Power and Corruption: Just What Is Their Relationship?


Richard Moore


I don't very often come across a philosophical thesis that I fully 
agree with. The one below, however, is not only 'spot on' in my view, 
but it is quite relevant to the dialog we have been having about 
human nature, spiritual awakening, and cultural transformation. I'll 
give you the article now, and my own comments follow.

By the way, I'm saving up the many comments you have sent in, and we 
will get around to them soon I promise.




December 11, 2007
Power and Corruption: Just What Is Their Relationship?
By Andrew Bard Schmookler
The idea that power and corruption stand in some meaningful 
relationship was encapsulated and as if carved into stone by Lord 
Acton, when he famously said: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute 
power corrupts absolutely."

But I'm not sure that this statement, however famous it may be, 
captures the essential truth about the relationship. Or at least, 
that it captures all that is essential about the truth of how power 
and corruption are connected.

In saying that power tends to corrupt, Lord Acton appears to be 
saying that if one adds power to a person's pre-existing character, 
that character gets changed for the worse. This is how people almost 
always use Acton's famous dictim, and I think it is only a limited 
part of the picture.

Another part of the picture is suggested by the statement from the 
author David Brin:

It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that 
power attracts the corruptible."

According to this view, if we see a great deal of corruption in the 
arena of power --and regrettably we surely do-- it is because the 
kinds of people who choose to participate in power's games are a 
non-random and morally sub-par group.

This view has a good deal of truth to it, methinks. Power is indeed 
an arena in which a zero-sum game is enacted, and it therefore 
attracts a disproportionate number of those who want more than their 
fair share.

It would be comforting to think that the extent of corruption one 
sees in the sphere of power were solely a reflection of this process 
of selection and self-selection that brings the corrupt forward to 
fill powerful positions. If prison guards tend toward the sadistic, 
one might conclude, it is because the role of prison guard is likely 
to be sought by people who wish to fill a role in which their sadism 
can express itself.

But then there's that famous Stanford study in which students were 
randomly divided into guards and prisoners for the sake of an 
experiment, and in which the guards began rather quickly to manifest 
sadistic behaviors toward the prisoners, who as a group were 
indistinguishable from themselves just a few days before.

These "guards" were not an especially "corruptible" group who, 
because of their tendencies, were attracted to that powerful role.

I'm inclined to regard power less as a transformer of people's 
character, as Acton asserts, than as source of opportunity: the 
possession of power permits people to make manifest a part of their 
nature that previously was hidden. Not that power corrupts. Rather, 
power gives people a chance to express impulses that others --those 
who are weak, and thus subject to the will of others, and those who 
act among equals who require them to stay within certain boundaries-- 
keep a lid on.

This is a darker view than Lord Acton's. And darker also than Brin's. 
For it declares that there is corruption already embedded in the 
character of a great many people, and that giving such people the 
wider scope of action that comes with power simply serves as an 
invitation to put forth into the world the darkness that is already 

And then, as people are also shaped by the actions they have taken, 
Lord Acton's dictim comes in again: having enacted their worst 
impulses, people are also transformed into something more corrupt 
than they had been. Were those Stanford students undiminished by what 
they had done? Were Hitler's Willing Executioners not degraded by 
their crimes? Power, by enabling corrupt actions, does corrupt.

Note, however, that I am NOT maintaining that such corruption is 
universal. Not ALL the prison guards in the Stanford experiment 
became sadistic. And not ALL the people who gain power in our world 
use it for corrupt purposes. Some rulers have used their power 
justly, for the good, without abuse, without corrupt and self-serving 

But there's a final point to be made-- a point of a wholly different 
sort: when someone in power participates in corruption, it is not 
necessarily a sign of corruption of character.

Imagine a person in a position of power who has reliable access to 
divine guidance. And suppose that the nature of this divine guidance 
is reliably moral in a consequentialist sense of the word. In other 
words, the guidance tells this powerful person which action among 
those available will do the most to make the world a better place. 
And imagine, finally, that this person invariably follows that 
moral/consequentialist counsel.

This thoroughly uncorrupted person in power, I am asserting, will 
often be guided to choose a course of action that involves him in 
corruption. [Note: as I speak of "he" and "him" I wish those pronouns 
to be understood as also including "she" and "her."]

If our hypothetical powerful and uncorrupt person possessed COMPLETE 
power, this would not be the case. He could simply decide always and 
only for the good, and so it would be. But in the actual world, no 
one's power is ever so total as that. And therefore, to to accomplish 
good, he will need to make common cause with others.

If he were in an ideal world, making common cause with others in 
order to achieve the good would not require our sterling leader to 
become complicit in corruption. But the real world in which he must 
operate is far from ideal. And among the others with whom he must 
make common cause there will be some who are corrupt.

