Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lust for Power

1. What is it?

2. Does it differ from feeling you're the one who can see what the problems are, and you're the one to fix them your way?

If so, how?

3. Is it a negative quality in a politician, or a job requirement?

and yes,

4. Do we notice it when people we like have it?

I'm asking these questions primarily because, yes, I saw a politician accused of lusting for power and it made me think. But I also ask because I feel like UUs have a weird relationship to power. I get the sense that a lot of other UUs both hate the idea of power and want power. There's almost a knee jerk denial that power can be anything but corrupting and evil, yet at the same time a strong expressed desire to change the world and power is certainly required for that.


Whose answers are:

1. It's the feeling that you know best how to fix the world* and should be in charge.
2. Only as a matter of perspective.
3. I think there are two kinds of politicians: those who openly want power and good actors. There are so many effective, non-power-focused ways to change the world for the better that I would say that anyone who chooses politics as a career path has to want power. I don't see wanting power as a bad thing inherently, though the excesses of power, like the excesses of almost anything else, can be negative.
4. I think if we do, we call it something else, but lust for power is an easy thing to spot in a politician we don't like.

But I am asking the question because I am willing to be talked another way on it.

* "Fixing the world" doesn't necessarily mean to everyone what it means to you. Lots of whackjobs have thought they were fixing the world when ultimately they were just being pointlessly destructive.


Bill Baar said...

You should be on my Social Justice Committee.

Almost everything in life is about power.

I told them we need to justify the power we claimed for ourselves as a Social Justice Committee to: (among other things we claimed in our mission statement),

--to educate (the power of teacher over student)

--to raise and allocate funds (the power of money)

--to feed the homeless at our homeless shelter (the power of the fed over the hungry; the power of the sheltered over the homeless...a power I as over-night volunteer I felt embarressed to hold e.g. its a regulated life in a shelter.. organized smoke breaks etc).

Our committee claimed lots of power and I said the only way we could justify was to link it back to our Church's Covenant as part of our pursuit of truth and goodness.

We in fact we get far more back in personal transformation when we do Social Justice, than any Justice we deliver.

It's why we do SJ and in fact the most important reason.

This notion went over like a ton of bricks.

So we just claim the power although we don't call it that, and we don't say anything about our authority to do so.

Bill Baar said...

sorry... to respond directly...

we all lust for power one way or the other... we just owe all an explaination why we should.

...and we need to understand how we use power even in very small ways... sometimes those smallest of ways can have the greatest destructive impact too on others.

...any how, thanks for posting on a topic that's been much on my mind

PG said...

The lust for power over other human beings, to command them to act against their own wills, definitely is a negative quality in any person. I define this in contrast to the person who desires to be highly persuasive, i.e. to have the ability to convince people that their free choice should be what you recommend. I have no desire to command people to act against their wills, or even to seduce them temporarily into doing things they later will be sorry that they did. I do wish to be a highly persuasive person who can convince people that my ideas are correct and should be shared by them. The desire to be persuasive seems to be bad only if it is not accompanied by openness to others' persuasion (that is, if it is fueled by the conviction that one already has the perfect set of ideas and other people are just sheep to be nudged into line rather than equally valuable for their ability to persuade oneself).

It is one reason why I highly value soft power in American foreign policy. The ability to seed a demand for freedom and democracy, to make people realize that they can and should lead better lives, as we helped to do in Eastern Europe, is incredibly good. People value the change they make for themselves, even if it is not change that they originally thought they wanted.

It is one of our big failures in the world today that we have not convinced people in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban way of life was bad and that there is a viable alternative. The necessity for NATO to stay in the region because otherwise the people will fall back under the Taliban indicates just how poorly we have persuaded.

Comrade Kevin said...

It's all in how you disguise your ambitions in the interest of altruism. Those who seem self-serving and controlling get no sympathy in our society.

But, neither can you please everyone and a desire for power will always rub certain people the wrong way.

So long as we adhere to the 70/30 principle, all will be well. 70% of people will likely think of someone favorably, but there will always be 30% who take a negative view. That's just automatic---criticism of just who you are and just who they are.

Joe The Math Guy said...

