the poorest. This aspect of justification for action is flawed. The assumption that a demographic will adhere to a laissez faire state is crucial to the argument of libertarianism – the Russian Revolution, 1917, shows the people banding together to depose the Tsarist autocracy, and after a year of war, the choosing of the Marxist Bolshevik regime – the desire for laissez faire is therefore,  in no way universal. Thus, in opposition to Aristotle who propose justifiable action as that which is moral, others seek to justify action as any which is freely conducted and gains the individual power.

The thesis of action which is freely conducted for a natural gain in power is finally refuted by Jeremy Bentham (1754 – 1812) with the creation of a moral system, the doctrine of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism justifies or refutes action as moral and just, based on the hedonistic definition of rule by the two sovereign masters of pain and pleasure. Actions which give the greatest good for the greatest number are both just and moral. Although initially attractive the one difficulty with utilitarianism is the difficulty of measuring pain or pleasure given by a specific event, which created the need for the ranking of pain and pleasure; and this is known as the felicific calculus. This does not go so far as to give a ‘unit’ to directly rank pleasures and pains on a scale but it gives an agreed criteria to sort pain and pleasure respectively based on the three principles of intensity, duration and propinquity. The more of each of the three, the greater the pleasure, or pain, to which, John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) adds the differentiation of higher and lower pleasures. Thus any action which is moral is justifiable as it brings the best outcome for the most people. Developing the idea of a social positivism to action, found in Aristotle, and refuting the individualist approaches it is clear that action can not be sufficiently justified by an individual, for it can not be just, or moral.

There is no well cut definition of what, justifiable action is – that it moral is here suggested to be the most elegant definition. Aristotle’s propositions are the most attractive of all the philosophers – yet the categorizing of all accordance to ability is entirely fantastical. The thesis of Machiavelli who gives moral backing to the actions of an authority and Nietzsche who gives everyone authority as long as they wish power lack, yes the fantastical nature of Aristotle for which they are to be commended but do not cater for human desire for justice to be moral. Hayek ignores the impulse for nationalism seen since Neolithic cultures; the belief in total social disillusionment is thus flawed. A utilitarian action however will always be justifiable, for it is moral.


Site Accessed: March 27th at 13:37


Site Accessed: March 27th at 13:20

[3] Machivaelli, Niccolò, (translated by George Bull) ‘The Prince’, Penguin Classics, Richard Clay Books Ltd. 1961 Page 96.

[4] Holland, Tom, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’ Abacus, Little, Brown Books 2008. Page 179-180.

[5] Nietzsche Friedrich, (translated by R. J. Holingdale) ‘Thus Spoke Zarathrusta: A Book for None and All’ Penguin Classics,  New Impression edition 1974. Throughout.

[6] Sandel, Michael, ‘JUSTICE: What is the Right Thing to Do’ Penguin Books, Clays Ltd. 2009. Throughout.

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