A prototypical instance of this is the need, in World War II, for the 
democracies to make alliance with Stalin, a tyrant on whose hands was 
already the blood of many millions of his own (Soviet) people before 
the war had even begun. Another instance is how the creators of the 
New Deal required as allies the segregationist powers of the Jim Crow 

Such instances could be multiplied almost endlessly.

This is always one of the consequences of choosing to operate in the 
realm of power-- at least for those who are willing to accept that 
part of the responsibility that comes with power is the duty to 
achieve as much good as possible for the world, even though 
accomplishing that means inevitably that one must get one's "hands 

This, incidentally, presents one of the greatest challenges facing 
citizens in their search for good leaders: how to differentiate 
between those who indulge in corruption because that suits their 
purposes, and those who participate in corruption as the necessary 
means of accomplishing truly good purposes.

So we have a fourth dimension of the relationship between power and 
corruption. Lord Acton is probably right that power tends to corrupt, 
and Brin right that power attracts the corruptible (and the corrupt). 
And power also affords people the opportunity to show the corrupt 
tendencies they'd previously kept hidden.

And finally, participation in power also requires even the uncorrupt 
to participate in the corruption of the world.

Authors Website: http://nonesoblind.org/

Authors Bio: Andrew Bard Schmookler's website www.nonesoblind.org is 
devoted to understanding the roots of America's present moral crisis 
and the means by which the urgent challenge of this dangerous moment 
can be met. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of such books as The 
Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY 
Press) and Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's 
Moral Divide (M.I.T. Press). He also conducts regular talk-radio 
conversations in both red and blue states.

rkm comments continuing>

Schmookler concludes from his analysis that we need to exercise great 
care in choosing our leaders. In this sense, Schmookler remains 
entirely 'inside the box' as regards cultural or spiritual 
transformation. His suggestions might help to 'improve voter 
judgement',  but not enough, under our current circumstances, to make 
any real difference. I'd like to summarize his excellent analysis, 
and then take it in a different direction.

What he is telling us is that power corrupts everyone, but for 
different reasons. Nearly everyone has an inherent 'dark side'. If 
it's an overt dark side, then the person actually seeks power so that 
he can 'do more evil'. If it's a latent dark side, then the darkness 
gets amplified in any position of power, leading again to 'active 
evil'. Even those very few who have no dark side, if in a position of 
power, end up participating in 'evil', passively we might say, in 
order to 'get anything done' in working with other more typical 
(actively evil) power holders. This is something I've believed for 
some time, but was never able to express so clearly.

To begin, let us note that our modern cultures are permeated, from 
top to bottom, with positions of power. That is how our societies 
operates; that is our culture's 'philosophy of organization' . Every 
institution, every corporation, every government agency at every 
level -- and even many of the clubs and organizations we might join 
-- all of these function under the direction of power holders, who 
while in power typically make their decisions according to their own 
judgement. In light of Schmookler's analysis -- power brings out 'the 
dark side' -- this means that our society operates at every level 
under the corrupting influence of the dark side.

So what can we do about this? What can we do to tame the dark side? 
If we don't do something, the dark side is going to continue leading 
us toward global disasters of many kinds.

We have heard from many voices, in our recent dialog, that the only 
path to salvation is spiritual transformation, which in our current 
context means 'eliminating the dark side from human nature'. Is this 
a realistic path to pursue? Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther 
King, and many other great souls have tried, given it their all, and 
here we are nonetheless in our current crisis. Are we better than 
those great souls?  Are we more likely to succeed? Does a knowledge 
of 'spiral dynamics' better equip us? Does assigning a color to 
higher consciousness empower us to change human nature?

I cannot help but be highly skeptical of this approach. I cannot help 
but see it as wishful thinking, arising out of the desperation of our 
times, and the frustration of not being able to think of anything 
practical we can do to fix things. I see it as an example of the 
'foxhole syndrome' -- "There are no atheists in a foxhole". That is 
to say, if shells are exploding all around you, you remember your 
childhood bible lessons and turn to prayer, there being no other 
hope. And that's exactly our situation as citizens. Crises are 
exploding all around us, local ones and global ones, and we are as 
helpless and vulnerable as the soldier in the foxhole. It is 
understandable that we turn to wishful thinking, but 'changing human 
nature' is only wishful thinking nonetheless, in my view.

