Virtue and Power

A powerful title for a powerful concept that, undoubtedly, I will fail to do full justice to. What does it mean to be virtuous? What does it mean to be powerful?

My personal thoughts on the matter are that virtue is the ideal mode of behavior such that, if everyone followed it, human society would be ideal. However, if everyone knew this and acted rationally, everyone would follow that mode because each of them knows they will, in return, live in an ideal society.

The problem is, perhaps obviously to some, the prisoner’s dilemma. There will exist some individuals who will be more interested in a higher gain for themselves than the greatest possible gain for the rest of society, and a world filled with moral people is actually easier to take advantage of if you are one of those people.  This is simply because moral people are less willing to turn about and act selfishly in response. They are more likely to continue along their ethical path, flying in the face of the fact they are being exploited because of it.

This creates a fundamental division of philosophy. On one hand you have the philosophers, the ethicists, the moral people who seek to help everyone- derived similarly to Socrates’ thinking.  On the other, the sophists, the lawyers, the advertising people who are predominantly helping themselves. To support that statement a little more, if you are a lawyer you are more interested in getting paid than in justice or truth because you are being paid a handsome sum expressly in the name of distorting truth as grossly as possible. In fact, the better at it you are, the more you are paid. This is not to say there are no moral lawyers, but I am saying that if you are a moral lawyer you are at a severe disadvantage, and the incentive to switch is immense. Imagine a lawyer that stubbornly refused to distort the truth. They would lose their case. Badly. Advertising or marketing people are similar in that they are trying to convince people against their better judgment to use their products. As before, there are some marketers that use ethical methods, but they get blown out of the water by professionals armed with a deep manipulative knowledge of the human psyche, etc. etc. How Sophist of them. The debate essentially boils down to whether reality is absolute or subjective. The sophists claim that reality can be distorted by altering our perceptions of it. Taken to extremes, this is so unfathomably dangerous I can’t even describe it. Consider a state decreeing that henceforth all women shall give birth to triplets. To fail to birth triplets is to show disloyalty to your mother country, and you shall be put to death. You just want to grab whoever thought that up by the head and scream “You’re living in a fantasy world, man!  Snap out of it!”

Note that I did not mention criminals. Criminals are in the interesting position of being vested with neither virtue nor power. Their position most strongly resembles the sophists, however, since they were put in a position of having no power and caved when presented with the choice to, say, steal. Alternatively, they had power and caved anyway, such as a CEO.  Corrupt CEO’s or other white collar criminals are put in an interesting position of having a huge amount to gain from a seemingly negligible offense which has a small chance of being discovered. So they steal from the companies they work for. More to the point, many others are pressured to perform by those selfsame companies and they have a plethora of underhanded methods available to benefit that company, also with a very small chance of a high penalty. They deem the exchange worthwhile and take their criminal opportunity, and most probably are not caught. Lack of virtue rewarded with power- i.e. money.

If you can see where I’m going with this, pat yourself on the back. Virtue and power are mutually exclusive. In order to get ahead of your fellow man, you actually have to get ahead of your fellow man- this is inescapable.  Most people would agree that lying, cheating, stealing, etc. etc. are an attempt to get an edge. Even in arenas where virtue should be held up as a standard, such as politics, the use of underhanded tactics produces a superior display of virtue where in fact they are demonstrating their disregard of it. In order to receive millions of dollars in campaign donations, politicians are left with no recourse but to sell shares in their souls to special interests. Otherwise they wouldn’t be elected- a trade of virtue for power.

Consider Socrates, or better, the more extreme example of Diogenes. Diogenes the cynic lived in a barrel. A BARREL. He owned nothing but a bowl and a bag. He had a cup too, but he threw it away when he watched a man drink from the river with his hands.  The man was hardcore. The cynic perspective is that the pursuit of virtue is the only quest of import to lead a fulfilling life. Imagine the contrast with modern society if everyone lived in barrels pursuing virtue. Yeah.

The sophist perspective is currently dominant, and has a number of interesting effects on our culture. Firstly, our system of law and government has completely lost touch with reality. Even ignoring George Bush, who is like Sophist Satan incarnate, “the government” has become such an abstracted entity that “the people” subconsciously regard it as a thing outside of themselves. I am referring to the United States government primarily, but from my limited experience this applies to pretty much all modern governments. None possesses the integrated dynamism with the citizenry that makes new governments so special.  Instead, modern politics is the province of corrupt old men, who earn the whimsical favor of the populace through utterly fabricated personas, using scientifically manipulative advertising financed by the wealthy, and distributed by the powerful. It doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, but it is.

The same problem shows up pretty much everywhere. This blog, for example. I could, if I wanted, work my posts to a fine polish, dish out some link love, and shamelessly whore out my own links all over the internet. I would have to shorten my writing enormously, since not many people have the attention span to read through a post like something from the 18th century. I would need to drastically atomize and simplify my thoughts, not to mention sensationalizing them to the point that more or less anyone could pick it up and be stuck. I don’t doubt my capability to do exactly that, but then I wouldn’t be writing in this fashion. I might get thousands of hits, but what’s the point? Would I be boosting my ego? Maybe prostitute my blog for ad revenue? The more ads, the more money, but then the less it is about the thoughts and more about getting more hits.  This blog is small and humble, the Diogenes end of the spectrum. I’d rather be Diogenes harping away to a small and shifting crowd of faceless intellectuals than to the deranged masses strung out on pop culture and cheap zombie media.

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