I have received several very good comments on my recent meditations on how to be powerful, fearsome, empowering, and loved. I plan to address several of them in distinct posts. I figured I would start with one that can be given a relatively brief reply. For background, in my previous post I reiterated my general position that the highest good for humans is to develop our powers. Developing our powers is intrinsically good for us, in its own right. (Here is my basic definition of power, btw.)
So John Morales queries:
So, what if one’s power is not something admirable, such as the power to annoy people?
Should that, too, be pursued?
We should, all things equal, pursue greater powers over lesser ones. Our greatest powers involve being intrinsically effective at things which are hard to do. Our greatest powers also typically integrate numerous component powers into complex and impressive combinations which amplify individual powers’ intensities and overall effectivenesses. Finally, and of greatest ultimate value, our greatest powers are those with the largest and longest lasting constructive effect of creating goodness in the world through their exercise.
But sometimes we pursue lesser powers over greater ones and thereby develop less internal power within ourselves and generate less overall goodness in the world than we could have. Worse even, we sometimes exercise our powers in ways that result in net negatives of goodness in the world. We also unfortunately sometimes exercise our powers in ways that hurt other powers of our own and that, worst of all, actively damage both our total overall intrinsic power and our total external effectiveness at creating good in the world.
Even when we exercise our powers in such ultimately counter-productive ways, the powers themselves are still nonetheless good insofar as they are powers. Powers are always intrinsically good; at least minimally on account of their being powers. But on a total net accounting, sometimes a power’s exercise is inadvisable (sometimes to the point of being incredibly awful and regrettable). This is because it results in a net loss of our own overall possible intrinsic power or a net loss of overall possible good in the world.
So how do we apply these basic categories to the power to annoy? Some net good can occasionally come from it. Comedies sometimes come up with amusing (often farfetched, but vaguely plausible) scenarios in which a character’s ability to annoy is used to the good guys’ advantage. Other comedy even deliberately annoys the audience into laughs. And a great performance artist like Andy Kaufman was able to make legendary, thought provoking, and concept expanding commentaries on the nature of art by trolling the crap out of America (sometimes even in rather obnoxious and legitimately offensive ways).
In recent years Sacha Baron Cohen, Stephen Colbert, and numerous Daily Show correspondents have frequently demonstrated an admirably steely willingness and ability to annoy with a straight face people whom they interview in order to get laughs and to reveal interesting truths. Some people’s abilities to annoy others can also serve valuable political purposes when they are used to annoy the right people into using the powers at their disposal to do the right things. Even on an interpersonal level, friends quite often enjoy annoying each other in the form of teasing. This can be a great thing, so long as it is a mutually enjoyed way to play and to both build and express rapport and trust.
Despite these, and possibly other, approvable ways to be annoying, it seems obvious to me that in the majority of contexts, being annoying is harmful and counter-productive. Teasing, for example, is not such a great thing when it expresses, constitutes, or exacerbates an unhealthy, alienating, and/or disempowering pattern of repressive dominance, passive aggression, and/or mutual hostility. At their worst, annoying people can be dangerous harassers. At their most incompetent and pathetic, unintentionally annoying people spread discomfort and misery to those with whom they try to be friends. Because of this they often wind up relatively lonely, alienated, and/or generally socially ineffective. Usually being annoying in ways that effectively serve no higher ends will lead to a net negative effect in the world and so is inadvisable. And quite often a great power to annoy is only present precisely because much more constructive and impressive (and therefore desirable) social powers are absent. So most cases of effective, powerful annoyance are symptoms of overall weakness in the annoyer.
For more on how to rank powers and how to understand the relative goodness and badness of any specific power, read my more extensive treatment of the subject The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)
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.