How Power Corrupts II

In my last post, I used The Lord of the Rings to explore the meaning of Lord Acton’s dictum ― “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  There is another novel, similar in many ways, though perhaps not superficially, to The Lord of the Rings, from which we might also learn something about the corrupting effects of power. It is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. 

For those who have not read it, The Master and Margarita is a double narrative. The main story is that of the devil’s visit to Moscow one spring week in the early 1930s, and that of two lovers whose paths he crosses, the Master and Margarita of the title. But within the main story there is a second one, ostensibly a novel that the Master has written, about Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri, Jesus, which takes place one spring week 19 centuries earlier.

The crucial sentence about power is uttered by Yeshua as he is being interrogated by Pilate:

All power is violence done to people. There will come a time when there will be no power, neither that of the Caesars nor any other. Man will pass into a kingdom of truth and justice, where there will be no need for power.*

These are the words which earn Yeshua his death sentence. By the time he uttered them, Pilate, though initially hostile, was becoming convinced of his innocence and inclined to let him go. No longer. Pilate is now much too afraid that any leniency towards what might ― and, in the paranoid climate of the reign of Tiberius, inevitably will ― be interpreted as treason and lèse-majesté. Pilate thunders “[t]here has never been, there is not, and there never will be a power greater or better for men than the power of emperor Tiberius!” ― and goes on to sign Yeshua’s death warrant.

Pilate’s behaviour illustrates one corrupting effect of power ― the fear it breeds, in both those who wield and are afraid of losing it, and in those who are subject to and are afraid of being crushed by it. Pilate represents power, and power always worries about it challengers. Pilate is also subject to the absolute, unforgiving, vicious power of the emperor. And, though fearless in battle (as indeed he makes a point of telling us), he is scared out of his wits, and condemns a man whom he knows to be innocent, only to go on and say, desperately, that “cowardice is the worst of all the vices.”

But Yeshua’s words point to another form of corruption that power works. Power, he says, is violence. And violence corrupts the person who engages in it. It is often said that the death penalty demeans not only the person being killed, but also, albeit in a somewhat different way, the executioner (just by way of example, see the famous words of Justice Blackmun, in Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141 (dissenting from denial of certiorari): “The path the Court has chosen lessens us all.”) And the death penalty is, of course, only the most extreme form of the violence that the state can inflict on a human being, and that it will inevitably inflict on human beings. The exercise of power is, inevitably, the exercise of coercion, which stains or takes something (innocence? kindness? the capacity for empathy?) from the person engaged in it.

And it will not do to argue that some exercises of power at least are legitimate, say because they conform to some theory of justice that reasonable people ought to accept. Never mind that reasonable people disagree about what such a theory of justice might look like, to the point that, as Jeremy Waldron once put in during a seminar, “we have theories of justice coming out of our ears.” Suppose there were such a theory. But the fact that reasonable people ought to accept it doesn’t change the fact that some people are not reasonable, and the best and most just power will still be doing violence to them. This is not to say that we can or ought to get rid of power altogether. The kingdom of truth and justice which Yeshua expected has not come, and so far as we can tell is not about to. But the fact that the exercise of power is necessary does not negate its corrupting effects.

That said, it is also true that these effects can be reduced and checked. Limiting the time during which one is able to exercise power is one way of doing so. Limiting the scope of power any one person is able to exercise is another. Subjecting power to law is a third. As some Rule of Law theorists, especially prof. Waldron, argue, the subjection of power to law makes it more respectful of human dignity ― less brutal, less violent. Good law, no more than good intentions or a good heart, does not fully protect against the corruption that power works. But it just might make the evils we must put up with tolerable.

* The translation is my own; the word Bulgakov uses, власть, can mean either “power” or “government.” It is also the word which is used to render Lord Acton’s dictum in Russian.

UPDATE: I have just come across a sentence by David Post, in this article, which very nicely captures what I have been trying to say about power and violence:

“Collective action,” … is another way to denote the use of coercive force to bind some portion of the polity to act in ways that others think necessary for the common good. (1458)

No New Thing in the Cloud

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a new entry on “Information Technology and Moral Values,” by John Sullins, a professor of philosophy at Sonoma State University. It is a useful summary of (many of) the moral issues that information technology raises, and a reminder that issues that we are used to considering from a policy standpoint also have moral dimensions. At the same time, it is a reminder that there is no new thing under the sun – itself an old observation.

Generally speaking, the moral issues which prof. Sullins thinks information technology are pretty much the same moral issues that you would expect a left-leaning intellectual to worry about in just about any context – income inequalities, gender inequality, “justice”. (I might be wrong to attribute these leanings to pof. Sullins of course; I have no other ground for this attribution than the article. And yet it feels like ground enough.) A libertarian or a conservative would probably have written a substantially different-sounding piece on the same topic; different-sounding, but equally predictable. New technologies seem not so much to create moral issues as to serve as a new canvass on which to apply our old concerns.

A couple of specific examples seem also to confirm the timeless cynicism (or is it wisdom?) of Ecclesiastes. One is given by prof. Sullins himself:

The move from one set of dominant information technologies to another is always morally contentious. Socrates lived during the long transition from a largely oral tradition to a newer information technology consisting of writing down words and information and collecting those writings into scrolls and books. Famously Socrates was somewhat antagonistic to writing and he never wrote anything down himself. Ironically, we only know about Socrates’ argument against writing because his student Plato ignored his teacher and wrote it down.

Socrates worried that writing would cause people to stop learning stuff – why bother when you can look it up a book? Just imagine what the grumpy old man would have said about Google and Wikipedia.

The second example came to mind when reading prof. Sullins’ discussion of the concerns raised by the “Moral Values in Communicating and Accessing Information.” Among the concerns he explores under this rubric are that with “[w]ho has the final say whether or not some information … is communicated or not” and that over the accuracy of the information communicated about someone or something (and the problem of who bears the burden of ensuring accuracy, or perhaps of dealing with the consequences of inaccurate information being communicated).  This reminded me of the passage in The Master and Margarita where Yeshua Ha-Notsri – Jesus – tells Pilate that he “is starting to worry that this whole confusion” about what he told the people “will go on for a very long time. And it’s all because he is writing down my words incorrectly.” “He” is the Levi Matvei – Matthew. As Yeshua goes on to explain, Matvei follows him “with a goat-skin and writes all the time. But I once looked at this goat-skin, and was horrified. I never said anything, anything at all of what’s written there. I begged him: for God’s sake, burn your goat-skin! But he tore it from my hands and ran away.” He might as well have been trying to get Facebook to delete some information about him, right? As the ensuing confusion shows, there are indeed dangers in recording information about someone without his consent, and then communicating it to all sorts of not always well-intentioned people.

So there is nothing new in the cloud, where this text will be stored, any more than under the sun, on goat-skins, or anywhere else, is there? Yet it is just possible that there is nothing new only because we do not see it. Perhaps new technologies really do create new problems – but we are so busy trying to deal with old ones that we do not notice.