Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Yesterday I observed that sometimes an inaccurate sense of modesty can lead a powerful person to underestimate the extent to which he intimidates others. I focused particularly on the fact that moral and social conditioning trains us to downplay our accomplishments, the extent of our influence on others, and our fearsomeness in their eyes. It is considered far more virtuous to underestimate the reach of our power than to overestimate it. The most virtuous person is often believed to be the one who desires to do good things for their own sake without the slightest motivation or care for being better than anyone else. To spend much time thinking about how much better than others one is (or, worse, talking about it!) is feared as a sign of selfishness and vanity. Thinking oneself lower than one actually is is even seen as praiseworthily modest or, even better, “humble”. This is not my own definition of humility (that’s here), but it’s one of the ways the virtue of humility is usually (and I think wrongly) understood. In my post yesterday I warned that when we underestimate our actual power like that, we may not take adequate precautions to use our power carefully enough such that it does not hurt others. If from insecurity or false modesty we tell ourselves, “I am myself so intimidated or so modest that I could not possibly be intimidating to others” we unhelpfully avoid confronting and correcting the ways in which we counter-productively make others anxious.

In response to these observations and suggestions, commenters raised several excellent issues. And more issues came to me as I reflected on what I had written. In this post I want to overview issues of the value of power and fear in human interactions.

Power is a good thing.

I am unusual among ethicists in that I think power is the highest good we should strive for in life. I think there is nothing better for us than to be as excellent in our powers as possible and I even think this is an ethical imperative. Most people, and colloquial language, primarily associate power with the crude domination of others and all the unethical things people have historically done acquiring and exploiting such leverage over people. I think that is all corruption of the drive for power, not fulfillment of true power.

True power, as I understand it, is creative power. The ability to be something excellent and to generate excellence in people, things, institutions, etc., as the effective realization and expression of that internal excellence. The powerful ruler is not the one who can destroy her people but the one who can empower them so that their power is amplified and becomes an extension of her own. It obviously takes more power to invent something effective than simply to break things. It takes far more power of human intelligence and emotional skill to teach and empower a fellow human being than it takes to discourage or to murder one. And when you empower others by teaching them or by creating the technology they use or by solving the logistical challenges that stand in the way of their thriving, or by mobilizing and leading great masses of people to do great things, you can take legitimate pride that you have part ownership in their accomplishments. Your power goes on through their power and their successes are in at least some small part also your successes. In this way we amplify our power the most by how we empower others outside ourselves. And, on the flip side, the excellence that we stop from coming to fruition in the world is a negative mark on our own ledger, as far as I am concerned. If I fail at something, that’s my loss, my power failure, because something that could have been good failed to be realized and it’s my fault. Well if I go around causing others to fail, then that’s all the more good that I’m responsible for sabotaging and all the more that I am not a creator of power but its stifler. That is a degree of power to be sure, but one which yields a net negative of objectively powerful, objectively creative power and goodness in the world.

So, in brief, we should be as powerful as possible. And the way to really amplify our power the most is to create good things which create further good. And this means helping build up people and institutions and ideas and practices and technology, etc. that further and further amplify the good in the world. (More on power is in the comments section.)

Fear is good. 

We evolved fear for good reason. It motivates us to avoid harm. And around people of admirable power and accomplishments, we rightly fear the harm of their disapproval. It is good that there are people in the world worth fearing. This can be healthy insofar as it helps motivate us to strive to earn their approval by living up to their superlative standards. If this helps motivate us to care about being the most powerful and creatively successful we can be, then that is fantastic. Powerful people can be inspiring to us. I couldn’t imagine a more exciting life than one in which everyday my job meant meeting with people of elite intimidating skills, personal charisma, and public influence. Such people would be fearsome and make me nervous—in the most exciting ways. We should not wish a world where no one was worth being feared. The dream rather should be a world in which every one has the opportunity to become scary good at at least something.

The downside of fear.

