Why Does Power Corrupt?

Fol­lowup to: Evolu­tion­ary Psychology

“Power tends to cor­rupt, and ab­solute power cor­rupts ab­solutely. Great men are al­most always bad men.”
—Lord Acton

Call it a just-so story if you must, but as soon as I was in­tro­duced to the no­tion of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy (~1995), it seemed ob­vi­ous to me why hu­man be­ings are cor­rupted by power. I didn’t then know that hunter-gath­erer bands tend to be more egal­i­tar­ian than agri­cul­tural tribes—much less likely to have a cen­tral tribal-chief boss-figure—and so I thought of it this way:

Hu­mans (par­tic­u­larly hu­man males) have evolved to ex­ploit power and sta­tus when they ob­tain it, for the ob­vi­ous rea­son: If you use your power to take many wives and fa­vor your chil­dren with a larger share of the meat, then you will leave more offspring, ce­teris paribus. But you’re not go­ing to have much luck be­com­ing tribal chief if you just go around say­ing, “Put me in charge so that I can take more wives and fa­vor my chil­dren.” You could lie about your rea­sons, but hu­man be­ings are not perfect de­ceivers.

So one strat­egy that an evolu­tion could fol­low, would be to cre­ate a ve­hi­cle that re­li­ably tended to start be­liev­ing that the old power-struc­ture was cor­rupt, and that the good of the whole tribe re­quired their over­throw...

The young rev­olu­tion­ary’s be­lief is hon­est. There will be no be­tray­ing catch in his throat, as he ex­plains why the tribe is doomed at the hands of the old and cor­rupt, un­less he is given power to set things right. Not even sub­con­sciously does he think, “And then, once I ob­tain power, I will strangely be­gin to re­sem­ble that old cor­rupt guard, abus­ing my power to in­crease my in­clu­sive ge­netic fit­ness.”

Peo­ple of­ten think as if “pur­pose” is an in­her­ent prop­erty of things; and so many in­ter­pret the mes­sage of ev-psych as say­ing, “You have a sub­con­scious, hid­den goal to max­i­mize your fit­ness.” But in­di­vi­d­ual or­ganisms are adap­ta­tion-ex­e­cuters, not fit­ness-max­i­miz­ers. The pur­pose that the rev­olu­tion­ary should ob­tain power and abuse it, is not a plan any­where in his brain; it be­longs to evolu­tion, which can just barely be said to have pur­poses. It is a fact about many past rev­olu­tion­ar­ies hav­ing suc­cess­fully taken power, hav­ing abused it, and hav­ing left many de­scen­dants.

When the rev­olu­tion­ary ob­tains power, he will find that it is sweet, and he will try to hold on to it—per­haps still think­ing that this is for the good of the tribe. He will find that it seems right to take many wives (surely he de­serves some re­ward for his la­bor) and to help his chil­dren (who are more de­serv­ing of help than oth­ers). But the young rev­olu­tion­ary has no fore­knowl­edge of this in the be­gin­ning, when he sets out to over­throw the awful peo­ple who cur­rently rule the tribe—evil mu­tants whose in­ten­tions are ob­vi­ously much less good than his own.

The cir­cuitry that will re­spond to power by find­ing it plea­surable, is already wired into our young rev­olu­tion­ary’s brain; but he does not know this. (It would not help him evolu­tion­ar­ily if he did know it, be­cause then he would not be able to hon­estly pro­claim his good in­ten­tions—though it is scarcely nec­es­sary for evolu­tion to pre­vent hunter-gath­er­ers from know­ing about evolu­tion, which is one rea­son we are able to know about it now.)

And so we have the awful cy­cle of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. Youth­ful ideal­ism rails against their el­ders’ cor­rup­tion, but oddly enough, the new gen­er­a­tion—when it fi­nally suc­ceeds to power—doesn’t seem to be all that morally purer. The origi­nal Com­mu­nist Revolu­tion­ar­ies, I would guess prob­a­bly a ma­jor­ity of them, re­ally were in it to help the work­ers; but once they were a rul­ing Party in charge...

All sorts of ran­dom dis­claimers can be ap­plied to this the­sis: For ex­am­ple, you could sug­gest that maybe Stalin’s in­ten­tions weren’t all that good to be­gin with, and that some poli­ti­ci­ans do in­tend to abuse power and re­ally are just ly­ing. A much more im­por­tant ob­jec­tion is the need to re­describe this sce­nario in terms of power struc­tures that ac­tu­ally ex­ist in hunter-gath­erer bands, which, as I un­der­stand it, have egal­i­tar­ian pres­sures (among adult males) to keep any one per­son from get­ting too far above oth­ers.

