Philosophy 101: Why Does Power Corrupt?

Stephen F. Dennstedt

There are certain aspects of life that just seem to be cast in stone. That power corrupts appears to be one of those truisms: the I do it because I can syndrome. The following quote by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902) is arguably the most famous expression of that assumption, but is it true?

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

I found a short (but really interesting) article in Smithsonian Magazine that speaks to a study published, in the Journal of Applied Psychology by Katherine A. Celles & colleagues, about the relationship between power and corruption. Their conclusion was that power, in and of itself, doesn’t corrupt—power simply exacerbates a pre-existing ethical condition (a predilection towards unethical behaviour). This makes total sense to me whereas Lord Acton’s quote seemed rather simplistic.

In sum, the study found, power doesn’t corrupt; it heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies. Which brings to mind another maxim, from Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

So it’s not necessarily the political office, institution or position of leadership that corrupts the individual, but rather a very real human foible that draws certain people to power like a moth to a flame. Abusers of power often share similar traits: they can be narcissistic with low self-esteem, insecure with an overreaching need for control, neurotic and in extreme cases can exhibit overt sociopathic and even psychotic behaviour. In my opinion this is the classic bully syndrome. In the beginning these behaviour traits might be covert (passive aggressive) but as time goes on they often become more overt.

The point I’m trying to make is: an individual’s propensity towards abuse (of power) can be predicted based on past behaviour. Knowing that, can we really be victims of abuse when, in fact, we are complicit in that abuse? I think the answer is no. We as a society (at least in a democratic society) are ultimately responsible for who we allow into positions of power—we create these monsters. There is a legal term called due diligence (simply stated: do your homework) that should be applied more often than it is—look to past events (behaviours) to predict future events (behaviours).

History repeats itself (over and over again ad nauseam) when we turn a blind eye towards the past (either through laziness, ignorance or both). Can a people be held (collectively) responsible for the actions of its leader(s)? They can and should be, especially in the case of a democratic society with a freely elected government, you need look no further than Adolphe Hitler and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. I suggest we remain skeptical (if not cynical) when viewing leaders and institutions: politics, religion, business, education and even the press.

Knowing that often the least of us strive for power and control over the rest of us should give one pause. Saying to yourself or others: I can’t believe (fill in the blank) just said or did that is complete bullshit. Remember, past events (behaviours) predict future events (behaviours). Performing due diligence (your homework) is not only a right but a responsibility. Be cautious of your endorsement, agreement or support of any individual or institution occupying a position of power because you will be intrinsically linked to that stance. And ask yourself why do I align myself with that person, position or institution?



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