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Human Nature, Power and Ethics: A Layman’s View

December 13, 2010

The Power
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:

Figure. [Click image for larger view.]

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.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2010 6:20 PM

    I don’t have any comment to make at the moment, but I didn’t want to leave this unsaid:

    Damn fascinating. Thanks for writing.

  2. Jack Crow permalink
    December 13, 2010 7:05 PM

    It’s well argued, though I still see no reason to treat with “power” as anything but “power over.”

    • December 13, 2010 10:35 PM

      i tried to get there, Jack. i got about 90% of the way to your usage, but just couldn’t separate out the concept of an individual ‘producing intended effects,’ without there being a social component to their, act as something less than an exercise of power. such that the phrase, “walked off the field under his own power,” for example, seems a reasonable use of the term.

      of course for our purposes i understand where you’re coming from, while i’ll ever have to specify when talking about “domination.”

      • Jack Crow permalink
        December 14, 2010 4:58 PM


        You’re absolutely correct. I’m not really arguing for a perfect usage. It’s a mental tic, like the one I have about the verb form “to be.”

        My objection really just has to do with the cover the benign usage gives to the malign one. When we say, “walked out of the field under with his own labor” or “on his own effort” it’s still clear. We aren’t giving the impression that power can be divorced from the use of power.

        I treat with “power” the way I do with the word “rape.” Rape almost always means “sexually violate, penetrate.” Unless you’re talking to kids under twenty. And then it carries the additional meaning of “unambiguously destroyed and defeated in a contest or game.” The second term has no value for me and I hate it, in part because it alters the use of the first.



  3. December 14, 2010 4:40 PM

    Most of my synapses were used up in the cold today, so right now that graph looks like warm air circulating around a bed. Where I see words, however, I am equally seduced.

    Great job, Montag; more to say about this after the holidays.

  4. December 14, 2010 5:19 PM

    The graph is Mondrianesque.

    There’s a lot here that could be discussed – further comment may follow.

    Re the broad question of human nature and ethics, Gurdjieff has formulated 5 ‘being-obligolnian-strivings’:

    “The first striving: to have in their ordinary being-existence everything satisfying and really necessary for their planetary body.

    “The second striving: to have a constant and unflagging instinctive need for self-perfection in the sense of being.

    “The third: the conscious striving to know ever more and more about the laws of World-creation and World-maintenance.

    “The fourth: the striving from the beginning of their existence to pay for their arising and their individuality as quickly as possible, in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the Sorrow of our COMMON FATHER.

    “And the fifth: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred ‘Martfotai,’ that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.

    (G.I. Gurdjieff -‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson’, p. 385-386)

  5. drip permalink
    December 15, 2010 6:03 AM

    Very nice, though you direct us onto a hard road. “Try not to kill anybody”, I have down, but “don’t exploit “is difficult, in my world. I would say that 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 is experienced and experience does not belong with professional, licensed or educated. Credentials are constructs designed to separate us from one another. They are not to be trusted. As I said once while raising in a poker game with players far above my ability, “I love you, but I don’t trust you.” But I don’t believe much of anything. In fact, I believe nossing except experience and certainly have no answers.

    • December 15, 2010 8:10 AM

      thanks, drip. i agree that experience is different from credential. even in a society based in anarchic freedom, we would probably still defer to experienced people’s “authority” in specific ways. having a knowledgeable carpenter help build your house, for example.

      but what i meant by including experience alongside licenced, etc, in the o.p. is that i don’t buy into valuing that person’s time more highly than the next person’s. time spent in pursuit of needs/interests/with one’s family is just as priceless for the garbage man as it is for the attorney. and it seems wrong to me that one of these people must spend way more time laboring in service of others’ interests to meet their basic survival needs.

      in a way, i’ll address the “hard road” of not exploiting when you’re starting point is already a massive fucked-up society, (ie: in real life,) in a post later today.

      • drip permalink
        December 16, 2010 8:48 AM

        Your inclusion of experience with some more socially-imposed credentials is much clearer to me now. When we sell or buy work by the hour, we find ourselves facing a contradiction: the more experience we have, the faster we are at our work. This is true of both carpenters and attorneys. The faster we complete our tasks, the less we make! And if the hourly rate is higher than others, reflecting that experience, the others will get the work! The same holds true when we buy the time. As we say before taking on bad work, “Well, we gotta eat, right?” What to do and remain non-exploitive. I’ll comment more directly on your next post, but I see experience and exploitation as symbiotic in our very fucked-up society.

      • December 16, 2010 10:01 AM

        it’s also said that “It’s better to be hungry, than to be tired and hungry.” nonetheless, the system often makes that decision about eating for you.

  6. December 20, 2010 2:51 PM

    I like the graph. About the ethics: are you categorizing teaching (as in your fishing example) as falling into the category of exercising surplus power? It seems to me that teaching falls into “actions of groups of consenting, enthusiastic participants,” and isn’t debatable as an ethical question. Unless, of course, the student is being forced against his/her will to learn.

    In this case, the teacher is in the position of possibly having to harm or kill the student if the student persists in attempting to escape the situation. Under what circumstances can the threat of violence equal to the task of coercing a resistant pupil be justified?

    It seems to me that without a good rule (and I understand this is a theory-under-development) for distinguishing ethical from unethical uses of surplus power, virtually any act is arguably just. This is the land of liberating foreign countries and protecting kids from drugs (if I understand the chart correctly).

    I don’t want to follow up too much before I am sure I get the basics, but is universality a requirement of what you’re developing? Here I mean: if we all agree that person X was justified (or not) in his/her use of surplus power to serve some end, does it hold that for any person Y, we all agree that the same use of surplus power is just (or not)? Thanks.

    • December 20, 2010 3:59 PM

      i’d say ideally teaching/learning would fall into “actions of groups of consenting, enthusiastic participants,” AND be a social relation mediating a differential in power in a way that enhances the ability to exercise power (freedom) of one (or both!) participants.

      i’ll also note that what we often think of as education looks more to me like compulsory indoctrination in a prison setting. but within that system you see some teachers who are more or less looking out for the students, trying to teach them something real, who seem to be making the best of the situation, then you have some teachers who act as prison guards. but i’m getting off the subject here.

      may have skirted over the surplus power question. i suppose it would depend on where on the needs axis the teacher and student are operating. is it a self-actualized father taking his kid on a weekend fishing trip? is the kid being forced to come along, or has she been eagerly awaiting the trip? is it a father struggling to catch the evening meal, who is relying on his kid to learn in order to help provide needed food? in the second case the father may be justified in using some form of coercion to compel the kid to help out.

      i’d say in naming a ‘good rule for distinguishing ethical uses of surplus power,’ universality would be paramount. i’d hesitate to say the same for evaluation a particular exercise of power. every case is a rule unto itself.


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