Human Nature, Power and Ethics: A Layman’s View
Image: Modern Mechanix
HERE IS AN OPPORTUNITY to jump into the fray (or to perhaps start a tangential thread) of a discussion about power that began here and here, with undercurrents running through several comment threads since then. The reason this post may take off on a tangent from that discussion, is that I don’t tend to think of power strictly as a social relation. Rather, I think of (all?) social relations as vehicles for resolving differentials in power, whether through cooperation or conflict. And where power differentials may be a matter of type, (I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the brawn,) or scale, (I’m a scrawny wimp, you’ve got the brawn.)
I imagine one of the first cooperative social relations formed may have gone something like this:
“Hey, you use your tracking skills to find a deer and drive it towards me. I’ll take it down with my archery skills.”
“Rad. Then we’ll split the meat.”
LATER over dinner:
“I’m stuffed, I can’t eat another bite!”
“Me too. Too bad we don’t know anybody with a freezer.”
In any case, it’s an opportunity to revisit one of the past posts I’ve been planning on reworking to bring more in line with my current thinking.
Hoping to establish some universal human principle from which to begin, I’ll start with some ideas about basic human nature and from there move on to ethics. Delusional with hubris, I declare that I’ve got human nature basically figured out.
Montag’s Humble Theory of Human Nature: a graphical approach.
Human nature is what? The common traits, or characteristics of human beings. Something like that. The most basic universal aspect of human life is that people have needs. Stemming from this, is that people require power to fulfill those needs.
Before going further, I should define a couple terms, to clarify what I mean to say. Here’s a glossary:
- Power When I use the term power, I mean, borrowing from Bertrand Russell, that power is the production of intended effects. However, since I’m not looking at power solely as a social relation, the ability to produce intended effects can be said to be a product of physical health, strength, intellect and skill; as well as the mechanisms of power established and used in social contexts; again borrowing from Russell: wealth, armaments, civil authority and influence on opinion.
- Freedom When I use the terms free, freedom or liberty, I mean the extent to which one is able to exercise power in taking whatever course of action necessity or choice dictates in going about satisfying their needs.
You: Hey, Montag, you said this was going to be “a graphical approach.” What gives with the rambling on with all the words and shit?
Me: Bear with me. I’m about to bust out a graph on your impatient ass. In fact, without further ado, here it is. Eat it:
You: Ok… What the fuck am I supposed to get out of that?
Me: I’ll explain. Can I go back to using words, though?
You: [Sigh] Whatever, dude.
Thanks. Needs are illustrated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, though I’ve knocked it over on it’s side. Now, perhaps Maslow didn’t have it all perfectly nailed down, but I’m basing my model of human nature on ‘needs,’ and I acknowledge that certain needs are more urgent than others, and that is what I use Maslow to illustrate. (My intuition, informed only one semester of 100-level Psychology, allows me to accept the Hierarchy of Needs as a good, basic starting point.)
Now the lines and curves are somewhat arbitrary. That is, they aren’t based on data of any kind, but instead are based on, again, intuition.
The magenta curved line represents the amount of power (vertical axis) one could legitimately make a case for using in the pursuit of the corresponding needs (horizontal axis.) At zero on the needs axis, the legitimate power curve goes to infinity. This is meant to represent a kill-or-be-killed situation where there is no limit to the power one would be ethically justified in using to survive. This would apply in clear-cut cases of self-defense.* From there, moving to the right as the needs become less “urgent” in a practical life-or-death sense, the amount of power that can be justified decreases.
* Since the initial writing, I’ve come to realize that even in a life or death situation, one cannot always make a legitimate case for using maximum power. For instance, a starving person, about to die, might not be justified in taking food from another who would also surely perish without it. I’ve also removed an unfortunate ‘soldier on the battlefield’ example, for many complicated reasons that could fill a whole ‘nother post.
The red curved line represents the ability to exercise power that, in my estimation, one would typically have when they’ve reached a particular area of the needs axis. This curve starts out pretty low on the power scale at the point where our base physiological needs are threatened. For instance, if five attackers stuff you head first into a sleeping bag and sit on your chest, you are pretty powerless. From that point the curve climbs rapidly. Once you aren’t under attack and stuffed in a sleeping bag, and you’re in an environment where there is food and water available for the taking, you’re in a much more tenable position of power. After the sharp increase, the curve levels off for not much more reason than intuition told me it should cross the legitimate power use curve at a specific point. After that, when the urgent needs are all met, power can increase exponentially for those able consolidate and amass the ability to use it in all of its forms. At the far right of the figure, where the magenta curve goes to zero, and the red curve goes to infinity, (no needs, unlimited power,) you’re a god!