Sometimes our emotions are not precisely enough calibrated. Sometimes, we get overwhelmed to the point of discouragement by an emotion that ideally should serve to motivate us. When someone is better than us in any of a number of ways (and especially in ways we care about being good), it is often hard, for many of us, to avoid focusing on our comparative inadequacies. So even those without formal power can be intimidating. Someone who is outgoing and comfortable opening up to strangers can unnerve a shy person with their unabashed invitation to social interaction. The physically bigger can make the smaller feel small. The stronger make the weak aware of their weakness. The beautiful make those who are insecure about their appearance feel ugly. The more educated make the less educated feel dumb. In the presence of the wealthy, the poor feel poorer. Members of socially privileged groups always risk being threats to members of historically disempowered groups.

And when there is a formal power-differential, being around the more powerful person makes the less powerful fear not just that they will fail at achieving some intrinsic good they are aiming for but also fear for their place in the social ladder and fears for their very livelihood, etc. Those who are intimidated risk psyching out and performing worse than they otherwise could. In extreme cases they may be prone towards feelings of ressentiment which could lead them to hate and disparage the sorts of good things they do not have out of an unhealthy destructive feeling of jealousy. It is good to envy, in the sense of admiring and emulating someone who is excellent. It is dangerous to become jealous, in the sense of resenting the excellences of others simply on account of how they make you feel bad about your own comparative paltriness. Of course, not everyone who has more of a good than you do has it rightfully or due to admirable reasons. Not all resentment is jealousy. Some of it is motivated by just feelings about fairness, etc. But that’s not jealousy in that case.

How to be gracious. 

As I argued earlier, we should want to be powerful people. And being the most powerful, the most effectual, means empowering others. That means helping their endeavors to be powerful so we can take pride in contributing to greater accomplishments of power than any of us can achieve on our own. This happens in a lot of impersonal ways. Writing blog posts like these are one of the ways I hope to contribute something positive and constructive and empowering to people’s lives. But being a writer does not require people skills necessarily (or directly). Sanitation workers make it so that people don’t get sick and can work and live in clean and comfortable environments, and so contribute to all of our powerful endeavors in that indispensable way. But that task does not primarily involve people skills either. Neither does being a computer programmer or an airplane pilot or a landscaper or any of a number of tasks by which we all help to power each other’s efforts.

But personal relationships and service jobs do require people skills in order for us to be excellent at them. And most jobs require working with other people either as supervisors, subordinates, or colleagues. And I think that being an excellent person means not just empowering at and through our “jobs” but through every human interaction we have the energy and wherewithal to meaningfully interact within, without taking away from more urgent and primary priorities.

So, we should be thinking about the power dynamics in our personal relationships and how to make them as productive and empowering as possible. We should be thinking about the power dynamics with colleagues, subordinates, and supervisors, and asking, “how can I contribute to making everyone around me a more powerful person for having interacted with me?” If we are teachers we should be asking what it takes to maximally empower our students, even if that means paying attention not just to their academic skills but their optimal emotional functioning. Students should fear us professors and teachers because we’re so damned smart and capable and well educated, and because we hold them to rigorous achievable standards that require them to develop their abilities as much as they can, and because we are willing to enforce consequences if they cheat or fail to learn. But that should be the end of their fears. They shouldn’t fear that if they make mistakes we will laugh obnoxiously, treat them like they’re stupid, or otherwise belittle them. They shouldn’t fear that we will look down on them as our inferiors in any way. They should feel like we see them as capable of being our equals if they only have the right training over the right amount of time.

This gets me to one of the key points about how to make people whom you intimidate comfortable. Equalize things in realistic, emotionally resonant ways. So you’re better than this person at something. Congratulations. This person who sucks at what you’re great at is in all likelihood at least pretty damned good, if not great, at something else. Remind them of that by just sometimes changing the topic to what they’re proud of and taking an interest in it.

Remind them if their skills are like yours but they are way behind you that they have the potential to be where you are. Accentuate the ways that it is just a matter of age or experience or other mutable factors that stand between you and them. Acknowledge the true existence of luck and circumstance and the ways they at least partially account for the differences between you. When they screw up, assume that their internal critic is hard enough on them already, and focus instead on finding what is good in what they were trying to do and showing them what that is and how to develop it. If someone is over-confident and doesn’t see their mistakes, pop their balloon as necessary. But once you’ve done that, don’t let them get discouraged either. There too find the positive and give them hope for how to move forward that way.

