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.
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.
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.