I should, I suppose, emphasize that the red is only an “expected” power curve, and that there are many situations where one is empowered beyond, or below, what their position on the needs continuum may imply. A soldier on the battlefield has his machine gun and body armor, after all. And a self-actualized CEO may suddenly find himself out of a job and subject to a criminal investigation with his assets frozen.
The black horizontal line, is just as arbitrary as the rest, but I think it’s in a reasonable place. This is the level below which the power one exercises affects only the self, and above which the power one exercises affects others, (transcends oneself.)
Ok, so where do ethics fit into this model of human nature and power? I’ve already said that exercise of power that falls below the magenta curve is ethically justified. But that doesn’t mean that any exercise of power above that curve is not. It just means that once you are operating above that line there are other considerations to account for besides your personal needs and desires. Above the magenta curve is where ethics become a factor.
The grey area, above the magenta curve and below the black line, is the locus of the first element of my political worldview: To the extent that your actions (exercise of power) affect only yourself, I don’t give a shit what you do. Let freedom ring. The same thing applies to actions of groups of consenting, enthusiastic participants. If the actions of the group affect only the members of the group, then I don’t give a fuck what you do together.
It’s not that my libertarian tendencies stop at the horizontal black line, but that below that line the determination is a no-brainer: defer to individual liberty.
The First Element of Montag Ethics: An individual whose sovereignty over their own body and mind has been subjected to coercion, is suffering an act of violence.
Now, I know we’re in the middle of something here, but let me take a brief moment to reject meritocracy. There’s nothing about the terms “professional” or “licensed” or “educated” or “experienced” that makes the inherent value of one’s time spent not directly tending to one’s own needs more valuable than another’s. That Engineer’s stamp, or law degree, or Noble Prize, or certificate of completion does not make you worth more than some dude with a strong back and a willingness to handle your smelly garbage, or slaughter your beef, or shovel the snow off your roof, or clear off your table. I submit that if you find yourself in a society, institution or culture that does show such preferences, you inhabit a fucked up society, institution or culture.
So let’s just say for argument’s sake, you do find yourself inhabiting a fucked up society, institution or culture. You’re going to end up seeing folks who fall into the most odious area of my fancy chart: the area above the red curve and below the magenta curve. I’ll call this the “power deficit” area where the individual is unable to meet their subsistence needs because they lack the power, or because others exercise exploitive power over them. I’ll also take it the last step and say that it is an unethical situation when whole classes of people fall into this “power deficit” category, or when people are forced to languish in this condition over the long term.
The Second Element of Montag Ethics: An individual forced to endure a “power deficit” as a matter of class, or lack of freedom, is suffering an act of violence.
Lastly, there is the yellow area, above the horizontal black line and beneath the red curve. I’d sure like to call this area “surplus power;” and since I wield the keyboard, that is what I shall call it. This is an exercise of power outside the legitimate use of power to satisfy human needs, and which also transcends the self (it affects others.) This is the domain of domination, violence, exploitation and coercion. It’s also the domain of altruism, nurturing, generosity, and education.
What constitutes an ethical use of surplus power? It is my sense that a dichotomy lies along the lines of empowerment vs. domination, though I realize the term “empowerment” has it’s baggage. Basically, if you are exercising power over another you are either enhancing the other person’s power (teaching them how to fish,) or dominating them (forcing them to give you all the fish they catch.)
The Third Element of Montag Ethics: ??? I don’t know. Is it, “Don’t dominate, coerce or exploit?” Is it, “Be helpful?” Is it, “Try not to kill anybody?” Is it, “Equality through solidarity?” What is ethics, really?
Open ended post. Let me know in comments if you have the answers. When I continue, I’ll re-work another old and embarrassing post about the drives and motivations that compel us to fulfill our needs, and the perverse motivations a fucked up society fosters. Namely, the motivation that drives Power Seekers to dominate others.
This has been a rewrite of the post Human Nature, Morality and Progressivism: A Layman’s View.