The Power-Morality Gap

One simple principle explains so many of the mysteries of modern life: the Power-Morality Gap.  You may have heard it said that “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” (Lord Acton).  In actuality, the relationship is actually even more direct.

Every person, every institution or organization, and every phenomenon in the world has some measure of goodness that it has attained or that it maintains. (In fact, it is sustained by that goodness, since evil cannot sustain itself.  Compare the 2007 video game Super Mario Galaxy, in which a series of vast and evil machines is powered by a force of good, represented by a captive “power star.” When the star is removed, the machine collapses.  This is because evil is essentially a destructive force, not a constructive one.  It can survive for a while by cannibalizing the good around it, but eventually it will self-destruct.) Every person, every institution, every organization, and every phenomenon also has some scope of control or influence.

The key question for any entity is whether it has enough goodness for its given sphere of control.  If so, it creates a Morality Surplus, which predicts how much effective good the entity will produce in the world.  If not, it creates a Power-Morality Gap, a measure of how far short the goodness of the entity falls of what would be necessary for its sphere of control. This, in turn, is equivalent to the effective evil that the entity manifests in the world. So it’s not necessarily the case that power corrupts; rather, the more power one has, the better a person you must be in order to not use it wrongly.  To put it another way, if you want more power and influence in the world, the safest way to gain it is to work primarily on becoming a better person.

This is a very abstract concept, so here are some concrete examples:

FAMILIES

Babies – Babies are utterly selfish and narcissistic. All they know is their own wants and needs. Their morality has not yet developed. And yet, no one considers babies to be evil. The reason is that they are utterly helpless. They have no power, so there is no Power-Morality Gap for them.  An adult with a baby’s morality, on the other hand, would be experienced as evil (see below).

Teenagers – The scary thing about teenagers is that they grow and mature at different rates, so there can be times when their physical power and strength, or social power and control outpaces their moral growth and maturation. This is what we mean when we say “kids are cruel.”

Parents – Why is it that people who are perfectly pleasant and functional in every day life can be monstrous and abusive to their children? The answer is that becoming a parent necessitates an enormous moral leap forward, a shedding of selfishness and self-gratification, because you wield so much power over your children, whether you want it or not. If you have never been in a position of power before, it may be that you won’t use it wisely and well.  If so, the impacts on your children will be multiplied.

POLITICIANS and CELEBRITIES

George W Bush – By all accounts, the younger Bush is a perfectly nice guy, decent and not without charm. But he had a disastrous presidency. He was a good person, he just wasn’t a good enough person to be president. His virtues weren’t extensive enough to handle the demands of the office.

Kanye West – At one time, Kanye was an appealing underdog, whose boundless confidence, sense of self-worth, and faith in his own talent were inspiring. It all started to curdle when he became a superstar. It was less the ways he changed, and more the ways he didn’t change. The confidence of the underdog and the arrogance of the overdog are one and the same, but their impact and affect are utterly different.

Donald Trump – When someone with the morality of a child is elevated to what is perhaps the highest seat of secular power, the result cannot help but be experienced as evil. It is not that power has corrupted Trump, but that the combination of his power and his lack of morality is corrosive. It corrupts everything around it, the institutions and organizations it touches, the political party it has arrogated, and the people that have allowed themselves to be drawn into its orbit. In fact, the entire administration has been a case study in what happens when you have an entire array of people who are not good enough people to inhabit the jobs that they have.

SOCIAL PHENOMENA

Racism – It has been observed that we all have prejudices. So what is different about, for example, the prejudices of white people against black people and the prejudices of black people against white people?

The answer is that judging people based on race may always be immoral, but it is only actively harmful when backed up by power. If I am your boss, and you I don’t like people of my color, you can find a hundred ways to cause me misery. But if you are my boss, and I don’t like people of your color, I’ll likely need to just keep my offensive opinions to myself, or face being fired.

