Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Power, Lust, Scandal, Bribery, Violence, Sex, Mayhem, War

There, that kind of title should attract so many readers to this blog-post that I'll make up for my missing quota for this month!

Mind you, all I'm really going to talk about is 'Power'--though, let's face it, among those who have aplenty of it, there's heaps of the other stuff as well. After all Power Corrupts, they say, whoever 'they' are, and furthermore it is also often asserted that Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. But, you know, when you're looking for a decent definition of what what is meant by 'power' in more than a definition-by-instance, you're pretty much left to look in vain. The Wikipedia definition is only one case in point. Feel free to google 'power definition' and see what comes up!

'Power' is one of those terms used in so many areas of human activity that a simple definition appears to be unachievable. And yet it isn't, if only you know where to look and how to retreat to gain a better sense of perspective.

This issue came up the other day as a side-product of a discussion about 'empowerment', a term I'm very fond of--and which I consider a noble goal to work toward, either in oneself or for others--but which, almost as a corollary to the general confusion about the fundamental nature 'power' in a psychological and sociological sense, is being widely abused, often the context of throwing it in, in the manner of a category mistake, into discussions about, for example 'selfishness' and 'self-interest' and so on. The philosophy of Objectivism is founded on this kind of thinking-screwup. (Yeah, I know: cheap shot. But Objectivism, like Scientology, is such a wide open and inviting target that I just can't help myself. What a bunch of tards!)

Not that the extant definitions--well, more like 'descriptions'--of Power are actually 'wrong'. It's just that they are too particular and usually refer more to how Power expresses itself, rather addressing the nature of the essence, if you will; of the common thread joining all these expressions. Part of the reason for this is that somewhere there always lurks a notion of the physical nature of power, and inevitably it is joined up, without careful differentiation, with notions about 'Force', which is much more blatantly physical or at least used as a metaphor deriving its impact from the physical.

All of this obscures what 'Power', when the term is applied to people or groups of people, is at heart, and it is this:

Power is a metric applied to the ability of an individual or a group to make decisions.

OK, so that doesn't help, says you, esteemed reader.

Well it does. What it means, trodden out in a few more words is this:

Power is just a way in which we measure the degree of ability of an individual or group to make decisions. Meaning that Power is like a ruler that we put alongside the many ways in which this decision-making capability expresses itself. So, when you read about the gazillion variations and incarnations and instantiations of Power, you're actually talking about the things that the ruler is held up against. And these things are the many ways in which the ability to make decisions expresses itself.

"But, but, but..." I can hear you start saying. But stop protesting and think about it some more, and maybe you'll come around to my point of view. For in truth, everything in human affairs can be mapped into conceptual spaces that can be measured with the 'Power' metric. I forgot who said that decisions define us--I don't think it was I who conjured that up--but from an existentialist point of view it's clear that it cannot really be any other way.

Thus, when those of existential inclination speak about 'empowerment' of the personal kind, they will probably have 'empowerment to make decisions' in mind. This empowerment can take many forms as there are contexts, but one thing about it must be clear: that it is neutral. By itself, increasing a person's or group's ability to make decisions--however this 'ability' may be understood--is neither good nor bad, and neither will it lead by necessity to either. Someone 'empowered' may use his or her 'powers' for whatever his or her disposition might be. A psychopath may choose to become vicious and methodical serial killer. Someone stuck in a stultifying job might choose to go out and do something meaningful instead. A king might choose to become a benevolent ruler or a nasty tyrant.

The notion that 'empowerment' in inherently good is severely flawed. It's like everything else, really. No empowerment at all makes for a pathetic excuse for a human being. Too much of it can make for an egomaniac dictator or a Jim Jones. We're back to the Middle Way and moderation; for excessive empowerment detaches the empowered from his social context, while not enough of it makes him a slave to it.

And, yes, being empowered is potentially corruptive--though we must ask "corrupting what?" Maybe what we're talking about here are just the 'beneficial' things that could be accomplished with the proper application of the acquired power. And the more power there is, the more fertile a breeding ground for that corruption it is likely to be.

Again, it seems to me like we're left with another one of those catch-22 situations common to humans and human societies. For without being empowered we would be unable to decide; yet with no constraints on our decisions the whole thing is likely to go nuclear.

I'm not offering solutions here; just a few observations of an existentialist kind. What you do with them...well, I hope you're empowered enough to figure it out for yourself.

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