Friday, January 20, 2006

Autonomy and Power

There was some puzzlement expressed in our ethics class last year over why anyone would (non-instrumentally) want power over others. My suggestion was a simple one: we all recognize the value of autonomy, or having power over ourselves. Perhaps the power-hungry person conceives of domination as an extension of their autonomy, in some sense. Or, put another way: if power over yourself is (egoistically) desirable, why not power over others? Think of it as expanding your capacities, or sphere of influence, or some such.

So I think the difference comes in at the moral level. It's not that powerlust is some thoroughly irrational fetish; it's just that the harmful effect on others makes it morally inappropriate to pursue.

(HT: Neil. Though as a hedonist he probably finds the value of autonomy just as incomprehensible.)


  1. The very process of trying to think of a reason why anyone would (non-instrumentally) to want anything is problematic.

    To look for a reason "why" is to look for an instrumental reason. Asking the question "why" is to ack "for what use or purpose."

    Consider, it is difficult to determine why somebody would want to smoke, take drugs, or consume more food than is necessary to survive. Yet, some people have this want. Yet, some people do want these things. It is a brute fact.

    When it comes to talking about these desires, we can ask "why" in another sense -- what caused this desire to spring into existence. We can ask why people have these desires just as we can ask why hurricanes happen in the summer and fall. But the answer to this question is not a "motivating' reason, it is an "explanatory" reason.

    It appears quite obvious that many people have a desire for power over others. We can ask how this desire comes to exist. But it makes no sense to ask for a separate motivating reason that is not at the same time an instrumental reason.

    Alonzo Fyfe
    The Atheist Ethicist

  2. Well, yes, it surely would be silly to ask for what end someone has a non-instrumental desire. But I think there are other ways we can come to understand them. In particular, we can try to understand how the object might be conceived of in such a way as to appear desirable. Perhaps this involves "explanatory" reasons, of a sort. The point is to understand why someone has a desire, not in terms of the other desires that they have, but rather in terms of what it is about the object itself that makes such a desire explicable. (This goes beyond a mere causal explanation of how the person came to have the desire.)

  3. As well as understanding why people want power over others, we can understand why people want power over their environment in general; that is, we can understand the desire for control and order and understanding that I think is as much a part of philosophy and juggling and exploring and poetry as it is a part of dictatorship, and as it is a part of almost anything that drags people out of their bedrooms, and many things that keep them there. So I don’t think that it is too hard to appreciate some kinds of power, the sort of thrill that comes from winning an argument, or organising a group of people in an efficient way; but I think that in order to truly appreciate the value of power, you need to have a poor understanding of other kinds of values, or else you will realise that, by going after power alone, you are thwarting your own ends, since the most satisfying sort of control and understanding over people comes from knowing them well as people, and not as words or juggling balls or bits of cash. I suppose that it is hard to satisfy both sorts of desire at the same time (pure power and good intimate understanding), partly because in order to feel as if you know a person well, you need to feel as if they know you, which doesn't happen if you are deceitful and hide your weaknesses away etc.,; and partly because other people will usually hide themselves away if you behave badly towards them.

  4. Mike,
    Power is useful for achieving most ends.
    For example if I was unquestioned global despot I could set up a system that saved hundreds of millions of lives. As a blog poster sitting in my room I might directly save a couple of people over my life if I'm lucky. Of course pursuing anything at the total exclusion of anything else is likely to compromise those other objectives.

    A rational person would therefore pursue power (over others) as one of a number of objectives even if they didn't yet know how they would use that power. Furthermore genetics and habits would bring people to collect it for its own sake (to give the explanitory reason).

    Good discussion here i think!

  5. Now, here again, I think a biological explanation would illuminate. We would want power because, yes, it is useful for achieving most ends. But even if it's not useful, it still gets exercised. ( For example, I just saw horrifying footage on TV of teenagers beating a homeless man with a baseball bat. ) I'm not asking for evolutionary psychology here, but with a question as broad as "Why an urge for (non-instrumental) power", it's pretty clear that this is yet another example of a characteristic that benefitted our ancestors being more successful than their neighbors at getting more of their genes into the next generation. Because evolution is such a sloppy, bumbling, gross (in both senses of the term) process, despicable behaviors still triumph (genetically). The same baseball batter's will to dominate even the pitifully weak probably helped his ancestors to dominate in general.

  6. The funny thing is, Lizzie, that I don't feel any particular attraction to power itself. (That's what my post was about.) Maybe this just means that I am unlikely to have any offspring, or that I am some kind of weird mutant.


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