The ethics of power

A good leader gets good followers, and a susceptible leader gets susceptible followers. We get the leadership we deserve. A manipulative follower intensifies a leader’s vulnerability. A good follower tells palatable as well as bitter truths to the leader candidly and sensitively. A political brain is an emotional brain. If that is true, can heredity and caste be neglected in electoral battles?

Freedom is associated with responsibility. More the freedom one enjoys, the greater the responsibility one should bear. Freedom is needed to grow, but it may cause an increase in social disorder. Responsibility tends to decrease this disorder, and this is essential for maintaining stability in society. Responsibility is not a ‘detachable burden’, nor should it be used in popularity contests. The responsibilities of the winners and the losers do not end with the end of the electoral battle. Responsibility starts the day the battle is over or taken up. Often, a person is assigned or takes up responsibilities disproportionate to his capabilities. There is a need to restrain this enthusiasm while accepting responsibilities. In matters related to public issues, more than vigilance, courage is needed.

While rights of choice relate more to freedom, obligations are associated with responsibility. If we have the right to freedom, we must respect others’ freedom. If we have the right to security, we must feel obliged to create conditions for every human being to enjoy that security. If we have the right to be educated, we must learn as much as our capabilities allow us to, and wherever possible, share our knowledge with others. If we have the right to participate in our country’s political process and elect our leaders, we also must ensure that the best leaders are elected.

Choosing the right leader is our collective responsibility. It is our responsibility to monitor the conduct and commitment of our leaders. One of the big problems we face is collective blindness. Jose Saramago writes, “I don’t think we go blind, I think we are blind, blind, but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see.” Our leaders may have the freedom to act the way they choose to meet their ends, but it is our responsibility to remind them that we are neither invisible, even if they refuse to see us, nor can we be made invisible, even if they turn a blind eye to us. Let the power not blind our leaders.

Power generally is seen as evil or unjust, but it is not always the case. The influence of the powerful can have positive connotations. Michel Foucault’s concept of power involves both constraint and enablement. The powerful have a better chance of controlling their environment. Those who possess real power understand that responsibility is not a burden. They value restraint. We know that the opinion of the powerful authority matters. We expect them to be vigilant, prudent, and courageous when confronted with these issues. The powerful can’t afford or pretend to be sleeping when the time comes for action. We, the people, can’t afford the luxury of such pretentious sleepers in responsible positions.

Psychologists say power makes one less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. Studies indicate that people in positions of authority rely more on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. Often, the sense of power makes it easier for them to rationalize ethical lapses. Often the powerful become so powerful that they begin to think that they only have the right to go wrong. They think that the rules are made only for the commoners and not the privileged ones. They take it as an offense when treated as common people. They need to understand that the power they are given is to empower and not to intimidate.

We live in a world where we need to have a large amount of optimism. We want to live productive, effective, and meaningful lives. We want to live in a far more peaceful, stable, secure, and loving environment. We aspire to live in a perfect world. But we are afraid to be perfect. Is it enough to blame our public figures for all our ills? Why shouldn’t we value civility?

Civility means to be proper. It enables us to see ‘what is right’. We like to follow standard civil behavior because it helps to build community. As civility honors diversity and accepts different perspectives, it offers an opportunity to open an active communication between people in an age of diversity, change, and difference. We expect the virtues of civility to be present in our citizens and more so in our ‘first citizens’.

It is possible to remain civil even in the me-first world. Our world might have begun with ‘me’, but it need not end there. “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” Civility is collective self-consciousness. If we recognize the concept of collective, we automatically value the concepts of diversity and difference. Diversity is a powerful adversary of civility. We can’t overlook the role of leadership in maintaining civility. Uncivil behavior can be quite disturbing and depressing. Unfortunately, incivility prevails the most at those places that are supposedly the guardians of civility. It is our responsibility to see that our leaders don’t get enough opportunities to manipulate us.

It feels good to believe that the majority of the people are good and want to do the right things. It gives a good feeling to think that in a democratic setup, disagreement is not always bad, and every opponent is not always spiteful. The winners win because they can instill hope in people. Hope is both emotion and illusion; reasonable hope is constructive, unreasonable hope is destructive. We commonly observe sharp differences in the ideologies of the winner and the loser. This clash of ideologies results in animosity and acrimonious debates between them. Can’t we all disagree more constructively? Getting along despite differences is difficult. The compatibility between two temperamentally different personalities is difficult, if not impossible. Our morality binds and blinds us. Our morality binds us to our group’s ideologies. The winners are in a very precarious situation when there is no opposition for them. Ayn Rand described the predicament: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” If the winner must lead, he must also follow.