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.

Primitive Behavior; Not So Primitive Reasons!

I’ve been noticing a pattern lately and I have to talk about it now because it frustrates me to see people’s behaviors misinterpreted time and time again!

The Cyclical Patterns of Behavior

In the course of development of a quality, skill or ability, cyclical patterns of behavior are often observed; behavior in advanced stages might look identical to behavior in less developed, more primitive stages.

Consequently, it follows to say that a behavior that is typical of the middle stages of development is the most socially acceptable; all others are rejected, even persecuted.

More often than not, people behave in ways we perceive as uncivilized, disobedient, irrational, stupid or even crazy. We judge their behavior without considering the reasons and motives behind it.

Someone breaking the law is automatically labeled an outlaw, a coworker asking “stupid and obvious questions” is immediately alienated, a person making decisions based on a hunch or a gut feeling is considered irrational, etc.

Granted, some of these behaviors are indeed signs of low moral, intellectual, or social development. However, in some cases, these same behaviors are unmistakable indicators of above average, even superior development.

Three Overworked Employees

Vincent, Valerie, and Victor are product managers at a multinational pharmaceutical company. With a CV full of jaw-dropping accomplishments, an array of luxury possessions and a 6-figure income, they are at the epitome of success by every standard imaginable.

Lately, their company conducted an extensive market research, discovered unmet needs, and as such decided to expand its drugs portfolio. Instead of hiring more people, the CEO decided to dump the additional workload on our protagonists and their teams. He was, in fact, exploiting a clause in the employment contract stating that “employees must conduct their duties both during normal business hours and during such additional hours as necessary for the proper performance of their responsibilities”. To make things even worse, the CEO was covered by local legislation.

The managers were furious but decided to bite the bullet and just do the job. What power do they have after all?

Nine months later, the extreme working conditions had already taken their toll on both the managers and their subordinates. On top of the back pains, dark circles and newly acquired all-star status at local coffee shops, the employees were no longer able to sustain healthy personal lives.

A year had passed. It was time for the company’s annual performance reviews. To the surprise of all, Victor was highly praised by the CEO for his work ethics, while Vincent and Valerie received a warning each about their “insolent, insubordinate and disobedient behavior”; both were seldom on time for work, stopped taking care of their additional workload and demanded to be relieved from it at once.

In their feedback session with their supervisor, each of the three gave the following explanations.

Vincent

What’s in it for me? A year ago, my workload doubled, yet my compensation remained the same. This doesn’t make sense! How do you expect me to abide by company policy if you give me nothing in return? Pardon me, but this is plain stupid. Anyway, I haven’t told anyone yet, not even my team, but I might as well announce the good news right now. I’ve been on the lookout for another job opportunity and I’ve just landed a more lucrative offer at a major competitor. To hell with you all!

Victor

Well, I was just doing my job. I know things have been hectic lately, especially with the launch of the new products. But this is what we are paid for. My employment contract clearly anticipates potential increments in workload. After all, what would happen to the company if employees were to stop performing their duties?

 Valerie

I have been “disobedient” on purpose! It hurts to see everyone, myself included, suffering from job-induced personal problems and health issues. This is NOT acceptable. In fact, it is against all the values I hold dear to my heart. At the risk of sounding overly idealistic, I’d like to remind you that life ought to be more important than profit. As such, I believe it’s my duty to disobey company policy when it reduces people to mere resources and jeopardizes human dignity!  

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) postulated that morality develops gradually following 3 consecutive phases: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, and post-conventional morality. But how does this relate to our story?

Vincent – The Preconventional Moralist

Vincent does not care about anyone but himself. Since he’s not gaining anything from the extra workload, he’s better off breaking company policy and ditching his team for a more lucrative opportunity.

In this phase, the focus of morality is on the self. Preconventional moralists look for ways to avoid punishment and increase pleasure. They do not shy away from breaking the rules if they can get away with it. It is, for lack of a better expression, the philosophy of the ethical egoist.

Victor – The Conventional Moralist

Victor is the law-abiding citizen, the “employee of the month”. He wants to maintain his good reputation and strives to preserve law and order within the company.