One of the things I’m proudest of in my teaching is the way that I can sometimes help my students develop the most inchoately realized ideas into something valuable. They often feel completely freed to brainstorm and struggle for the words and concepts out loud. They sometimes even say, “this is probably not going to come out right but…” or “I’m not sure if this makes any sense but…” and then they try anyway. And instead of focusing on all that is imprecise or confused and trying to show off my ability to cut them down, I instead concentrate on really listening for what good idea is buried in there. Often it’s a really good idea, if I really pay attention to them hard enough and think about what they are trying to say seriously as I would someone I considered a philosophical equal. That’s my skill. That’s my power, to help the students birth their ideas and then test them. And I do it by treating them like they have ideas which are worth exploring.

When my students say to me, “You are able to say what I am trying to say” is when I’m proudest because that’s when I have helped them express themselves and reassured them that their ideas do have potential and that they have philosophical potential. And that’s why they usually talk freely in class and disagree with me freely. Because I listen to them and take them seriously and concentrate not on whether they’re perfect as they are, but on how to help them perfect what is in their mind. It is all about being constructive and not worrying about failure but instead figuring out what it takes to have success. They know I am on their side. And when they have good ideas, I make a point of saying so. Often more than once. And often by effectively stopping class for a second to make the reiteration so as to stress its sincerity and the fact they should be proud of it.

I’m not saying that I am by any means perfect at this in every sphere of life. It’s easier for me in the classroom because I feel powerful and in control and my primary focus is on serving the people in front of me, so I am not at all self-conscious. But that sort of empowerment-first attitude is probably the secret to dealing with everyone around us, even when we feel more constrained. Most of the time we are so worried about how we appear to others that we focus on the ways we can come off as objectively impressive and powerful. But the people we talk to, it’s safe to assume, are equally primarily focused more on themselves and how they are projecting themselves, than they are on us. What we often register most strongly about being around other people amidst all our self-consciousness is ultimately whether when all was said and done we liked being around that other person. The ways that they are objectively excellent or unimpressive, that all usually speaks for itself and is hard to fake and is what we think about when we consider them in the abstract. But face to face the focus shifts to whether being around them is a positive or a negative for us. We’re worried about what we’re projecting but they’re worried about what they’re feeling and how they look. So if you want to seem powerful and impressive to people, demonstrate the power to make them feel good—not through cheap flattery, but through a real ability to make them discover something about their own abilities and they’ll remember you fondly as an impressive person.

So in our minds we should not worry as much as we do about whether we are adequately projecting our own awesomeness if we want people to like us. We should probably put much more effort into thinking about how to make them feel good about themselves. When we don’t make them feel good about themselves, they register our power negatively (or at least as only a qualified good). When we do make them feel good about themselves, then they like being around us and they view our power positively and appreciate that someone like us has power.

Of course we should not make people like us at the expense of maintaining principles and standards of quality and rigor. I think also neither should we be falsely modest. We should aim the best we can to be as excellent as we can be. We should want to be so excellent that we are actually worthy of admiration. We should aspire to be fearsome. And then when people approach us with fear and admiration, we should use all that capital we have built up with them to their advantage and empower them. They will leave loving us all the more and we will be all the more powerful through all the good they do.

And if we intimidate people because they fail at being morally good, then that’s morally okay. If there are those who simply cannot be empowered but need to be let go and our fearsome standards make that clear, then we should graciously handle that. There are times bad news is unavoidable and we have to risk being unloved for the sake of overriding goods. But we should not be intimidating simply because we are selfish, insecure, or trying to horde our power or are indifferent to others’ optimal thriving. That’s not even in our own best interests.

Your Thoughts?

