510. The Ritual – 512. Why Does Power Corrupt?

(Two petty posts and a nice one about evolutionary psychology.)

510. The Ritual

Continues the fictional story of Jeffreyssai.

511. Rationality quotes

512. Why Does Power Corrupt?

….as soon as I was introduced to the notion of evolutionary psychology (~1995), it seemed obvious to me why human beings are corrupted by power….:

Humans (particularly human males) have evolved to exploit power and status when they obtain it, for the obvious reason:  If you use your power to take many wives and favor your children with a larger share of the meat, then you will leave more offspring, ceteris paribus.  But you’re not going to have much luck becoming tribal chief if you just go around saying, “Put me in charge so that I can take more wives and favor my children.”  You could lie about your reasons, but human beings are not perfect deceivers.

So one strategy that an evolution could follow, would be to create a vehicle that reliably tended to start believing that the old power-structure was corrupt, and that the good of the whole tribe required their overthrow…

The young revolutionary’s belief is honest.  There will be no betraying catch in his throat, as he explains why the tribe is doomed at the hands of the old and corrupt, unless he is given power to set things right.  Not even subconsciously does he think, “And then, once I obtain power, I will strangely begin to resemble that old corrupt guard, abusing my power to increase my inclusive genetic fitness.”

People often think as if “purpose” is an inherent property of things; and so many interpret the message of ev-psych as saying, “You have a subconscious, hidden goal to maximize your fitness.”  But individual organisms are adaptation-executers, not fitness-maximizers.  The purpose that the revolutionary should obtain power and abuse it, is not a plan anywhere in his brain; it belongs to evolution, which can just barely be said to have purposes.  It is a fact about many past revolutionaries having successfully taken power, having abused it, and having left many descendants.

When the revolutionary obtains power, he will find that it is sweet, and he will try to hold on to it—perhaps still thinking that this is for the good of the tribe.  He will find that it seems right to take many wives (surely he deserves some reward for his labor) and to help his children (who are more deserving of help than others).  But the young revolutionary has no foreknowledge of this in the beginning, when he sets out to overthrow the awful people who currently rule the tribe—evil mutants whose intentions are obviously much less good than his own.

The circuitry that will respond to power by finding it pleasurable, is already wired into our young revolutionary’s brain; but he does not know this.  (It would not help him evolutionarily if he did know it, because then he would not be able to honestly proclaim his good intentions—though it is scarcely necessary for evolution to prevent hunter-gatherers from knowing about evolution, which is one reason we are able to know about it now.)

And so we have the awful cycle of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.  Youthful idealism rails against their elders’ corruption, but oddly enough, the new generation—when it finally succeeds to power—doesn’t seem to be all that morally purer.  The original Communist Revolutionaries, I would guess probably a majority of them, really were in it to help the workers; but once they were a ruling Party in charge…

Good comment by Shulman:

“I think this post draws excessively on the psychological unity of humanity, and fails to highlight psychological morphs (resulting from frequency-dependent strategies and local or temporal variation in conditions) that will be more or less successful in seizing power in different circumstances. Silicon Valley seems to allocate power to a systematically different group of people than would acquire it through democratic elections or the internal politics of the PRC.”


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