What’s Wrong with Power (a few preliminary thoughts)

The thing about power (power over others, that is, not power over oneself) is that it can interfere with the other’s freedom of choice.  But it does so only if they use that power, you may wish to clarify.  So people should simply not use their power over others; they should not even show they have it.

Well no, the thief doesn’t have to use the gun in order to interfere with my choice of giving or not giving her my money.  Simply having the power to shoot me affects my decision.  But, you’ll counter, other people always have some sort of power over you – the thief may not even have the gun with him.  (Yeah, it’s usually a him.)

Correct.  In fact, he may not even own a gun.  He need only have the power to buy (and then use) the gun.  In fact, a gun need not even be involved.  He could run into me with her car.  The bottom line is that everyone has the power to do something harmful, something hurtful, to everyone else.  Therefore, everyone’s freedom of choice is limited in some way.  And that’s all there is to this point: there is no such thing as complete freedom of choice – all of our decisions are made in a context of possible, or probable, consequences.

But there’s something here of importance: the difference between possible and probable.  Surely we give more weight to the latter.  Harm is more probable if the thief has a gun pointed to my head than if he has yet to even buy one.

And there’s another point of importance: there is a difference between constraint and coercion.  Constraint becomes coercion only when the person would’ve chosen otherwise had the constraints not been there.  That is to say, if I would’ve given my money to you anyway, your power over me is not coercion, it is not controlling me.

And interestingly enough, control is not dependent on the intentional use of power by the other.  Just as often it is one’s own judgement, which may well be incorrect, of the probability of harm that controls one’s behaviour.

Having power over others, others having power over us – these are facts of life.  The easy part is distinguishing constraint from coercion; the tricky part distinguishing possible from probable.  But our freedom of choice depends on these distinctions.

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