I’ve spoken before about how power enters into considerations of morality- from fiduciary responsibilities, to responsibilities we have as carers and parents, to how power means that certain relationships are barred to us if we want to behave in ethical ways.
Today, I want to examine some reasons we have for this, essentially why we believe that “with great power comes great responsibility”, and how we can be sure to discharge those responsibilities and not abuse our power in various everyday scenarios.
What is Power Actually About?
Well, in it’s most basic sense, power is the ability to affect things in the world. This can be anything from physical power, to social power or status, to capital power.
We can see this in the examples I gave above- adults have all of these kinds of power in greater quantities than children, and the same goes for most carers. Relationships with power differentials are not usually acceptable because of this imbalance, although usually that has more to do with social power and status.
The opposite of power is powerlessness, and similarly, it comes in degrees and types. A person may be powerful in one sphere but not in another.
Further still, people may acquire power in different ways. For example, when you get into a car you are acquiring the power to go places very fast, and also the power to wreck great destruction if you so choose if you were to start running people over. This, much to driver’s chagrin, is one of the reasons that motorist laws are so important and why cars should not be privileged further with them– they’re already the biggest baddest boy on the block.
In this way, power conferring responsibility makes sense- if you have the power to affect the world, that means that you have the greatest means to do so. It just makes sense on an intuitive level. You can donate more money if you’re not worried about feeding or housing your family. If you have strength you can defend those who don’t. It’s built into our basic and historical understandings of chivalry, and works with common understandings of duties like in the drowning child example.
But there’s a flip side to it at well.
Powerlessness and Vulnerability
Another way to understand powerlessness is through the lens of Vulnerability.
Vulnerability itself can be understood many ways, but the most simplistic explanation is that being vulnerable means you are “at increased risk of harm,” or you have a decreased capacity to protect yourself from harm. We are all vulnerable to varying degrees, just as we all have power to varying degrees.
What is important is what our level of relative vulnerability says about ethics, and in particular, about how powerful individuals and systems should treat those with less power and with more vulnerability.
Dan Brock argues that since those who are most vulnerable have the most to gain from various interventions and actions that might make them less vulnerable, it makes sense that we would have the most duties to help them.
This is interesting because although it’s an argument about who has to do what for whom, it uses a very Utilitarian kind of reasoning. We should help those most vulnerable because it will create the biggest impact or change in circumstance and therefore create the most happiness.
If we come back to the car example, we can see this really clearly. Pedestrians are obviously the most vulnerable. If they get hit by a car, that makes a huge negative impact on their lives, as they are likely to suffer serious injury or death. This is a huge disutility for them and the people that they have in their lives. Conversely, laws that restrict motorist speeds or even bar them from some places are an impact to their speed and mobility, and may be genuinely annoying and make their life go worse, but it’s never going to make their life go as much worse as a serious injury or death would. Therefore, its on motorists to change their behavior in favor of pedestrians because that will have the biggest impact.
Another reason that we have duties to those who are most vulnerable is because in many cases, there is a reason that they are vulnerable. This doesn’t apply in all cases, but it’s still worth noting. For example, Pedestrians would not be vulnerable if it weren’t for cars in their spaces. Similarly, Homelessness would not confer extra vulnerability if we had a program to provide housing to all individuals. Many types of vulnerability are created through artificial structures, and so we have a duty to correct what we have imposed and equalize the playing field again. This is simply a type of justice, and if we are to hold justice as a principle at which to aim, correcting vulnerability by exercising our power is simply what is owed to those we have wronged by creating a system in which they are put at additional risk.
The first step to using one’s power is of course, recognizing it, and as I said before, people can be powerful and vulnerable at the same time. People can be oppressors and oppressed. These things are messy.
But still, think about how your actions might put others at risk. Think about who may be at risk.
And, when you can, go out there and use your power for those who don’t have it, Spiderman.