Is Power Evil? The Ethics of Power

Power.  It’s what everybody wants, right?  That’s the story at least.  Money, political influence, weapons, power to intimidate, power to make people do things, power to build things, power to get things done.  Every movie, every news story, most everything we hear, it’s is just pursuit of power, over and over again. Nietzschean realism.  Power and violence are interesting.  That’s the story.

Power causes a lot of problems, and it is tempting to think of power as being an evil thing, because it is so liable to abuse.  The adage that power corrupts has ample supporting evidence.

So should power be limited, curtailed, restricted, controlled, even eliminated?  Or 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?  It is dangerous after all.  The entire US system of government is based on checking power and balancing power, to prevent abuse.  Does power only work when it is hobbled and weak?

Power is a dangerous thing because it is – well – a powerful thing.  But power in itself is not evil.  Think of the US military, for example.  The US military can vaporize anywhere on earth in with a nuclear weapon in 30 minutes.  Avoiding nukes, it can conventionally bomb anywhere on earth within a few hours.  That is serious, horribly dangerous power.

But the military spends a lot of time NOT doing things like that.  When there are disasters, who can get there first?  The US military – precisely because it has a global presence and rapid-response capability.  I know the US military responds to disasters with food, water, personnel, and supplies, because I know people who have done these missions of aid, and they are deeply appreciated by the people they help.

Completely avoiding the issue of a just war, we can see that the power of the military can be used for good purposes, thus power in itself is not evil.  There are many more cases, for example saints who were royalty who used their power to help the poor and sick, like St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  Other saints may not have been royalty, but were otherwise in positions of power or wealth and used their power for good.

On a theological level, God is the most powerful “entity” in the universe (entity in quotes because God is the ground of being, not “a being” but it is hard to talk in such terms).  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.  That deserves more thought.

Power 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!  Pretty powerful thing to do.  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.

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.  So are these true acts of power or are they somehow the negation of power?

Let’s compare cooperation for a good end, with cooperation for a bad end, say, for building a town, the second for destroying one.  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.  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 grave evil.  In their cooperative zeal they killed millions and ruined half of Europe.

What if such a thing as World War Two had never occurred, what if people had just cooperated for the sake of sharing resources (and I’m talking trade, not only charity) and doing good to each other?  It sounds pretty far-fetched, but it could have accomplished the same goals without the horrors of war.  Power would have increased for all, not increased for a few and then decreased for all.  Perhaps our recent lack of world-consuming wars indicate a few steps in this direction.

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.  Good power is shared, it is not hoarded and lorded over others.

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 just 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 takes a lot of faith in humanity and God, but sometimes it actually works!

Power is not evil, it is just misunderstood (poor thing!), because we never see good examples of it.  We never hear the good stories, or the negative morals and meanings of the bad stories. We all think power is in hoarding money and guns, and in force and intimidation, because that is what we are told in our stories and in the news.  But God’s original creation and Jesus’s ministry and death are the perfect examples of power: power is shared to all, given freely even unto death.

Those are stories again, stories which contain morals for the sake of guiding action toward good ends.  Better stories than the movies or the news, I think.  If only we could remember them, and figure out how to live them.

Related TMMF posts, on stories and their power:

On Narrative Malfunction

Mental Violence and Toxic Narratives


8 responses to “Is Power Evil? The Ethics of Power

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