Ethics, in one sense, is all about the right and wrong use of power. We tend to think of power only in terms of the most obvious forms but everyone has and uses power all the time.
We have the power of thought and of speech, the power of blessing and cursing, and the power of choosing how we respond to life. These are some of the most basic human powers. Obviously, beyond this we then have varying degrees of social power. The power of adults over children, of various positions such as teacher, prison guard, government employee, medical personnel, boss and so on.
When we use whatever power we have to advance wholeness, we act ethically. When we fail to do so or when we go in the opposite direction and use power to undermine or decrease wholeness, we act unethically. This, however, isn't always as simple a matter as it might seem. There is always a cost to the exercise of power and some forms of power cost more than others.
The two basic forms of power are controlling power and influential power. We’re all familiar with both of these. Controlling power compels compliance — sometimes with physical force (or the threat of it) and sometimes with manipulation. Influential power is power that seeks cooperation and voluntary commitment to ideas and actions. These two types of power have different costs.
Influential power, for instance, costs time and energy in the form of goodwill and respect — caring about the people and things over whom it is exercised. lf you want me to stop smoking and you use influential power it might take weeks or even months of talking to me before I decide to quit. If you use controlling power it may not take any time at all. You can simply put a gun to my head and order me to stop. I most likely will do so immediately. Thus, this often seems the best way to get things done — not necessarily with a gun, but with some form of controlling power.
But there's a cost to this as well. Putting a gun to my head will erode whatever good relationship we already had or could have developed. This is also true of other forms of controlling power such as threats and punishments. I will either submit to your rule passively, which infantilizes me, or I’ll submit to it hostilely and grudgingly. In which case I will attempt to undermine you and rebel against you at every opportunity. Which, in turn, will cause you to spend an ongoing portion of your energy policing me. Controlling power often demands an entire infrastructure to ensure compliance.
I’ve had a lot of experience with this form of power as prisons use it almost exclusively. The elaborate apparatus of external control that we've created here has grown directly from and is made necessary by our reliance on controlling power. I’ve seen it locally here. The "tougher" officials make the prison, the meaner and more hostile the prisoners become. Controlling power, overused, has this built-in consequence whether we're dealing with our children or with criminals.
Does this mean that controlling power is unethical? Of course not. It simply means what it says: that there is a cost to using it. If we are going to be conscious and live wholistically we must acknowledge this cost and remember that controlling power isn't the only power to which we have access.
To be wholistic we need to look at the big picture and ask ourselves what form of power is best in any given situation or time. Sometimes controlling power is best in the initial contact, as when we arrest and remove someone forcibly from society.
That’s often the most wholistic thing to do. After that it’s most wholistic to resort to influential power to whatever degree is possible. When we don’t do this and continue to use controlling power after its appropriate time, we turn a wholistic and ethical act into an “a-holistic” and unethical act.
This is true in our personal lives as well. Sometimes we have to tell our kids to do something “because I said so” or to accept the consequences. But if we continue to do this beyond the point where it’s necessary we create adults who know only how to submit to or rebel against authority but not how to think for themselves.
It’s been said that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is pithy, and we’ve heard it all our lives, but unfortunately it’s not true. As stated above, we all use power all the time; some of us use it wisely and for good. There are countless parents who have power over their children who are corrupt. The same is true of business people who have power over their customers, bosses who have power over their employees, and so on.
What corrupts is power without wisdom. As we all have various forms of power it is then our responsibility to acquire the wisdom necessary to use this power wholistically. That wisdom begins with the understanding that there are two forms of power, and the admission that we currently use most the one that ought to be used least, and least the one that ought to be used most.