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New Existentialists

With Great Power Comes…Amorality?

By February 19, 2015February 19th, 2018No Comments

Penn State, Goldman Sachs, Enron, University of Virginia, SuperPACS, the Catholic Church–we live in an era of institutional scandal. If you want to know why we are careening from one major institutional scandal to the next, there’s a simple answer: the psychology of power has changed.

To be sure, there’s nothing new about a scandal. The oldest human texts, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita, are full of them–and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the very first cave painting was an editorial cartoon exposing a hunting accident.

There’s also nothing new about a powerful institution getting embroiled in a scandal–“scandal” is practically the twin of “monarchy.”

But in the past, there’s been a sense that when powerful institutions fail to police themselves effectively, they have in fact failed. The moral codes they lived up to may have been deficient, but they were at least trying to live up to them. In the modern era, which is filled with more institutions of greater complexity than ever before, we seem to be seeing an increasing inability of powerful institutions (and the people who run them) to follow even the most cursory moral code. 

Witness the debate, still hot, about whether business schools should even teach ethics at all. There have always been crooked businesses, and businessmen, among us–but to openly suggest as many do that business leaders don’t even need to know what’s ethical and what isn’t? That their only concern is what they can get away with? That’s new.

So is the idea that institutions should spend money–and lots of it–on ethics consultants and “value statements” spelling out, in legalistic language of the sort no one who actually cares about right and wrong ever uses, the existence of their values. That never happened until the modern era.

It’s not a truism that any institution that needs to spend money to find its conscience doesn’t have one–but it probably should be.

The result is a wave of powerful people, from cardinals to CEOs, who are absolutely comfortable that they have done due diligence while they do terrible things. The administration at Penn State was comfortable in its ethical standards even as it kept a child molester from scrutiny. The lawyers at the Stephen J. Baum firm were outraged–outraged–that people condemned them for foreclosing on homes they didn’t actually own. They literally didn’t understand what they had done wrong.

Over and over again. What’s going on?

In his pioneering book Man’s Search for Himself, Rollo May posited that the ethics of yesteryear were designed for “gyroscope men”–people whose ethical systems were clearly enforced by social constraints and pressure. In the modern era, that pressure has vanished: modern man has very little in the way of meaningful ethical pressure or social sanctions. “God is dead,” May says (paraphrasing Nietzsche), and each person must reach inside themselves for behavioral guidance.

That’s exactly what paid ethics consultants and “value statements” are designed to short circuit. You outsource housework because you don’t want to be bothered with it; you outsource your accounting because you don’t want to have to do it yourself. You outsource your ethics because you don’t want to have to think about them.

As a result, we have become a culture that lionizes power–because it no longer has any downside. There is no modern aphorism that suggests “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Just the opposite: public and media alike celebrate the excesses of the rich and famous. Conspicuous consumption is to be envied, connections are to be flaunted, and the rich are encouraged to “make it rain.” From Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to MTV Cribs to The Apprentice, there is no demand on the powerful that they slow down, or second guess themselves.

The reward for wealth and power in the modern era is not to use it wisely but to be confident in gratification. Gravitas and Noblesse Oblige no longer exist as public virtues. If people become less inclined to second guess themselves as they become more powerful, the result will be exactly the world we live in. The powerful spend less time worrying about ethical issues because they are powerful, and powerful institutions careen from one scandal to another without a shred of responsibility.

Writing about the administration at Penn State, Mark Schulman, President of Saybrook University, suggested that the lesson we have to learn is that power does have a cost.

If (the consequences of Jerry Sandusky’s actions are) not enough to inoculate us from the virus that infected Penn State, we need to re-examine our Weltanschauung. But, of course, that’s our constant project anyway. Or should be.

Perhaps it is when presidents–and Boards–stop asking these questions, stop worrying about where the line of disclosure is and what side they’re standing on, that evils like this arise. If so, it demonstrates once again that the fulfillment of the values held most dear in higher education can only come from their constant re-examination. The relief that such important questions are “settled” is a sure sign that the guards are asleep and scandal stirs.

Those of us in power are meant to be uncomfortable: perhaps it’s an irony, but too often it’s the only thing that keeps us vigilant.