Machiavelli introduces a discussion of the way in which a prince "must regulate his conduct towards his subjects or his allies." Acknowledging that this subject has been discussed many times before, Machiavelli declares his intention to "draw up an original set of rules" that will "prove of practical use," representing the reality of the world. Accepting the "real truth" of human nature, Machiavelli writes, "A man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous." Therefore, a ruler who wants to secure his position "must be prepared not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need."
Taking a cynical view of human nature, Machiavelli argues that rulers must sometimes act unvirtuously because the people that surround them will not hesitate to behave unvirtuously when it benefits them. Machiavelli argues that princes are held to a different moral standard than that which dictates behavior for the masses. In the interest of protecting their positions, rulers must be willing to abandon moral qualms and to fight fire with fire.
Because princes live a public life that is "more exposed to view," they are "judged for the various qualities which earn them either praise or condemnation." Machiavelli argues that, due to the "conditions of the world," princes cannot possess or exercise only those attributes that are deemed morally good. Nonetheless, a prudent ruler must avoid "the evil reputation" attached to certain vices. Machiavelli encourages princes to "not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state." Machiavelli concludes that some of the traits considered virtuous will in fact ruin a prince, while some that appear to be vices "will bring him security and prosperity."
For princes, Machiavelli argues that the typical relationship between virtues and vices is often reversed, meaning that virtuous actions lead to ruin and immoral actions result in security and stability. Because many in the world are evil and immoral, a prince must defend his position and combat these forces with vices of his own. Living a public life with special demands, princes must be allowed certain moral liberties that would be condemned in the masses.