 

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

  • Enkidum

    I apologize for this being a little tangential, but I think the tangent ends up looping back towards the main points of this article

    I think Hobbes has the clearest definition of power, he says something like it is the ability to do what one desires. If we cannot make some state of affairs turn out the way we want, we do not have power over that state, and if we can, we do have power.

    So I have the power to choose what I want for lunch, the power to take a trip to China, the power to become physically stronger and healthier. I also have the power to eat nothing but junk food and to play video games all day. However playing games and eating junk food all day is an exercise of power that actually makes me less powerful, as it cuts off future potential exercises of power. It might prevent me from being able to improve my career situation, or from being fit enough to go on a hiking trip, or what have you.

    As far as interpersonal relationships go, I can definitely use my power to shut other people up – I’m a large, articulate, man. But in the long run, I think this is also something that largely closes off future opportunities. In the case of a student, as in the examples from Daniel’s post, shutting them down will actually change their development, in ways that will not only less interesting to be around, but ultimately perhaps even more confused thinkers and worse citizens. (I realize there are some dots that need connecting there, but I hope it’s reasonably comprehensible…)

    So even from a purely self-interested perspective, using my power in a coercive or dis-empowering manner can harm my future powers. Which is why the sorts of considerations that Daniel is talking about matter so much.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Enkidum. My conception of power is quite different. I don’t think of it narrowly in terms of fulfillment of desires. I think of it in terms of effective fulfillment of capacities. Keeping with my larger view that everything is a kind of effectiveness, I think the human being only effectively is the powers through which we are constituted. The human being is something which happens when various key human powers exist within a human body. Those powers are powers of reasoning, emoting, having aesthetic experiences, socially interacting with other humans and animals, physically interacting with the world in ways which involve various kinds of strength and coordination, technologically transforming the world, sexually engaging with other people, creating artistically, etc.

      Such powers of comprehension and creation are constitutive of being at all for us. All that irreversibly goes and we are essentially just “vegetables” who can be considered good as dead even if capable of staying alive on machines.

      So those are not only powers we have but they are powers we are. They are not means to satisfying desires, they are us ourselves at our most essential and definitive core. Failing to develop them is failing to realize our very selves. Every other desire is secondary to that. Or, more accurately, every other desire gains its ultimate importance and genuine value (if it has any) from its contribution to our total functioning in total power.

      We are the end ourselves. What we desire are means to the end of our own excellent functioning according to the powers that we are.

      And since most of our powers are most powerful not just as well-developed capabilities within ourselves but as effective through their influences beyond our internal life, our ultimate power is how we “power” good things, people, institutions, etc., beyond ourselves and are, through that, powerful outside of ourselves and beyond ourselves.

    • Enkidum

      I’m sure you have an account of this, but just from your response it’s hard for me to draw a direct line between what you’re saying about power and the idea that power has to involve doing or affecting something in a particular manner. That is, “power” for me has to involve some notion of changing states of affairs in a goal-directed way. (Otherwise it just seems to be too contrary to the way the word is normally used.)

      I think I’d be happy (although I’d have to think about it some more) with the notion that in some sense we are our powers. Our potentiality to affect the world around us is in large part (maybe even entirely) constitutive of us as humans.

      In empowering others, we give them the means to affect the world for their own goals. While I agree that this is generally a good thing, I tend to justify it from a more self-interested perspective than you seem to be comfortable with. But I think ultimately the two lines of thought are compatible – it’s just you seem to start from the idea that more individuals having more power is intrinsically good, whereas I have to do a bit more fancy dancing to get to that point. Hence the attempt to connect my empowering another person to that person becoming a better citizen, thus leading to a society I want to live in, etc. Perhaps I don’t need to go down that route, however, if I can accept other peoples’ power as a direct extension of my own, which I believe is what you’re aiming at.

  • Evan Guiney

    Glad to have you back making meaty philosophical posts!

    I just want to echo you a little- I think empowerment is a deeply important value and I wish it got talked about more, so I’d like to leave a couple tangential thoughts.

