Musings on Power

I was watching the first Harry Potter film the other day with my kids and I was struck by a statement made towards the end of the movie when Harry is confronted by Professor Quirrell “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to see it.”

The first time I read that phrase it stuck in my head a bit, but at the time I considered it typical bad guy drivel to justify what they have done.  Now that I’m a bit older and cynical I have to admit…he is actually very accurate in that phrase.  Pardon?!?

Ok, bear with me for a minute or two.  You see the use of any power (political, economic, hierarchy…you get the idea) is only limited by two main factors: the morality of the user of said power and the potential consequences of the action.

The first limit of morality is basically only a construct in the mind of the user which may or may not align with your particular version of morality.  So this is why you have some managers who inspire their staff and try to improve the outcomes of the people under them and other managers use their power to inflict suffering on others.  In both cases, the user of the power feels justified in their actions by virtue of the morality that only exists in their own head.  As such, there really isn’t any universal good or evil but rather instead only your particular perception of those concepts.

For example, would you accept the idea that killing another human is a evil act?  Ok, let’s say you agree.  So if you then killed someone while defending your wife and children from an attacker, is that evil?  I would guess you would think not, but again consider that initial sentence…if killing someone is evil does the context of the act matter to make the act good?

Now consider if we can muck up something that should be straightforward as murder, just image how much grey area exists in the rest of the world.  For example, is any of the following behaviours good or evil?

  • Taking a second serving of dessert.
  • Picking up money off the street.
  • Feeding a homeless person.

The answer in each case depends on the context of the situation and your personal morality.  I can easily imagine in every case where the action could be evil or good.  For example, feeding a homeless person might be considered an easy good action, but what if you are enabling the person to continue their drug habit and beat their spouse and children.  Do you still feed them?

In the end, good and evil are simplistic constructs that only exist in our heads.  They don’t have any existence in reality other than what we imagine them to be.  So the first part of that original quote by Professor Quirrell is correct: there is no good or evil.

Now we move on to second limit on power: the potential consequence of the action.  Since good and evil only exists in our heads we decided to try to direct other’s morality by writing it down into law or in some cases we use social acceptance to drive certain behaviours.  Yet there is a flaw to this line of thinking…after all, it is nearly impossible to find someone who at some point has broken a law?

For example, have you ever in your life jay walked?  Odds are yes, and yes it is illegal, but you still did it.  Why?  Because you likely at the time you thought the potential consequence of the action was so minor there was limited risk of getting caught.  Or when was the last time you went just 1 km/hour over the speed limit?  Yesterday, last week by accident…regardless you broke the law, but just didn’t care about the consequence or didn’t think you would get caught.

Therefore the risk of getting caught and punishment are drivers in your mind on your actions and a limit to any power you wield.  Yet the irony of this is in fact the odds of getting caught on most things are actually fairly damn low.  There are not cops on every street corner handing out tickets to jay walkers, they only have so many resources and thus focus on other things first.  The same exists just about everywhere…so if you don’t fear the consequence of your action you don’t have a limit to that power.

For example, at your job they get to direct you to do lots of things (when to show up, when to leave, how long to work on something…etc), but they have very few options of actual consequence to motivate your actions.  They can only really:

  • Assign you undesirable tasks
  • Offer disapproval for an action
  • Alter your rate of compensation
  • Fire you

That’s it.  So when you cease to be fear those consequences the power they can wield over you becomes almost non-existent.

So now that you are free of your fear of the consequence of your action (or at least of getting caught in many cases) and you are free for your notion of good and evil since it only exists in your head in the first place…you start to agree that there really is: only power and those to weak to see it.

In effect this is what having enough retirement savings grants you: economic power.  At which point your application of that power is only limited by your imagination (what is possible and what is good/evil to you) and the consequence of the action.  If you no longer need your job, you can tell them to go screw themselves.  Or if you want to live somewhere else you can move.

Yet there is a downside to this power.  Once you realize the limits of it are largely self imposed, you options to wield it become nearly limitless and your choices in life become infinite.  But a large number of choices makes it harder to pick an action or result, so using that power becomes actually fairly damn hard to do.  It takes considerable effort to think about a larger number of options and narrow them down to a more manageable scope.  Often this is where your fear of change kicks in and people get stuck in the one more year of work syndrome…they are in effect trying to delay change to avoid making that final decision to quit.

So what do you think about power?  What changes have you noticed in yourself as your economic power has grown?

2 thoughts on “Musings on Power”

  1. When I became financially independent, the greatest power I earned, was the ability to say NO. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t! I’m in year three of FI; and am enjoying all my time to do what I want:)

  2. As I accumulate more wealth (economic power) I find my caring about work and the little things becomes less and less. I’m going to hang on to my job in some capacity for another 19 years just so I can collect my hard earned pension, but my give a f@ck will decrease exponentially.

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