The Powers that be..

The last post about defining power came about while thinking about what drives the world’s elites, governments and authorities. We always claim money and power, and that the two are synonymous with each other.  There are too many maxims and proverbs to quote about the correlation between money/power and what is ‘evil’.

A few months back I attended a discussion by Dr Phil Zimbardo (Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University) in Dubai. Dr Zimbardo has received worldwide acclaim for his many groundbreaking if not somewhat controversial psychological experiments and theories.  He was a key witness and analyst of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. One of his theories is called ‘The Lucifer effect*’ in which he offers a psychological account of how seemingly ordinary or ’good’ people turn evil.  In 1971 he carried out a now notorious experiment called the Stanford Prison experiment**.  He put an ad in the local newspaper encouraging students to volunteer and participate.  After extensive tests and psychological analyses of each student, he then assigned some of the students to play the role of prison guards and the others the role of prisoners in a simulated prison.   In brief, his 2-week experiment was shut down after only 6 days due to the cruelty with which the ‘guards’ started to treat the ‘prisoners’.

Zimbardo’s experiment concluded that there were 3 types of guard.  One type that followed the rules of the prison, that was tough but fair.  The second type were the “good guys” who helped the prisoners and never punished them, and the third type who were hostile and unpredictable and ‘inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior.’

In an interview that followed the closure of the experiment, this third group of guards expressed their disappointment that the experiment was stopped prematurely.

So what exactly is it that drives apparently nice, good or intelligent people to be driven to such malicious behaviour.  Dr Zimbardo has a few ideas, and in a view that opposes Realist theory, is essentially an optimist or a rationalist.  His belief is that people are intrinsically good but are affected by different types of evil.  He categorizes these types of evil as dispositional (of character/personality), situational (such as in the prison experiment) and systemic (political, economic or cultural influences).

His idea that humans are inherently good opposes classical realist theory that states that people are selfish by nature and driven to compete with others for domination and self-advantage.  This has been shown in countless events in history and is ever-present in current-day global politics. Realists often question letting ethics or morals get in the way of their decision or foreign-policy making to a point where they often disregard moral norms.

Foreign policy is not social work.’ (Krauthammer, 1993)

This can clearly be illustrated in the countless violations of numerous pacts and treaties throughout history such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact which was violated by the commencement of World War II, and Article 2 (4) (7) of the UN Charter which outlawed humanitarian intervention until 1990 because it undermines the sovereignty of the state, which is the basis of humanitarian law, which is again being violated as we speak in Libya.

“I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.


But if the concept of power itself is evil and it’s in human nature to be selfish, especially once we have power to wield, then can there be such a thing as a power that is moral and good?

Realists such as Machiavelli argued that the principles of morals, ethics and piety were positively harmful if adhered to by state leaders.  It was considered imperative that state leaders learned a different kind of morality, which accorded not to traditional Christian virtues but to political necessity and prudence. (Tim Dunne/Brian C . Schmidt The Globalization of World Politics)

Which leads me to wonder exactly what is that ‘different kind of morality’ that Machiavelli advises state leaders to adhere to.  As seen in the Stanford Prison experiment, it seems as though the lust for and gain of power can create evil in what might have previously been an essentially good human nature.  Therefore, if absolute power and gain is the essence of global politics, the most powerful ruler in the world and any state, institution or organization that attempts to gain control or domination of the world, must also be essentially evil.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton, 1887


References and quotes:

* Stanford Prison Experiment,

** The Lucifer Effect


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