I think I am going to take a position almost diametrically opposed to CC-by power LUST I mean someone who pursues power as a final cause, rather than as a means to an end. Insofar as a person seeks power in order to then accomplish some specific goal using the power, it is the specific goal that motivates the person. She might well like, dislike or feel indifferent to power except insofar as it accomplishes her goal.

A politician has to have at least a certain equanimity for wielding power, just as a garbageperson has to have a certain equanimity for wielding smelly pieces of refuse. I regard a desire for power per se as unacceptable in a politician.

Power lust, as I describe it here, is not a quality I like or respect.

But now, the big question: what is power? I presume we are not talking about, like horsepower or dynes or watts or anything like that. Roughly, we are talking about the capacity to guide or influence or control other humans? Maybe?

Chalicechick said...

I believe that for a few very crazy people -Mugabe?- power can be an end itself, but my impression is that almost everybody else is in it to make the world better.

I certainly don't share, say, W's philosophy fir making the world better, but I do think that is what he's trying to do from his own point of view.

JtMG,how do you differentiate, say, "candidate lusting for power" from "candidate I don't like wanting to make changes I don't want" without being able to see it into the candidate's mind?

Joe The Math Guy said...

Hey CC-I agree that it is hard to tell what a person's motivations are, and I tend to assume that people are sincere but mistaken when I disagree with them. Of course I consider the possibility that *I'M* mistaken; I listen to them and work to see things from their point of view.

So, maybe we could agree that there are relatively few people who actually lust for power as an end in itself, without caring about what they are going to use power for. This is a highly pathological state. However, I think that what we are actually dealing with here is a continuum.

At one end there is the person who, when faced with disagreement, would much prefer simply to go her way and let the other person go hers. Further down the continuum is the person who finds wielding power distasteful but is willing to do it in order to get the things she really wants. Further down yet is the person who really enjoys wielding power, but still is very honestly devoted to the goal that the power is supposed to serve. I suspect that a substantial majority of politicians and businesspeople fall into this category, and I regard these as perfectly decent and admirable people.

But, I am convinced that there is a fairly large category of people for whom the putative goal of the power that they amass is actually more of a rationalization. It is primarily a rationalization for themselves, so that they can convince themselves that power is not their ultimate goal. Convincing other people is strictly secondary.

I quite agree with CC that it is difficult to identify such people. I can suggest four criteria here.

1. Indifference to the putative goal. This often takes the form of hipocrisy. For example, there was this politician awhile back who was a great crusader against prostitution rings, yet turned out to be a customer of a prostitute. It doesn't seem out of place to suggest hte possibility that this person was more interested in amassing personal power than in eliminating prostitution. Yet I am quite confident that he would still claim that eliminating prostitution was his only goal and that he could even pass a lie detector test on this point.

2.Interpreting disagreement as a personal threat.

3. Unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes.

4. An enjoyment of meetings as an end in themselves.

Those are my thoughts, CC; what say you?

Anonymous said...

pg said, "It is one of our big failures in the world today that we have not convinced people in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban way of life was bad and that there is a viable alternative. The necessity for NATO to stay in the region because otherwise the people will fall back under the Taliban indicates just how poorly we have persuaded."

Perhaps they do know there is an alternative and have decided that what they have is superior? I think those people look at the US and see that most of us are devotees of the religion Doug Muder calls Consumer Hedonism, and they don't want it, at any cost. The Taliban is the cost, and they are willing to pay it to prevent their children from becoming shallow Consumers. Because they are more concerned about what they see as their spiritual lives than their material lives. (Of course, even there, the spiritual leaders often start collecting more of the material things.... and that's why it's so frightening. It is so corrosive.)
What the world needs is to find a way to inoculate people against Consumer Hedonism without oppressing them.

About power: I don't know any politicians closely, so I can't say, but the ordinary people I have run into who are what we call "power people" seem to need to control the world because they have issues about controlling themselves. They seem to be fearful, insecure people who can't relax and let the world just be.
And then there's sociopaths.... we discussed them before I think. the book I read about them says in the US they are one person in twenty five, or 4% of the population. That would seem to indicate we all know a few of them.

Bill Baar said...

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

-Lord Acton

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.

-Abraham Lincoln

About sums it up for me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Bill -- and as long as we are doing quotes:

Anyone who wants to be President, doesn't deserve it.

George Washington