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  • Terry R. Bacon

The Morality of Power

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

As the old saying goes, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Is power inherently immoral? Or just in the hands of those who abuse it?

Does might make right, as the old saying goes? Or are people in power largely governed by the better angels of their nature? It would be difficult to argue that power is not immoral if you consider, in the same breath, the Turkish genocide of Armenians during and just after World War I; the genocide of six million Jews during World War II as part of the Nazi’s final solution; the millions of Russians and Chinese killed by Stalin and Mao, respectively, as they consolidated power; the killing fields in Cambodia; the mass killing of Muslims in Bosnia; the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda; or the slaughter of innocents in Darfur. And these atrocities occurred just in the past one hundred years of human history.

Left-leaning American journalist and muckraker Lincoln Steffins argued that, “Power is what men seek and any group that gets it will abuse it.” At the other end of the political spectrum, James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and its fourth President, said, “The essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” And Edmund Burke, British statesman and philosopher, warned that, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”

“Power is what men seek and any group that gets it will abuse it.”

Observers from all cultures and political persuasions have understood the corrupting nature of power and the potential for (if not certainty of) abuse if power is concentrated in too few hands with too few checks and balances. And the potential for abuse stems not only from political power but from every kind of power. The beatific view of human nature inherent the Golden Rule is either distorted or corrected, depending on your degree of cynicism, by the more perverse version of this Rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

There is a view that power, by its very nature, is immoral, that whenever people have control over the lives of others, they will be led, like a hungry man at a banquet, to feast on that power to the point of gluttony. Unfortunately, we have had ample evidence in the past few years—from former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain spending $1,400 on a wastebasket while his firm was collapsing to former Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher’s ouster after being caught in an improper sexual relationship with a female executive—that people in positions of power, no matter how smart they may be, can often not resist the siren’s call of greed or the abuse of their positions.

In 1991, during his acceptance of the Sonning Prize, Václav Havel, President of (then) Czechoslovakia, spoke eloquently about the temptations of political power. He observed that the privileges and perks of high office, which are essential to the office holder, have a devious allure, that a politician can become so used to them that he loses his perspective: “He becomes a captive of his position, his perks, his office. What apparently confirms his identity and thus his existence in fact subtly takes that identity and existence away from him. He is no longer in control of himself, because he is controlled by something else: by his position and its exigencies, its consequences, its aspects, and its privileges.” Noting that “there is something treacherous, delusive, and ambiguous in the temptation of power,” Havel argues that politics requires pure people because “it is especially easy to become morally tainted.”

If it’s true, as Shakespeare said, that “the abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power,” then it’s essential for anyone who attains a position of power to resist the treacherous temptations of power and remain morally sensitive and alert to the self-delusions that can distort one’s character. Sadly, this is easier to say than to do, particularly in environments where the exercise of power is uniformly Machiavellian. As Steve Forbes observed, “As more money flowed through Washington and as Washington’s power to regulate our lives grew, opportunities and temptations for graft, influence peddling and cutting corners grew exponentially. Power breeds corruption.”

Forbes was speaking about politics, but as we know, there are tremendous temptations in business to abuse power. From Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, Adelphia’s John Rigas, and Société Générele’s Jérôme Kerviel to Billie Sol Estes, Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow, HealthSouth’s Richard Scrushy, and Wall Street’s Bernie Madoff there has been no shortage of con men and corrupt leaders whose aims were self-serving, whose victims often included close family members, and whose willingness to abuse the power entrusted to them ruined investors and damaged or destroyed the companies they led.

Unlike politicians, business leaders are often out of the public eye and shielded from effective scrutiny, particularly if their boards are inept and their influence extends to the people expected to be watchdogs for the public trust. The failure of corporate boards to exercise effective oversight of corporations led to the Sarbanes-Oxley bill. Adam Smith believed that rational self-interest would create an efficient free market, but there is considerable debate in Washington over just how much new regulation of banks and investment houses is necessary to prevent the blind excesses (spurred by self-interest) that fueled the damaging recession in 2008-2009. It seems clear that unbridled power in too few hands is a recipe for disaster, particularly when the people in power are more motivated by self-interest than the collective good.

Several decades ago, David C. McClelland and David H. Burnham studied the need for power in organizations and concluded that, “The top manager of a company must possess a high need for power—that is, a concern for influencing people. However, this need must be disciplined and controlled [my emphasis] so that it is directed toward the benefit of the institution as a whole and not toward the manager’s personal aggrandizement.” This, then, is the challenge: how to attain and use power wisely and in a disciplined way, how to exercise power over others without abusing it or allowing its focus to be the elevation of oneself and one’s interests.

I am not convinced that power, in and of itself, is immoral, any more than a gun is guilty of homicide. It may be the instrument of evil but not the agent. Nonetheless, power can distort the power holder, especially when that power is absolute and unchecked, and it can lead him or her to justify acts which, seen in the clear light of history and unbiased observation, are clearly immoral.

Photo credit: Don Bayley/

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