The racism debate can be quite misleading, because it focuses attention around personal prejudices, when the real issues all stem from institutional inequities of power. When there is enough of an imbalance in power and influence between two groups, then even minor, mild and subconscious preferences for your own group can result in vast and sweeping harm to the other group –in the aggregate –if your group holds the superior position of power.

Corporations – Google famously used to have the slogan “don’t be evil” written on the wall of company headquarters (they quietly dropped it when they formed their new company, Alphabet).  Yet, as with Facebook, Microsoft, and other huge firms from Walmart to Monsanto, it might be easier said than done.  It’s simply very hard to have something that large and powerful be such a sustained locus of good that it doesn’t end up doing harm in the world.

Police Brutality – “Police are entrusted with a great deal of power in this country, so they must be very good people.” The preceding sentence is ambiguous, and its two variant readings tell us a lot about the current crisis of around police brutality in this country.

If we mean that people should be (or should become) very good people before they can serve as police in this country, then the Power-Morality Gap tells us this is a wise policy. Entrusted with the power to enforce laws, to use high-powered weaponry, and a host of other dispensations, a police officer must adhere to a high and elevated moral standard in order to not abuse that power.  Too often, however, we assume that because a person has been given such power, they therefore must be a good person.

This is simply not true. It is dangerous and disingenuous to suggest that the institution of policing is itself above reproach, to assume the police are in the right, or to suppress questioning of police authority.  More controversially, it is wrong to hold police merely to the same moral standard as the civilians they interact.  The police moral standard must be much higher, by the same factor as their power exceeds that of those civilians.

Guns – The problem with guns, or really any weapon, is that they multiply the power of any given person, potentially past his or her ability to deal with it wisely and well.  Add a weapon, and a moment of sadness becomes a suicide, a moment of anger becomes a murder, a moment of carelessness becomes a fatality.

RELIGION

God – If we conceive of God as infinitely powerful, then we must acknowledge God also as infinitely good. Otherwise the universe itself could not be sustainable.

In Summary

Power turns harmless little flaws into major crimes.  A bit of occasional selfishness, a tendency to not be wholly truthful, a short temper, these and a hundred other peccadilloes can be harmless, perhaps even endearing in someone who has no power over you.  But they quickly turn abusive when juiced up by an excess of power.  Worse, these abuses can be entirely invisible and imperceptible to the abuser, they can only be perceived from below.

Our culture’s conception of evil as something that exists out there in the world, separate from our own actions in the world, is deeply and consequentially misleading.  Great evil is not committed by those who are greatly evil, but by those who are greatly powerful and insufficiently good.   It is more banal than baneful, and to fight it in others, we must first learn to diagnose it in ourselves

2 thoughts on “The Power-Morality Gap

  1. Very interesting concept.

    I think for it to work the word “good” must encompass both benign intentions and competence (skill).

    Someone with a great deal of power and the best, most selfless intentions can still have a disastrous effect on people if they cannot fully intellectually grasp their sphere of influence. An amateur surgeon with an inflated idea of his own capacity may have the most moral and benign intentions to save his friend’s life and also save them the expense of going to a hospital by performing a triple bypass surgery using kitchen utensils, yet in spite of such benign intentions, this amateur surgeon might kill his friend.

    In my view:

    Crime = Bad Intention + Accurate understanding of reality

    Certifiable Insanity = Good Intention + Inaccurate understanding of reality

    While sadistic parents exist, there are also many parents who have the best intentions for their children yet damage (perhaps even kill them) out of simple incompetence.

    Also when we thing about teachers or policemen, it actually often takes a great deal of diplomatic skill to diffuse a potentially violent situation or to cajole an unruly pupil without resorting to excessive punishment, so even those with the most benign intentions could still end up resorting to violence as a result of a lack of diplomatic skill.

    1. Great point. My sense of morals is definitely influenced by the ancient Greek notion where “virtue” implies not only the intention to do good, but also the capacity or the competence to do it.

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