Power: Does it corrupt or ennoble us?

Power: An Evil Desire?

Power corrupts.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Is this true? Does seeking power make us evil[1]?

No. Absolutely not. You morally authorized to seek power. In fact, you are obligated to do so if you wish to be happy and a good person.

The Ability to Produce an Effect

The dictionary definition of power is this: the ability to produce an effect.

A definition concerning human action would be: what is necessary to bring about what one desires.

Such a thing is amoral. It is no different from a hammer, a shaving razor, or knowledge.

Moral power would be this: what is necessary to bring about the good.

Immoral power would be what is necessary to bring about my desires without thought to the good.

Here’s the difference:

  1. Moral Power
    Charisma, know-how, and resources for pursuing the good by means of virtue. Think of somebody who uses their prudence to gain large sums of wealth in order to quietly fund rationally altruistic charities.
  2. Immoral Power
    Charisma, know-how, and resources for pursuing goods by evil means or in a disordered fashion (pursuing fame above health, honor above wisdom, etc). Think of somebody who pursues a political agenda (like socialism) in the name of the poor despite the body count of that ideology being in the hundreds of millions.

Many people associate power solely with the second example and they miss the importance having power and feeling powerful for a life of meaning and happiness.

As a result many throw both forms of power out the window and then resent their lot. There are lots of social reasons for this in the lives of men and young boys.[2] I’m not sure about the rest of our culture. But it appears on social media, amongst the young, and in the political world that claiming to be a victim is a badge of honor. Consequently, bragging about weakness, illness, and ineffectuality is a form of social credibility.[3] Regardless of that, the fact is that living without a sense of power leads to depression, inactivity, and destructive behavior like drug addiction and intimate partner abuse.[4]

Nice Guy Syndrome

A name has been given this unfortunate state of feeling helpless and powerless as a result of doing what you’re “supposed to do.”

Robert Glover calls it “nice-guy syndrome.”[5] Nice-guy syndrome is the state of perpetually refusing to do what you want and pretending to be gracious while secretly resenting the world and yourself. According Dr. Glover “nice guys” have a tendency to be incapable of breaking bad habits, unwilling to allow their flaws to become public (though he didn’t deal with victom culture when he wrote), and they also have a tendency to blow up friendships, lose their temper, and to sabotage their success in ways that they can easily blame on circumstances.[6] Such people have no power. With this in mind, the prescription is not to follow stupid platitudes like “power corrupts.” The correct response is to assess oneself and start making decisions that tend toward the power necessary to achieve happiness. To fail to pursue power when living in such a state clearly causes unhappiness is immoral.

Based on my definition of virtue (a good habit), the pursuit and maintenance of personal power is itself virtuous. Like all virtues, there are vices on either side (even Eden had a serpent!). In this case, obsession with power beyond one’s reach or laziness with respect to reaching it fit the bill.

A typology of power

Here are types of power, as far as I can tell, and how they’re related to virtue:

  1. Physical power –

    The ability to accomplish and endure what is necessary for one’s circumstances with the grace and resilience possible for their specific body. Obviously, keeping one’s body in proper shape can help one to be generous, courageous, or self-controlled.

  2. Cognitive Power –

    The approach of the height of one’s cognitive abilities with respect to their circumstances. Cognitive power, of course overlaps almost perfectly with the intellectual virtues. The difference being that two people could have equally good habits of mind with respect to their individual differences, but one of them might have more “cognitive power” with respect to their IQ or their calling.

  3. Social Power –

    Social power could be either magnetic charisma or hierarchical power-over. Both matter, both can be good, and both can be abused. Men and women with dark-triad traits are typically better at seducing the opposite sex. Bosses can destroy or make the careers of their subordinates. But the pursuit of social power is connected to virtue in that one can be just, generous, and loving much more effectively from a position of authority or charismatic influence.

  4. Economic Power –

    Economic power is power to bring about change due to access to resources. It doesn’t have to be money and it doesn’t have to be from accumulation of resources, although that is the primary way to get it. Somebody who has a tremendous amount of charisma may also have economic resources. Many great ethical thinkers warn about the danger to virtue in those who have economic resources because they can lead to pride, a life style with no struggle, or access to immoral pleasures. I think those warnings are wise, but they do not change the fact that the management of resources that leads to wealth is a result of virtue (self-control, prudence, courage, loyalty, etc).

  5. Spiritual Power –

    Spiritual power is simply result of acquiring the moral virtues as well as the intellectual virtues. Some good habits are had by evil men. But some good habits (courage, justice, prudence, and self-control) do not exist in them. Spiritual power, in this sense, is simply living in a state wherein doing what is right comes naturally. Incidentally, even the most virtuous of men claim to never really reach such a perfect state in this life. In my mind the human race is incapable of complete spiritual power.


It is not immoral to acquire power, instead, it is immoral to ignore your need for power. There are many types of power and understanding what they are and why it’s good to have them will help give you permission to seek them so that you can get what is truly good for you out of life.


[1] Interestingly, the Latin word from which virtue is derived could originally mean strength or power. Collins Latin Dictionary Plus Grammar (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1997 Check out the full range of meaning from this dictionary: “manhood, full powers, strength, courage, ability, worth; (MIL) valour, prowess, heroism; (moral) virtue; (things) excellence, worth.”

[2]  Christina Hoff. Sommers, The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

[3] There is a powerful sense in which this can be true. See 2 Corinthians 10-13 in the New Testament for an example.

[4] Albert Bandura, “Regulation of Cognitive Processes through Perceived Self-Efficacy,” Developmental Psychology 25, no. 5 (1989): 729–735, Carlo C. DiClemente, Scott K. Fairhurst, and Nancy A. Piotrowski, “Self-Efficacy and Addictive Behaviors,” in Self-Efficacy, Adaptation, and Adjustment, ed. James E. Maddux, The Plenum Series in Social/Clinical Psychology (Springer US, 1995), 109–141, accessed July 5, 2016, http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4419-6868-5_4, Albert Bandura et al., “Self-Efficacy Pathways to Childhood Depression,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, no. 2 (1999): 258–269. Steve M. Jex et al., “The Impact of Self-Efficiency on Stressor-Strain Relations: Coping Style as an Explanatory Mechanism,” Journal of Applied Psychology 86, no. 3 (June 2001): 401–409. Farhad Shaghaghy et al., “The Relationship of Early Maladaptive Schemas, Attributional Styles and Learned Helplessness among Addicted and Non-Addicted Men,” Addiction and Health 3, no. 1–2 (November 10, 2011), accessed July 5, 2016, http://www.ahj.kmu.ac.ir/index.php/ahj/article/view/55, Victor J. Strecher et al., “The Role of Self-Efficacy in Achieving Health Behavior Change,” Health Education & Behavior 13, no. 1 (March 1, 1986): 73–92.

[5] Robert A Glover, No More Mr. Nice Guy!: A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex, and Life (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003).

[6] They might be similar to what Vox Day calls a “gamma male” in Helen Smith’s excellent book Men on Strike.

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