Timo Laine’s Journal

Taking life philosophically.

Machiavelli on consistency

7 April 2011

It is sometimes said that Niccolò Machiavelli was not Machiavellian. The idea is that the concept of Machiavellianism now has a life of its own and is not even meant to describe what the Florentine author himself thought. Thus Machiavellianism is taken to mean manipulating other people for personal gain, while Machiavelli is seen as just a political realist or a republican who hoped to see Italy united.

This way of thinking is not completely mistaken. Machiavelli has indeed been demonized during the centuries. But if he was not the devil, he was not an angel either. He was often ambiguous. A deep interest in human nature and how people behave in social settings can be considered suspicious, although it might be completely innocent. My subject here is an example of Machiavelli’s interest in human nature.

Reciprocation

As kids we all learn that one way to get something is to give something first. This works because when a person receives a favor, he normally feels obligated to return it. This sensation of obligation to reciprocate seems to be innate, and it is probably one of the first things a person learns about human nature. And once you know it, you are likely to rely on it in your social interaction.

However, Machiavelli knew that reciprocation is not everything. In Chapter 10 of The Prince he writes thus: “And the nature of men is to be obligated as much by benefits they give as by benefits they receive.” Thus he asserts that although doing favors generates a feeling of obligation in the recipient, receiving favors from people has the same effect.

This seems counterintuitive at first: why would doing you a favor once make me more willing to do you a favor another time? To answer the question it is necessary to understand something about consistency as a trait in human interaction.

Consistency

An adult human being feels the need to be consistent in his choices. It is part of human nature. The choices you make have to be in harmony with the choices you have made in the past. If on Monday you say that the positive health effects of tea conclusively prove its superiority to coffee, you cannot say on Tuesday that coffee is obviously the better beverage, and the only thing that gets you started in the morning.

In logical terms, at the bottom of this there is the law of non-contradiction: if you say that p, you cannot say that not p. If you say that coffee is better than tea, you cannot say that it is not better than tea. However, it goes further than that.

Roughly speaking, the law only requires that you do not hold or express contradictory views at the same time. Yet, the feeling of need to be consistent applies to future and past events too. If at one moment you commit to something, you feel the need to respect that commitment in the future as well. The commitment can be to anything: a fact (the superiority or inferiority of coffee to tea), ideology, or a person, for example. (In Machiavelli’s example case, the people feel committed to defending the prince.) Essentially the point is that there is a stigma attached to changing your mind, all the more when you have committed to something publicly.

For my purposes here it is not important to know exactly how the feeling of having to be consistent has become part of human nature, although there are several factors involved. Consistency simplifies your choices and saves you time and trouble: you always choose the same thing. Being consistent makes you more respected by others as you appear to be a principled person. More could be added to this list, but the important thing here is that the feeling is real. And because it is real, the choices you make continue to affect your future choices, because you feel the need to be consistent with the earlier ones. This means that if I choose to do you a favor, I am more likely to do you another favor in the future just to avoid being inconsistent. And, if you choose to do so, you can exploit this weakness of mine.

In his excellent book Influence (on which I draw for my description of consistency as part of human nature), Robert Cialdini cites Ralph Waldo Emerson in the context of commitment and consistency. In Emerson’s words, a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Emerson, however, lived and wrote in the 19th century, more than three hundred years after Machiavelli had written his most famous work in exile in the Tuscan countryside.

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The journal of Timo Laine (contact information). Cultural commentary from the perspective of a philosophy student in Helsinki.

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