“It’s said that ‘power corrupts’, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power. When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable.”
David Brin, space scientist and science fiction author (b. 6 Oct 1950)
I came across this quote in Kavitha’s Sunshiny SA Site blog post earlier this week and found it singularly depressing. I’ve bolded the first two sentences of the quote because that’s the part of Dr. Brin’s quote that is most easily found online. The next two sentences, however, surely raise the concern we should all have about corruption to another level. This quote seems to suggest that people who enter public service with honorable intentions are limited by their honesty. Is this supposed to give us comfort that a corrupt or corruptible tyrant is actually better for us? Or that we’re doomed to end up with leaders acting like tyrants?
Please tell me this isn’t true. It is undoubtedly true that power attracts the corruptible – and the already corrupt. It would be hard to argue otherwise; we’re surrounded by enough examples of such. However, if we don’t ensure that our political processes attract honorable men and women, who seek public service and public leadership for the right reasons, who want to be part of a larger effort to make our societies better for everyone, then where is our hope?
In fact, there have been studies done that have investigated this sobering question. A 2012 study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology entitled “Does Power Corrupt or Enable?” found that for some people, power brings out the best in them. Katherine A. DeCelles, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, and her co-authors set out to determine if the good people who become political or business leaders use their power to act for the good or if they inevitably become corrupted. The intriguing research question was: When you give good people power, are they more able than others to enact that critical moral fibre they bring to the position, to do what’s right?
The excellent news is that their findings suggest that the answer is yes. People’s sense of moral identity — the importance they attached to being fair and compassionate in their dealings and decisions — shaped their responses to how they felt about power. Power needn’t corrupt; it can actually strengthen existing ethical inclinations. Quoting from the abstract of their journal publication:
“The psychological experience of power enhances moral awareness among those with a strong moral identity, yet decreases the moral awareness among those with a weak moral identity. In turn, individuals’ moral awareness affects how they behave in relation to their self-interest.”
It strikes me that aside from finding some reassurance in these results, it behooves us all to pay careful attention. All citizens have a voice. If it appears that the political system our countries work within – systems that we have had confidence in for decades or longer – are starting to fray, we can say something about it. If unelected advisors seems to be having more power than our elected representatives, we can say something about it. If it appears that decisions are being made that give preference to those who donate more money or have more influence on those in power through positions of privilege, we can say something about it. We can insist on changes. We can insist on transparency. We can insist on governments (or corporation or organizations) that listen to its constituents (or customers and employees) and have their best interests at heart. We can vote.
And, keeping the results of this study in mind, we can look long and hard for candidates who are known for their honesty and integrity. And then work hard on their behalf to get them elected.
This isn’t a new question, that of the moral fibre of people in positions of power. Not at all.
It was Lord Acton way back in 1887 who wrote in a letter to Bishop Creighton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And yet it was Abraham Lincoln a few decades before that who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” We need to ensure we’re getting leaders with character.
By the way, that goes for women, too!