On Power and Morality: Can They Coexist?

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

Lord Acton

This quote by 19th century British politician Lord Acton is one of the most famous about Power. Most of us can relate to it on an intuitive level. In fact, in most people’s minds, there is an unconscious association between power on the one hand and corruption and immorality on the other. Power sounds like a dirty word and unfortunately, the world does not lack examples of people in positions of power choosing to indulge in the satisfaction of their own interests, rather than serving the collective good.

In this post, I will try to explore the coexistence, or lack thereof, of power and morality to understand whether these two concepts are almost always mutually exclusive. My goal is to look for cases in which they can coexist and produce optimal results for all the parties involved. Is power inherently bad, or is it the “breaker of chains” of latent dark, or even sublime, personality traits?

Dissociating Power From Corruption

The God Concept: A Philosophical Perspective

When we think of God, we think of an absolutely powerful, yet absolutely benevolent entity governing the cosmos and seeking to spread welfare upon the creation. As such, the God concept flies in the face of Lord Acton’s beliefs, and draws a clear separation between power on the one hand, and the corresponding moral attitude on the other, meaning that both power and morality can coexist without friction. However, God is no human. According to most religions, God has no interests, or needs except for the collective welfare of the creation. With God, there is a perfect alignment of interests between the governor and the governed; unfortunately, this alignment cannot be replicated in real life. Is it possible to find examples of people who had absolute power, yet chose to be benevolent?

Benevolent Dictatorship: An Oxymoron?

To add an element of conflict of interest to the equation of power and morality, it’s important to search for examples of people who had absolute power, affording them the opportunity to engage in self-serving behavior, yet making a conscious effort to rise above their basic impulses and use their power as a force for good.

It seems that human history has a significant number of benevolent dictators who chose to use power as an agent for positive change. Among these, we cite the Five Good Emperors of the Roman empire: Nerva (reigned 96–98 AD), Trajan (98–117), Hadrian (117–138), Antonius Pius (138–161), and Marcus Aurelius (161–180). These five emperors reigned with absolute power, yet their reign was guided by the core principles of wisdom and virtue. They were loved and respected by their people thanks to their good government and the prosperity they helped spread.

More modern examples of benevolent dictatorship can also be found. Some would argue that rulers such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey could be both considered benevolent dictators because they used their absolute authority to implement positive change in their respective circles.

These examples are definitely not the norm. They are not representative of the majority of absolute national leaders. Yet, they do a great job in helping us draw a clear separation between the concepts of power and corruption. After all, power does not necessarily corrupt, and absolute power can be absolutely moral, despite the resistance from personal urges and conflicts of interest.

Powerlessness Also Corrupts

In her Harvard Business Review article “Powerlessness Corrupts”, professor Rosabeth Moss Karter argues that powerlessness can also be a recipe for corruption. She mentions that the powerlessness of middle managers in a large organization forces them to adopt unorthodox ways to make sure they advance their own agendas when nobody is looking.

For example, middle managers try to spread powerlessness by limiting the amount of information they share in order to keep an edge over the competition. They often retaliate through sabotage by intentionally slowing things down in an attempt to get even with C-suite managers. Powerlessness also creates a strong blame culture where the less powerless prey on the even more vulnerable and powerless. Professor Moss cleverly compares the blame culture to a cartoon sequence, where “the boss chastises a worker, who curses his wife, who yells at the child, who kicks the dog”.

Based on the above, we notice that corruption is not exclusive to the powerful. Powerlessness, in fact, is responsible for a lot of corruption and inefficiencies within organizations. Power does not always lead to corruption, nor does powerlessness always lead people to behave in a collaborative and moral way. These insights force us to ask yet another fundamental question: “does the misuse of power and powerlessness depend on the personal characteristics of the power bearer?”

Personality and Power

The Impact of Moral Identity

The concept of moral identity is a measure of the degree to which morality is an important part of a person’s self-identity and self-perception. People with a strong moral identity are those who see ethical behavior as an integral constituent of who they are as people. For them, doing the right thing is already aligned with their self-interests. In fact, failing to do what they consider to be morally right would create significant psychological tension due to the perceived breach to their self-perception. On the other hand, people with a weak moral identity don’t perceive morality as a core constituent of their psychological makeup. For them, there is an obvious gap between what they know to be right and their actions, which, in most cases, tend to be self-serving.

In her research report “Does Power Corrupt or Enable?”, Professor Katherine A. DeCelles of the University of Toronto and her colleagues hypothesized that moral identity has a significant impact on how people react to power. In order to test her hypothesis, she invited a number of participants, administered a test that would help her quantify their moral identity scores, and then put them in a state of manipulated power by asking them to write an essay about an incident in their lives where they had power. The participants were then asked to play a dictator game involving decisions about their own self-interest and the interest of others.

The results of the study confirmed the initial hypothesis. Professor DeCelles found out that power decreases moral awareness in people with a weak moral identity, leading them to exhibit self-interested behaviors. On the other hand, power increased the moral awareness in people with a strong moral identity, allowing them to rise above their own interests and to make decisions that would serve the collective good, instead of their own welfare.

Guilt-Prone People Make the Best Leaders

In a separate study mentioned in the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethical Leadership and trying to understand the characteristics of ethical leaders, Taya Cohen, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon, found that “guilt proneness” is a good predictor of people’s ethical tendencies. Professor Cohen defines guilt proneness as “a predisposition to experience negative feelings about personal wrongdoing, even when the wrongdoing is private”.

Another study titled “Why Feelings of Guilt May Signal Leadership Potential” published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business discovered that people who scored highest on guilt proneness were perceived to be the most suited to assume leadership positions by their colleagues. The reason behind this finding might be that guilt-prone people have higher sensitivity to other people’s emotions and are better empathizers.

Conclusion

There seems to be evidence that power itself does not corrupt. In fact, power is nothing more than a catalyst for what is already there. Power acts as an amplifier of latent positive or negative ethical tendencies. In the post, we have shown that good leaders are often guilt-prone people whose sense of self-identity depends strongly on their moral behavior. Instead of being corrupted by power, these people experience an enhanced moral awareness, leading them to think more thoroughly about the holistic outcomes of their behaviors and their impact on others. Perhaps it is fair to say that power corrupts those who can be corrupted, but enhances the ethical standing of those who cannot.

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