In this phase, the focus of morality is on social norms. Moral behavior is any behavior that society deems moral. Most adults operate at this stage. Makes sense, since social conformity is a big thing for most of us!

Valerie – The Postconventional Moralist

Valerie evokes universal values in her reasoning. She is defending her breaking the rules by referring to higher moral principles. In her opinion, human dignity is above law, rules, and dreams of wealth. With a lot to lose and little to gain from her “insubordinate behavior”, she is motivated by keeping her conscience spotless and the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

In this phase, the focus of morality is on the individual’s interpretation of universal moral principles. Laws are not set in stone but seen as tools to promote human welfare. They must be constantly revised to make sure they achieve the higher goals of society. According to Kohlberg, only 10-15% of us reach this stage. Plausible, no? even more so when we learn that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were post-conventional moralists. Both resorted to civil disobedience against oppressive laws and social norms.

Always Seek Deeper Understanding

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Victor’s behavior is the most common, the most socially acceptable. You don’t see employees rebelling against their employer every day, do you? In fact, it is very safe to conform to established social norms.

Although Vincent and Valerie display almost identical behavior, they do it for completely different reasons. Vincent has nothing to lose. He’s already landed a more compelling job offer somewhere else. Rebelling and resorting to selfish pre-conventional morality is a luxury he can afford. Valerie, on the other hand, does not have a plan B. She is rebelling because she’s irritated by the outrageous adoption of “modern-day slavery”. Her moral reasoning is, by all measures, the most developed.

To the uncritical observer, Vincent and Valerie are degenerate individuals; Victor is the most principled. To the critical observer, however, Valerie is the sole hope of mankind!

Meaning, Happiness & Knowledge

It all starts with a thought experiment involving our friend Caesar the ape. Yes, I am referring to the same Caesar from the “Planet of the Apes” movie, before he, so recklessly, became addicted to IQ steroids. A small, more fun twist to the story, I know.

Caesar Suffers…

When logotherapy pioneer, Dr. Victor Frankl (1905-1997) stepped into a group therapy session, he asked the attendees

“… whether an ape which was being used to develop a poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter into the world of man […]”

Then, Dr. Frankl followed with another question

“And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world behind man’s world ; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?”

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl

So What?

If I, as a man, fail to realize the meaning of my suffering in particular, and the meaning of my life in general, then it must be because I lack the cognitive keys to unlock these insights.

Granted, human awareness has its limitations. But if I strive to educate myself and constantly seek depth of understanding, I will eventually land on a crucial piece of information that would instigate a major perspective shift and bring about a new life purpose.

In more scientific terms, meaning is all about the connections and associations made between seemingly disparate pieces of information and data. The more knowledge I collect, the more meaning I can extract.

Meaning is the meta-data of life; it’s life explaining itself.

Even if, in my search for knowledge, I were to uncover an unpleasant truth, I should still be grateful, because only now am I able to make a conscious choice on how to tackle the situation; only now have I the wisdom to discern between the things that I must accept and those that I can change.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference

Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr 

Actionable Meaning

I define “actionable meaning” as newly acquired insight that can be acted on to achieve tangible results, thus increasing happiness.

Some very short examples to illustrate what I mean.

Having learned basic genetics, a doubtful young boy realizes that he could not have inherited his AB blood type from his parents, both of whom are blood type O. He must be adopted. Naturally, he will take action by seeking an explanation and looking for his biological parents. He is living a lie no more. Acting on this new insight is his first step to true happiness.

In the case of our friend Caesar, when he overdosed on IQ steroids, he became painfully aware of the unpleasant meaning of his suffering: the merciless exploitation of his species to cure human diseases. This newly discovered insight demanded action. He had to do something. He rebelled, surrounded himself with loyal followers and wreaked havoc in the kingdom of men. By acting on his insights, he ended the suffering of his fellow apes and increased the happiness and wellbeing of his species.

That’s it… for now!

Summary

  • The more I learn, the more I’ll be able to make connections and extract meaning
  • Some meaning will have an actionable element to it
  • Acting on newly acquired meaning will increase my net happiness