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Some Philosophical Reflections on the Ethics of Power
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-04-11 07:49:52
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“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”

                                                                                     --Lord Acton


“Gentlemen, it is easy to escape death, what is more difficult is

to escape corruption which runs faster than death and once it

has caught up with you, she may be weary of relinquishing you”

                                                       --Socrates, in Plato’s The Apology


In that charming movie, Camelot, king Arthur has a sudden insight on power which he expresses in a song: “Not might is right, but might for right!” With the mere switching of a word, king Arthur has stumbled into the ancient notion of power and may have put in motion in the heart of the Dark Ages--by the concrete establishment of a democratic round table where the king shares power and is just another of the knights--the rebirth of democracy.

Be that as it may, in that short pronouncement there are in fact two divergent notions of power: one is power to lord it over others, the other is power exercised democratically and responsibly with others for the common good. The first is corrupting, the sort of power that leads to the condemnation of a just man like Socrates, the other is ennobling leading to the construction of a just society concerned with the common good, what the US founding fathers called a more perfect union, for indeed, good ethical power is always shared power, it is never hoarded and lorded over others.

The question naturally arises: should power be limited, curtailed, restricted, controlled, even perhaps eliminated? Marx certainly seems to suggest so once the heaven on earth of the proletariat has been achieved. Or perhaps it ought to be distributed so widely that no one can ever use it for wrong? Should we make power so difficult to obtain that it can never threaten anyone? Isn’t the entire US system of government, after all, based on checking and balancing of power, to prevent abuses? Does power only work when it is weak? Indeed, power is a dangerous thing because it is – well – a powerful thing. But does that mean that power itself is evil?  Aside from the issue of a just war which would take us too far afield, one can easily see that the power of the military can be used for good purposes when it helps people in distress situation in need of urgent help, and it has been so used. It remains possible to use “might for right.” Of course the conundrum is this: how do I exercise power for good purposes if I don’t have it in the first place; if the Machiavellian competitor politician, bent on grabbing it and retaining it at any cost and by any means, beats me to it?  Let’s attempt to clarify this conundrum.

The two above quotes under the title of this essay are well known. They come at the same concept from different angles – and that concept is responsibility.  In order for power to be ethical it must be responsible, conceived as a means to a good end or purpose; for to conceive it as a value and an  end in itself is to turn it into a corrupting influence.  Both Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics stress that the exercise of responsible power aims at insuring justice and the common good of the polis, and that only a philosopher (whom Plato calls “the philosopher king”), can determine what the common good is and which laws best promote it.

Obviously from Socrates to Acton’s conception of power there has been a shift. In Acton’s quote we hear distinct echoes of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon and even Descartes. It was after all Francis Bacon who turns Socrates dictum up-side-down; from “knowledge is virtue” into “knowledge is power.” Thus power begins to be conceived in a Machiavellian mode, for its own sake, to be sought and held by any means, even unethical ones. The shift leads directly to  an abnegation of  responsibility; to the state which, unlike an individual, is not held to ethical standards. But the problem, as the ancients saw it, is that the polis is nothing else but the sum total of its individual citizens, and enough individual citizens not acting ethically ultimately results in a bad polis.  Machiavelli sees it otherwise: the only responsibility of a state is the responsibility to its own interests protected by the power it possesses, what  Machiavelli calls “ragion di stato,” a concept dear to all sorts of anti-democratic fascist leaning individuals a la Hitler, or Mussolini, or Stalin, or Mao.

Broken down to basics, this new concept of power simply says that what I can do, I may do; there is no need for ethical judgement on my part because everything that is possible is allowable. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan declares that freedom is the absence of the obstacles in its way. He seems unconcerned with the ethical implications of a freedom based on power held and wielded capriciously, on the relinquishing of the individuals’ power to the sovereign king.  

Power seems to be what everybody seeks in the form of wealth, political influence, weapons, power to intimidate and influence, power to make people do things, power to build things and institutions, power to get things done. Every movie, every news story, most everything we hear nowadays is just the pursuit of power, stated over and over again. The Nietzschean “will to power” has become ingrained in the very fabric of Western culture: the will to dominate, built empires, lord it over, more often than not tied to the necessity of violence to forcefully assert one’s will.  This is the kind of power Lord Acton is referring to; a rather negative brutal sort of power. Indeed, power causes many problems; in the light of the many abuses of power it is quite tempting to think of it as generally evil and corrupting.

The question naturally arises: Is Machiavelli and Nietzsche’s glorification of the “will to power”  even when properly understood, a misguided transformation of responsible power; power no longer conceived as mere means to what the ancients called the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, but as a value in and by itself. And corollary to this question: how did we get from the ancient conception of power as a means to the common good, subservient to the Aristotelian “will to truth,” to the disastrous modern conception of “the will to power?”

To use a concrete analogy, the modern conception of power is not unlike the explanation for my speeding that I may give to a police officer ready to ticket  me, to the effect that if my car can reach a speeds of 150 miles an hour, it’s ok for me to drive at that speed.” I suggest that such an argument will persuade very few policemen; it may even result in the doubling of the penalty. As competent drivers, we’re expected to balance the power that the use of a car gives us, against the laws of the land, the laws of physics but also, and most importantly, the common good. Even if I can legally do 70 miles per hour on a highway, there may be conditions (such as fog, or snow or ice) that may make it dangerous to do so; that is to  say, common sense and good judgment, in effect a limitation of power, dictate that I exercise prudence, despite the actual mechanical power of the car and what the driving laws may allow.

