Friday, July 13, 2012

Morality as the exercise and demonstration of personal power

It is of course well known that people can have self-interested reasons for promoting a particular political morality – namely, when under that moral regime those people can be expected to flourish, especially in material ways, as compared with other rival political systems. The point cuts both ways, of course. A rich, hard-working, well-educated or talented person benefits personally from a libertarian or meritocratic regime, where they will be protected in their wealth and rewarded for their efforts and talents. Contrariwise, a poor, less-talented, less-well-equipped person benefits personally from a more welfarist or egalitarian political regime, where they are able to benefit more from the talents of others.

All this is well-known, and can seem to furnish a good reason to respect in particular rich, talented people who are egalitarians and welfarists, and poor, down-trodden people who are fiercely conservative. After all, these people are adopting a political morality that cuts directly against their material wellbeing; they are following their principles even when it comes at a cost to them. And this same fact can seem to provide a sort of intuitive evidence for the political morality in question. That is, if lots of poor and down-trodden people were right-wing, say, even when it cut against their material wellbeing, then surely that would suggest they were tapping into some sort of deep moral truth. What other reason could they have? (One could say they were simply indoctrinated into a capitalist ideology of course, but I’m not keen on hypotheses that require that one segment of the population to be blind dupes of ideology, while the privileged few can rise above them. Though I suppose the logic could be applied to both sides, with rich egalitarians similarly cast as mindless dupes of socialist rhetoric.)

So, what other reason could they have? What follows is one possibility. It is not proffered as a singular answer to this question, but I think it does play a role.

The possibility is that people use their moral views as expressions of their power. By this I do not mean what is often connoted by this phrase, namely either, a) people use their power to get more power or to sustain their power, or, b) people use their power over other people to control those others, and allow their arbitrary will to be the law for those people. These are expressions of power. But they are not what I mean. In fact, I mean the opposite.

Discussing punishment in the second essay his Genealogy, Nietzsche observed that as the power and self-confidence of a community increase, they are able to become more merciful and tolerant to those who visit harms on them. In so doing, the community expresses its power in the most profound fashion – they no longer need to requite for a crime against them, though they have the power to do so. Indeed, they no longer even need to recognize a harm has been done them at all. They have become so powerful that what would have been a harm against another community amounts to nothing against them. They rise above it. The same idea arises in the memorable scene in Schindler’s List where Oskar Schindler speaks with the sadistic Nazi Goeth on the nature of true power. “Power,” Schindler says, “is where we have every justification to kill, and we do not.” (If one is trying to persuade a Nazi to become merciful, one supposes that Nietzschean arguments are not an entirely unapt method.)

It seems to me that there is something in this idea more generally. That is, it applies when it comes to selecting and propounding a political morality. To be egalitarian when one comes from (or is on one’s way to) power and money is to express one’s personal power. It says, ‘Others will thus take from me what would otherwise be mine. But what of that? It is no harm to me; let them take it.’ And so too – and perhaps all the more, because they stake much more basic needs than the surfeit wealth of the rich egalitarian – for the libertarian poor. They can say, ‘You need not give me your help or a slice of your riches. And what of that? I do not ask for your help or your largess; I perceive no harm in your keeping these to yourself.’

That is power.

Or, at least, it would be power if it were a personal morality. For the libertarian poor who will not ask for help in times of need, or the egalitarian rich who gives away their wealth with an easy magnanimity, it is a demonstration of power. (The latter – the magnanimous charity of the rich – has long been seen as impressive, but I daresay it is the prideful independent poor who are more extraordinary; again, because the stakes for them are so much higher.) In both cases it is clear that the person could acquire or preserve more power for themselves, and is deliberately deigning not to do so. That is a real show of power. It is the very plumage of the soul. 

And this applies, I think, to tolerance of all stripes, when one's power to requite - if one chose to do so - is unquestioned.

But to simply hold the view as a political morality, and one that is not likely to have any real impact on political outcomes, is perhaps a faux-power, a capacity to have one’s cake and be egalitarian too, or to accept welfare but declaim against one’s need for it. One acquires the impressive cachet of wishing others could be entitled to the fruits of one’s talents, without in fact making the personal choices that would see that wish realised.

Now I’m not saying this is the only thing going on when people select political moralities. Heaven forbid. It is in general a grim and snarky business finding less-than-noble reasons why people might adopt more-than-noble moral stances. And one should of course immediately apply the same logic to one’s own political choices, at least if one has a penchant for preening oneself in public with them (and here I am with a blog on political morality…). So doubtless this is as much a factor in my own thinking as the next person’s. Perhaps moreso, since the idea occurred to me. But if I am at least somewhat right about this, the idea is worth keeping in mind, at least for Schindler’s reason. The virtues of generosity, mercy, grace, tolerance and independence tend to need all the help they can get in our world, and appreciation of these as expressions of personal power in others and oneself may be one more way it is possible to bend the darker sides of human psychology towards the light. 

1 comment:

Dianne said...

Perhaps selecting a political morality and airing it publicly is also less complex. Not an attempt to influence for gain, not an expression of power or an indication of wealth or security or even an indication of any real passion. Perhaps it is less thought-out for some, just a means of communicating, a vehicle for an interpersonal connections with others, much like talking about a grand final footy team or melbourne cup horse preferences is, an occassional way of joining in when normally there is no interest. By having a view we state we "belong" to one group as opposed to another and also that we are 'intelligent' and 'knowledgable' enough to have a view.