But hu­man be­ings do find power over oth­ers sweet, and it’s not as if this emo­tion could have ma­te­ri­al­ized from thin air, with­out an evolu­tion­ary ex­pla­na­tion in terms of hunter-gath­erer con­di­tions. If you don’t think this is why hu­man be­ings are cor­rupted by power—then what’s your evolu­tion­ary ex­pla­na­tion? On the whole, to me at least, the evolu­tion­ary ex­pla­na­tion for this phe­nomenon has the prob­lem of not even seem­ing profound, be­cause what it ex­plains seems so nor­mal.

The moral of this story, and the rea­son for go­ing into the evolu­tion­ary ex­pla­na­tion, is that you shouldn’t rea­son as if peo­ple who are cor­rupted by power are evil mu­tants, whose mu­ta­tions you do not share.

Evolu­tion is not an in­finitely pow­er­ful de­ceiv­ing de­mon, and our an­ces­tors evolved un­der con­di­tions of not know­ing about evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy. The ten­dency to be cor­rupted by power can be beaten, I think. The “warp” doesn’t seem on the same level of deeply wo­ven in­sidious­ness as, say, con­fir­ma­tion bias.

There was once an oc­ca­sion where a re­porter wrote about me, and did a hatchet job. It was my first time be­ing re­ported on, and I was com­pletely blind­sided by it. I’d known that re­porters some­times wrote hatchet jobs, but I’d thought that it would re­quire mal­ice—I hadn’t be­gun to imag­ine that some­one might write a hatchet job just be­cause it was a cliche, an easy way to gen­er­ate a few column inches. So I drew upon my own pow­ers of nar­ra­tion, and wrote an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal story on what it felt like to be re­ported on for the first time—that hor­rible feel­ing of vi­o­la­tion. I’ve never sent that story off any­where, though it’s a fine and short piece of writ­ing as I judge it.

For it oc­curred to me, while I was writ­ing, that jour­nal­ism is an ex­am­ple of unchecked power—the re­porter gets to pre­sent only one side of the story, any way they like, and there’s noth­ing that the re­ported-on can do about it. (If you’ve never been re­ported on, then take it from me, that’s how it is.) And here I was writ­ing my own story, po­ten­tially for pub­li­ca­tion as tra­di­tional jour­nal­ism, not in an aca­demic fo­rum. I re­mem­ber re­al­iz­ing that the stan­dards were tremen­dously lower than in sci­ence. That you could get away with damn near any­thing, so long as it made a good story—that this was the stan­dard in jour­nal­ism. (If you, hav­ing never been re­ported on your­self, don’t be­lieve me that this is the case, then you’re as naive as I once was.)

Just that thought—not even the in­ten­tion, not even won­der­ing whether to do it, but just the thought—that I could pre­sent only my side of the story and de­liber­ately make the offend­ing re­porter look bad, and that no one would call me on it. Just that thought trig­gered this huge surge of pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment. This tremen­dous high, com­pa­rable to the high of dis­cov­ery or the high of al­tru­ism.

And I knew right away what I was deal­ing with. So I sat there, mo­tion­less, fight­ing down that surge of pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment. It didn’t go away just be­cause I wanted it to go away. But it went away af­ter a few min­utes.

If I’d had no la­bel to slap on that huge surge of pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment—if I’d been a less re­flec­tive fel­low, flow­ing more with my pas­sions—then that might have been that. Peo­ple who are cor­rupted by power are not evil mu­tants.

I wouldn’t call it a close call. I did know im­me­di­ately what was hap­pen­ing. I fought it down with­out much trou­ble, and could have fought much harder if nec­es­sary. So far as I can tell, the temp­ta­tion of unchecked power is not any­where near as in­sidious as the labyrin­thine al­gorithms of self-de­cep­tion. Evolu­tion is not an in­finitely pow­er­ful de­ceiv­ing de­mon. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton re­fused the temp­ta­tion of the crown, and he didn’t even know about evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy. Per­haps it was enough for him to know a lit­tle his­tory, and think of the temp­ta­tion as a sin.

But it was still a scary thing to ex­pe­rience—this cir­cuit that sud­denly woke up and dumped a huge dose of un­wanted pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment into my men­tal workspace, not when I planned to wield unchecked power, but just when my brain vi­su­al­ized the pos­si­bil­ity.

To the ex­tent you man­age to fight off this temp­ta­tion, you do not say: “Ah, now that I’ve beaten the temp­ta­tion of power, I can safely make my­self the wise tyrant who wields unchecked power benev­olently, for the good of all.” Hav­ing suc­cess­fully fought off the temp­ta­tion of power, you search for strate­gies that avoid seiz­ing power. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s triumph was not how well he ruled, but that he re­fused the crown—de­spite all temp­ta­tion to be hor­rified at who else might then ob­tain power.

I am will­ing to ad­mit of the the­o­ret­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity that some­one could beat the temp­ta­tion of power and then end up with no eth­i­cal choice left, ex­cept to grab the crown. But there would be a large bur­den of skep­ti­cism to over­come.

Part of the se­quence Eth­i­cal Injunctions

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