Of course any agenda aiming at social transformation can be 
characterized as being at least partly wishful thinking. My own 
agenda, about community harmonization, is admittedly a long shot. And 
I probably wouldn't have pursued that line of thinking if I weren't 
also in a foxhole. There may turn out to be no way to overcome the 
power of today's all-powerful elites. We may in fact be doomed. 
Nonetheless, we have no choice but to pursue hope, no matter how dim 
it may shine. But we do have the ability to employ reasoning, and 
historical observation, in deciding where to place our hope.

If we could eliminate the dark side from human nature that would be 
wonderful. And similarly, if we could eliminate positions of power 
from our cultures, that would be wonderful as well. In either case, 
we would have a realistic hope of freeing our societies from 
domination by the dark side. In the first case we would eliminate the 
dark side itself. In the second case, we don't give the dark side a 
vehicle of expression: the 'overtly dark' can cause trouble only for 
their family and immediate neighbors; the 'latently dark' aren't put 
in a position where their dark side comes out, and those without a 
dark side aren't put in a position where they must compromise with 

So which is a more feasible quest, changing human nature or changing 
our cultures? Both are admittedly very tall orders, but is one more 
feasible than the other? Is it possible that one is like migrating to 
Mars, while the other is merely like climbing Everest? If so, then 
we'd be smarter to attempt Everest than to attempt migration to Mars. 
It is worth our time to apply a little reasoning and historical 
observation to these questions and distinctions.

The fact is that there has never been a time or place in the long 
history of homo sapiens where people have not had a dark side, or 
where human nature has been different than it is now. Human nature, 
for better of for worse, seems to be genetic. There have always been 
a few 'enlightened ones', as there still are today, but most of the 
people in every society, primitive or modern, large or small, have 
always had a dark side. From an historical perspective then, the 
quest of 'changing human nature' can only be seen as an attempt to 
migrate to Mars, something that has never been done in all of human 
experience and something that we don't even know is possible -- and 
all the available evidence indicates that it is not possible.

On the other hand, history shows us thousands of societies where the 
dark side did not dominate, where there were no positions of 'power 
over others'. For hundreds of thousands of years, in fact, that was 
the only kind of society there was, and even today many such 
societies still exist, albeit in remote areas that are blessed with 
an absence of marketable resources. It seems clear to me that 
changing our cultures falls into the 'climbing Everest' category. The 
kind of cultures we need have existed before, and they are consistent 
with human nature as it is. Although still formidable, I suggest that 
'cultural transformation' is the more feasible of the two quests. I'm 
not suggesting, by the way, that we become hunter-gatherers. That 
would be idiotic. I am suggesting that those societies can provide 
insight into 'models of governance' that we might be able to adapt to 
modern circumstances.

History also shows us that cultures can be transformed by means of 
grassroots movements, and in many cases the transformation has come 
rapidly, and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The 
British never thought the American Colonists would be able to throw 
off the royal yoke, and yet it was accomplished in only seven years 
or so by rabble guerillas, leading to a more participatory culture 
instead of an 'absolute ruler' culture. Marie Antoinette never 
dreamed the Bastille would fall, and that the people of France would 
create their own new culture (such as it is). Most of us never 
dreamed the Soviet Union would collapse, and certainly not so 
rapidly. Cultural change does happen through grassroots action, and 
it can happen in extremely hostile circumstances. Our problem, 
historically, is that we have not changed our cultures in the right 
ways. We've demonstrated that we-the-people can make changes, but we 
haven't yet learned how to do so in a way that eliminates positions 
of 'power over others'.

The fact that we exist in a 'foxhole mentality' -- ie, in the midst 
of global crises beyond our control -- means that energy is available 
for grassroots action, if a path of hope can be found. That same 
foxhole mentality, however, is not particularly conducive to the 
achievement of enlightenment. Fear generally leads to a contraction 
of consciousness rather than an expansion of consciousness. So for 
yet another reason, it seems that 'changing human nature' is our less 
feasible option.

As I see it then, based not just on opinion or sentiment but on 
reasoned analysis, is that our best hope lies in trying to figure out 
how we can transform our cultures -- through grassroots initiatives 
-- in a way that can eliminate positions of 'power over others'. In 
other words -- can we learn how to govern ourselves collectively? Can 
we find a way for our societal policies to emerge as a consensus out 
of our 'collective considerations', rather than having our policies 
determined by some set of power holders, who inevitably must be 
corrupted by their overt or latent dark sides?

In recent postings I have outlined in some detail how we might pursue 
such a path of cultural transformation. That particular path is not 
one I discovered myself, but one that folks like Jim Rough, Tom 
Atlee, and many others have been exploring on behalf of all of us. 
Those are people who have been touched by a bit of spiritual 
enlightenment, and I think it is in that way that enlightenment CAN 
be part of the solution -- we can pay attention to those who have the 
capacity to show us the way.

in hope,


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