We might further consider that in driving there are three levels of constraint: that imposed by the machine itself, that imposed by the law, and finally that of personal judgement.  This three fold set of constraints operate in a number of areas. The levels seem to be: what is possible, what is legal (or accepted as reasonable by a particular group) and individual judgement. What is possible implies what is not impossible: driving at 70 miles an hour is possible; walking at 70 miles an hour is an activity against which no legislative body bothers to make laws because it is not possible. But possibility does not automatically translate into legality.

Of course, in considering what is imposed or permitted by the law – one immediately comes up against the question of, “What law?”  Each practitioner will have to find the answer to this level for himself.  Moreover, when we impose rules, whether for safe driving or for curfew times for children, we always hope that eventually those subjects to the rules will become self regulating; when good habits become the standard, there is no longer a need for penalizing laws. Aristotle calls those good habits virtue; to the contrary  he calls bad habits vices. This is ethics in action.

Nevertheless, we like to complain about increasing constraint and controls on our lives. We are, we contend, honest, reasonable adults who do not need such demeaning levels of supervision. If it is not my choice but yours that I do a particular thing, how does it build my character? It might build obedience but it does not contribute a lot to personal responsibility. Indeed, quite often, personal choice is the major determinant of action. With every choice, we not only affect the external, outside consequence, we render ourselves more likely to make a like choice again in the future. In a very real sense, we begin to form a moral, decision making habit for ourselves.

On a more theological level, God is the most powerful “entity” in the universe that the human mind can conceive of, the very ground of being. In addition to omnipotence, God is also purely good. Therefore power, at its core, is not evil. In fact, it is a standard theological concept dating back to at least St. Augustine that abused power is not power at all, but a falling away from true power; in Christian terms we call this abuse original sin.

Power therefore is the capacity to get things done. In its pure form, power is creative and enabling, cooperative and constructive. This goes back to Genesis: God creates everything! This is pretty powerful one would have to acknowledge. But God doesn’t create the world to lord over us in a bad way; God creates the world to share with us, out of an abundance of love, so that we might share in the delight of life and creation. And God shares that power with us: we are also creative and constructive, capable of cooperation and helping each other; in some way we became co-creators. But in sharing power, God also gave us freedom (a power in itself), which means we have the power to abuse our own power. We can misdirect our creativity towards creating destruction, we can cooperate for the sake of evil.

Let’s now compare cooperation for a good end, with cooperation for a bad end, say, for building a town, the second for destroying one. There is indeed a difference between using power to build a town and using it to destroy a town. To build a town you need workers, money to pay them, raw materials, food, tools, and so on, and the town facilitates the further creativity and constructive powers of these builders. They build shops and storehouses, workshops and homes. By applying their power creatively, they increase their ability (power) to do further good things in the future.

Now what about destroying a town? The townsfolk may decide one day to destroy their town. For whatever reason, they apply their tools and knowledge (both forms of power) to setting the town ablaze and killing each other. The survivors end up in a wreck. They have reduced their power through a poor application of power; they have fallen away from their source of power itself. Their application of power was in fact a negation of power, a cooperation (of a part) in destruction (of the whole), harming themselves by reducing their overall capabilities.

What then, is the point of power? To do good: to help those in need, to educate the young, to create and cooperate for the sake of the common good. As king Arthur puts it, it is nothing short of might for right, rather than the Thucidydian  or Machiavellian “might is right” wherein the stronger wins the war and declares it a just war and dictated the conditions of surrender. Any falling away from this ideal may seem like power, but it is actually a form of destruction, a harming of the whole for the benefit of a part. The part may gain power, but in fact that part is harming itself by harming the whole; it would have been better to just cooperate in the first place, with a caveat. The caveat is that of “the whole” itself being engaged in evil, say Nazi Germany. Should the parts of German society have just cooperated for the sake of the common good? Obviously not. The “whole” that was Germany was really just a part of the whole of humanity on earth. In mistaking itself for everything that mattered, Germany committed a grave evil. In their cooperative extremist zeal they killed millions and ruined half of Europe.

Robert Wright has an interesting book called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which talks a lot about cooperation and its benefits. It is all a matter of changing zero-sum games into non-zero-sum games. The first option can only benefit one side – the other loses – the second option benefits both sides, and the difference is cooperation. This is the logic of creative, not destructive power. Extreme disparities of power are always ultimately debilitating, because the few with concentrated power are always weaker than the many with broader power. We have seen this in the revolutions in the Middle East, where new technologies empowered the people to overthrow old regimes which based their power on the hoarding of military and economic might, but which could not control the spread of the cooperative power of communications via the internet and cell phones. So, power is not evil. It is a tool that needs to be used rightly, which means shared, cooperatively and creatively, for the sake of the common good. We should not fear power; we should fear its misdirection. And what tells us how to direct our power? Ethics, of course. True ethics is always for the sake of directing power to the benefit of the common good; it is never for the sake of empowering one group or disempowering another. When Jesus said to love our enemies it was for the sake of overcoming animosity, for the sake of repairing community, restoring cooperation, to make our enemies our friends, and to then grow together to be better than we could be separately. That may take a lot of faith in humanity and God, but sometimes it actually works!

To repeat, power is not inherently evil, it is just misunderstood because we rarely see good examples of it. So we end up thinking that it consists in hoarding money and weapons, in force and intimidation; indeed that is what we are constantly being told in our film stories and in the news; and that is too bad. I suggest that we become more skeptical of those stories that present power in the ugly dress of tyranny and opt to exercise  our own ethical judgments based on hard factual evidence. Only by that philosophical-ethical exercise we may hope to be empowered with wisdom. For, if philosophy does not ultimately empower us with wisdom, it runs the risk of falling into mere sterile speculation and futility.


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