Thursday, March 13, 2014

Power Doesn't Corrupt Because

1) All parents do not abuse their children, even in private and even when they wouldn't get caught if they were clever;

2) All bosses and teachers are not unkind, even in private and even when they wouldn't get caught if they were clever;

3) All stronger people do not abuse weaker people, even in private and even when they wouldn't get caught if they were clever; in fact, many of them go out of their way to teach, give, and help, and draw both a personal pride and a selfless pride from offering shelter and sharing knowledge.

It may be that "modern governmental power" corrupts, and it may be that corrupt people tend to seek "modern governmental power," but this is a far cry from "power corrupts." Naturally, a worthily-bashable dead white male was the one most popularly credited with the claim that power corrupts; even more naturally, it was one of the bloodviles, English royal line from some of the heights of the British empire. Descendants of Milton would, of course, fawn over the literary notion of "Satan," and love the idea that power must necessarily corrupt, freeing them of responsibility for millions of starving serfs, and the horrors of the state-funded BSDM chambers that still drive so much of their rotting tourist revenue today.

Oh, boo hoo, I did something wrong, but it wasn't me; it was power. If power corrupts:

1) You have no hope, because anyone who gets power will abuse it, so human lives will always be either powerless and futile, or terrible and tyrannical;

2) It is wrong to try to get power to help people, because you're not trying to help people, you're just trying to get power in order to be corrupted and abuse people.

See how neatly Lord Acton's axiom spoils the waters for the human future? If power corrupts, everything has to suck. We accept the American genocides because we've spent two hundred years believing that we can have nothing better, since any leader will necessarily be evil--and it won't be their fault, because it was the fault of an abstract philosophical concept. This is the kind of excuse you'd expect a PHIL 101 student to try when caught cheating on the final--"I had to look, because hidden knowledge requires a search for knowledge!"--but it's not the kind of excuse we should accept from our historians, our teevees, our leaders, or most importantly, ourselves.


  1. I agree, and it's important to notice and expose these sorts of unexamined beliefs. Thank you. "Power corrupts" is a particularly nasty belief, not only because it absolves power of moral responsibility, but also because it poisons our view of human nature. As you say, the belief that "power corrupts" assumes that those most willing and able to seek power are not corrupt already. There does seem to be a link between power and corruption, but it's clearly not as simple as, "power corrupts". Other factors must be present also. I would suggest that one of those is the belief that those with power are more valuable than those without it, the philosophical root of authoritarianism.

    1. "...because it absolves power of moral responsibility..."

      Quite so. We often marvel, in private moments, "How can Obama be quite so heartless on Tuesday mornings?" A lot of the answer lies in the way he privately excuses himself, inside his own head--he tells himself he's just exercising reins of power that were already there anyway; just fulfilling his role in the greater scheme of things, and not actually personally responsible for his actions. Because, you know, power.

  2. "Power corrupts the corruptible." FIXED.

  3. Interesting thought experiment, but it is pretty sloppy to consider all these different types of power mentioned to be essentially the same. There is a huge difference between power based on authority, tradition, moral virtue etc. and power based on being in control of a rational legal institutional monstrocity.

    I don't WTF Action was, but he is pretty late to the party. Plato had already explained (rather than asserted), why power will never be in the hands of those who are only capable of exercising it benevolently (the philosophers). Since that is, in fact, impossible (except by chance) power necessarily has to fall in the hands of those that should not rule - not the lovers of wisdom, but lovers of honor, money etc.

    1. Lord Acton did sort of explain it, but most people who remember trivia just know the catchphrase.

      And ah yes, the favorite third lecture of any Philosophy 101 professor, where they explain that they're not the ones running the university because they're too wise, as Plato said. :-)

      Acton is/was late to the party in a sense, but so was Plato; before he said it, there had always been people willing to say, "the world must suck" in some form or other, including "those who control the world must suck."

      Power could be in the hands of those who would exercise it benevolently provided an environment where the majority of people (or a supermajority, or a totality) were themselves wise. So, to conclude that power can never be exercised by the good (again, except by chance), is to conclude that most people will always be dumb. That's a really tempting belief, and one I regularly subscribe to, but it's ultimately a dark place to go, and one we should avoid.

  4. I'm not sure it equates to "all people will be dumb", i think it refers to a broader problem of human self-alienation. Whether people are dumb or not, a defining characteristic of civilization (any civilization) is moving beyond mere substinence production, e.g. as found in the traditional organic communities, which, by broad consensus, seem to have been a pretty pleasant place to live. But that too, comes at a cost - strict conformity to tradition and prescribed roles, and no "innovation" (bleh...).

    Once you have a society with a surplus, the very presence of surplus unlocks the potential for both degradation, and self-overcoming. (A problem that is actually better articulated by most religions, than, say, the political philosophers).

    regardless, the problem is not so much whether people are dumb, but whether collective self-overcoming is possible. I.e. is there a political solution to the human problem. *UNLESS* there is a common, shared, and stable knowledge of 'what is the good', some degree of coercion will always be present in human societies. And since those capable of individual self-overcoming and pursuing the truth for its own sake can do so even in the harshest of environments, and are not likely to devote their lives to the minutia of governing, power often/typically becomes a price sought for many other, less good, reasons. To make it worse, we don't even know what 'the good' is, we just know that it should be pursued, but that makes for a very shaky political platform. Any absolute idea of "the good" is doomed to provide just a partial picture of what is human, and if it is enforced, it may provide for a pleasant living environment, but it would also rob us of many things that constitute the charms of life for most people - e.g. a place to coll one's own, the family, etc.