July 22nd, 2012 § Leave a Comment
When I was a kid, I looked up to people in power. My mom and I would occasionally fantasize about my becoming president one day. “You see that man on the television screen? One day that could be you, and you can change the world. You’ll make it better,” she would say. “Wow – that guy must be pretty great,” I would think.
As an adult, I’ve almost lost all faith in anyone who gains a position of significant power. I’ve been jaded by humans and our hierarchical nature. It’s become evident that the people we allow to manage us are generally not those who possess greatest integrity, but those who are skilled manipulators. Lies and manipulation are often far more effective for gaining and maintaining power than manifesting integrity. And humans have been complaining about this for thousands of years.
Vincent Gray, mayor of Washington, D.C., provides a nice current example.
It often seems the higher you move up the power ladder (in any organization), the more you must be willing to play the game. Anyone who wishes to be president of the United States, or CEO of a major organization, or even principal of an elementary school is regularly put in positions in which they must sacrifice their moral integrity in the name of achieving the power they desire and of satisfying those who give them power.
It’s been reported that the rate of sociopathy is three times as high among CEOs as among the general population.
I used to think that so many people complained about horrible bosses because employees were probably lazy and didn’t like to work. But when I began to realize the trade-offs human sociology requires for power acquisition, I began to understand that widespread horrible boss complaints probably contain a good deal of legitimacy.
People who want power must regularly sacrifice their integrity. Depending on the hierarchy in which they exist, I’m sure it is more true for some than others.
This makes me wonder: what is the relationship between power and ethical behavior? Is it just by coincidence that actions required to gain and maintain power are often unethical – or is there a deeper explanation, one that gets at the very core of how we define ethical behavior?
Do we subconsciously identify behavior as unethical by evaluating the degree to which it empowers the individual? Are we ethically bound to act with humility, to behave indicative of our mortality, and to acknowledge that there are great limits in our humanity?
Are those who act unethically in order to achieve positions of prominence (by lying, cheating, stealing, killing, promoting things they disagree with) denying their limits in both large and small ways? Is it their willingness to this – to indulge in their own ego, to pretend to be something better, something more powerful, something less fallible than the rest of us – that strikes us as so offensive?
Is this one of the relationships among ethics and power?
January 7th, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Readers of last month’s Atlantic would have been hard-pressed to pass up Clare Morgana Gillis’s “What I Lost in Libya,” not least because of the photograph that was chosen to accompany it. Juxtaposed opposite the provocative title we see Gillis, bullet-proof vest and cigarette-ready with tanks in the background, looking across the Libyan desert as if danger was her middle name. One imagines the photographer saying, “Okay, let’s see that cigarette burn. Look awesome.” It’s all very natural.
Gillis, a former Harvard academic decided to reject the boredom of the ivory tower for an adventure. So she did what any of us would have done, no doubt. She flew to a dangerous civil war in a country whose language she does not speak and put herself on the front lines. Gillis has worked to bring the voices of everyday Libyans to The Atlantic‘s readers in brief here, here, and here. But this article seems the real headliner, the piece, one senses, Gillis had been waiting to write since she arrived in Libya. And it’s not the insightful coverage of the challenges of a long-oppressed people finally rising to fight one of the world’s most notorious dictators. The focus we crave, and the one she supplies, is of the hardships of her and her Western colleagues.
In 2008, The Hurt Locker capitalized on our collective empathy for those brave enough to expose themselves to the immense dangers that accompanied our occupation of Iraq. 2010′s Restrepo accomplished the same in Afghanistan. While undeniably powerful, these narratives allow us the privilege of keeping the overwhelming suffering of the significantly vaster number of people who have no choice but to live through terrible, ongoing injustice at bay. We fend their stories off from the far side of the world as they fight to get through, as if our own suffering, closer to home, is all our collective empathy has room for.
After reading Gillis’s the article in its entirety, one wonders exactly what it was she lost in Libya. The initial thought is her former colleague, South African photographer Anton Hammerl, who died covering the war. But having met Hammerl only a few days earlier, it would seem presumptuous for Gillis to imply that their relationship was so special as to refer to it endearingly as something she lost. No, upon reading the title, one assumes that what Gillis lost in Libya was something she’d had for quite some time. Humility? Perhaps not the humility that cautions one against the belief that marauding off to a foreign people’s land without their language is an ingredient in legitimate, informed journalism. But maybe the humility that might otherwise keep a Harvard PhD from plastering her cigarette-stained image and personal challenges in Libya over a people’s new history worth reading. It’s perhaps the last quality one might have expected Gillis to lose.