    One thing that’s frustrating politically is the seeming absence of well articulated progressive values; in fact it often seems as if merely speaking of ‘values’ in a political context is inherently conservative. But empowerment is a progressive value par excellence: it structures a lot of the concrete things modern liberals are committed to (progressive taxes, healthcare, gay marriage), and I’d argue its right there (camouflaged) in the Declaration as ‘the pursuit of happiness’.

    Another is that in my personal arrival as an atheist was motivated… almost entirely… Nietzsche’s engagement with empowerment. I came from a wishy washy Episcopalian family, the kind that finds vague compatibility between a deistic god and science and most of the traditional philosophical critiques of religion. But the disempowered morality at the heart of the gospel (blessed are the weak), once made visible, was just too much for me, and everything else clicked into place.

  • consciousness razor

    A powerful article. I couldn’t help but think of Nietzsche and Foucault, which may or may not be a good thing.

    I’m also reminded of another article of yours from a while ago, about whether we should compromise truth for happiness or some other good. (More than one has alluded to it, I think, but I haven’t found the one I had in mind.) Considering that you think power is the highest good, it’s easy to get to the conclusion that having the truth makes us more powerful, thus it’s good, etc. And I think you’d basically agree that ethics has some bearing on epistemology in general anyway.

    But I’m kind of going in circles, trying to figure out how these all work together in your view. Do you take a sort of pragmatic position about what constitutes the truth? If we believe some action will result in more creative power, does that imply something about the truth? Or does our concept of truth feed into the notion of what powers we should have, and if so how does that work?

    And although you’ve done well to note how important empowerment is, it’s still not clear to me how the powerful should interact with the powerless and vice versa. Part of it’s probably just me having a gut reaction against the negative connotations of “power,” but something about it doesn’t sit well with me.

    Some examples, if you care to take a crack at them: One might argue that working against environmental problems or animal rights abuses hinders our power to reap the benefits of industry, expanding our population, blah, blah, blah. I don’t think you’d argue that, but it isn’t clear how the good of humanity is foreseeable, as well as describable, only in terms of what empowers humanity. Maybe you’d say you want to empower other lifeforms, but I don’t know how that might be derivable from your position. Or perhaps you’d say some environmental concerns are aesthetic rather than ethical. (And as such, they don’t carry any obligation…?)

    Also, I’m a bit confused by the part about fear being good (at least some forms of it, some of the time). It fits pretty well with this notion of power being good, but I wouldn’t say it’s the only way we avoid harm, though maybe I misunderstood. For example, instead of fearing others’ disapproval, we could also avoid harm through cooperation or developing other strategies (learning, technology, etc.), to prevent us from being in situations which would make us afraid in the first place. I’ll leave you with the quote, “the only thing to fear is fear itself,” but I’m not sure how I feel about that either.

  • baal

    Fear is good.

    I dissent (in part).

    I’ll caveat that I’m a single person so my sample size for experience small. I have a personal heuristic, “A decision based on fear (in large or small part) is wrongful, incorrect or suboptimal.”

    I’ve been testing this heuristic for more than 10 years now whenever I hear a fear based argument and it’s held up. It’s almost as good a heuristic as automatically discounting any argument or explanation that invokes magic (or lacks a mechanism).

    Fwiw, it’s otherwise an excellent post and I fully support the goal of being the best person you can. I have noticed, however, people with personal insecurity (fear of being found out as incompetent) absolutely go apoplectic if they have to deal with me for any amount of time. And that’s with me trying to be reassuring or working to support them.

    • John Morales

      baal,

      Fwiw, it’s otherwise an excellent post and I fully support the goal of being the best person you can.

      ‘Goal’ doesn’t do justice to what Dan calls it: an ethical imperative.

    • baal

      Reformulation for John Morales: Use of fear, even with a good heart and thinking things out (as Dan does really well above), is un-ethical. It always leads to, at best, suboptimal choices and colors thinking in ways that preclude the better outcomes. By better, I mean the direction with the least harm and most benefit to all the interested parties and non-parties.

      I also find that you can jettison the fear component and still agree with Dan’s overall message.

  • John Morales

    So, what if one’s power is not something admirable, such as the power to annoy people?

    Should that, too, be pursued?