[Disclaimer: this is my first post on Less Wrong. Comments and criticism appreciated, but constructive criticism especially appreciated. The below is a reactionary argument/a reactionary conceptual frame, though I would not describe myself as a reactionary.]

One prominent way to assess the moral character of others, is to look at their actions. In doing so, people can easily overlook the fact that actions are a product not merely of intention (desire to act), but also of power (capacity to act). Due to certain features of moral psychology, this tends to lead them to overestimate the vice of the powerful, and underestimate the vice of the powerless by comparison. For ease of reference, I call this error Powerless Moral Evaluation (“PME”).

Firstly, it is important to establish that, whilst intention it intimately linked to moral character, power is prima facie unconnected to it. To see this, consider elevating a morally virtuous person to a position of great power and influence, such as the Presidency of the United States (this is difficult to imagine I know). We would not think that this would immediately render our moral paragon vicious (though of course we could hypothesise that power will corrupt his moral character over time, it would do so by changing his intentions, rather than through the mere fact of possession). Conversely, depriving the power of a morally vicious individual does not intuitively cause him to lose his moral vice (if Stalin had been imprisoned just before he could order the expansion of the gulags, he would still have been a terrible man). So whilst power does change your capacity to act, and your actions, it does not ipso facto change your moral character.

Consequently, when people judge others' moral character by their actions, without controlling for the effect of power on those actions, they will systematically overestimate the magnitude of the moral character of the powerful. Powerful and virtuous people, who do many good things, will have their virtue overestimated, compared to powerless virtuous people, who lack the opportunity to do good things. Likewise, powerful and vicious people, who do many bad things, will have their vice overestimated, compared to powerless vicious people, who lack the opportunity to do bad things. 

In practice, however, the effect of PME is not neutral between vice and virtue. Though it may magnify the perception of both, it does not do so equally; in fact, it tends to disproportionately amplify the perceived vice of the powerful. 

This is because most people possess deontological or negative consequentialist intuitions, in addition to (or instead of) traditional consequentialist intuitions. Deontological intuitions hold that benefits and harms are, to some degree, incommensurable; and that harms are usually “weightier” than benefits – if I murder you, I cannot simply “balance out” the harm by saving someone else. Negative consequentialist intuitions hold that typical benefits are less commensurable to typical harms – if I make you suffer, I will have to make a disproportionate number of people happy to “balance out” the harm caused. 

The actions of powerful people tend to cause greater harms and greater benefits than those of powerless persons. But if harms are incommensurable/less commensurable than benefits, in a way that renders them morally “weightier” than those benefits, then powerful people will (appear to) have a greater net negative moral effect on the world. But this semblance will be due to those persons greater power, which we have previously established is irrelevant to moral character. So to the extent that evaluators do not control for power, when assessing moral character using actions, this will cause them to underestimate the moral character of the powerful. The converse will also be true; they will overestimate the moral character of the powerless by comparison. In both its forms, this is Powerless Moral Evaluation. 

To establish precisely how widespread PME is, or who is most guilty of it, is beyond the scope of this post. However, it is worth highlighting some indicative examples, which I believe evidence its causal influence and social pervasiveness: 

  • The Great Satan: according to Pew Research Centre polling conducted around the start of this year [link: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/01/08/u-s-image-generally-favorable-around-the-world-but-mixed-in-some-countries/] the median favourability rating for the United States in Europe stands at 54% favourable versus 40% unfavourable. Given the close ties existing between the continent and the States as regards economy, popular media, liberal democratic culture and history; this appears surprisingly low. PME is one of several candidate explanations for this phenomenon. As a holder of global hegemonic power, the United States is capable of causing vast amounts of benefit and harm with its actions. Examples of harms facilitated by such global hegemonic power include military interventions against perceived enemies; and the promotion of international economic relations “biased” towards the hegemonic centre. Considering the power the US wields, and what it wield it for (especially in light of previous global hegemons such as the European colonial empires), helps put these harms into proper context, and ought lead to a more positive assessment of the US’s moral character. Yet this material consideration is rarely (if ever) raised in popular discussions surrounding American policy. This provides the perfect opportunity for PME to distort popular judgements. 
  • Multinational Corporations: these almost inevitably generate harms to some of their workforce, by virtue of the vast numbers of individuals they employ both directly and indirectly (through subsidiaries, trading partners, supply chains, etc.). It is common to regard these harms as obvious evidence that MNC’s motivations are worse than their smaller equivalents. But if a “Hyper-Mart” is a hundred times the size of the average “Mom & Pop”, and the two are equally well motivated, we would prima facie expect to see the former create a hundred times the harms of the latter (setting aside such considerations as e.g. monopoly power). But is the actual harm disparity between these entities that large? This is a question that I have never seen put to the opponents of MNCs, much less answered by them. 
  • Revolutionary Movements: revolutionary movements draw strength from the belief that powerful rulers are morally vicious, whilst their powerless people are morally virtuous. All that is needed is to replace the former with the latter, and the oppression and evil of the ancienne regime will give way to virtue and justice. Unfortunately, revolutionary upheavals tend to inaugurate periods of intense violence and persecution; with the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions being the most bloody and notable examples. I would contend that early support for revolutionary movements is in part driven by the fact that rebelling groups begin lacking (or having previously lacked) the power to commit notable crimes. The ruling institutions, on the other hand, have likely had such power for decades or centuries, and may well have wielded it. The initial tally of violence and brutality is thus almost inevitably in the revolutionaries' favour. Until, terribly, it isn’t. 

The above evidence points towards an influential role for PME in the shaping of public perception – something I would place substantial credence in, but cannot be certain of.  

Presuming PME is serious and widespread, what are the implications? Certainly, it does not entail that we ought not make high demands of the moral character of the powerful. Precisely due to their greater capacity to cause harm, and the possible incommensurability of such harms, it is reasonable to subject them to higher standards of moral evaluation than the powerless. Having said this, appreciating the tendency to overestimate the vice of the powerful, and underestimate the vice of those who might replace them, must undermine the case for revolutionary reversals. As the philosophes found to their peril, that the citizens of Paris had been unable to do great evil, was no indication that they would not make good the Terror.

New Comment
2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Firstly, it is important to establish that, whilst intention [is] intimately linked to moral character,

Likely related (in the other direction) to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_man_theory.  

I think this would benefit from a brief explanation of what we get out of moral evaluation in the first place.  It's not like there's a physical truth behind it, it's just a communication model for coordinating among humans.  And it's very highly evolved for that purpose.  To me, PME seems like a natural component of such a system.

I suspect there are a few things going on which explain (and perhaps justify) judging powerful people more forcefully than the powerless.  Note also that it's relative - teenagers routinely judge their parents much more harshly than political or corporate leaders.

  1. Power corrupts.  This isn't always true, but there is at least some correlation to blameworthy actions and acquiring or exercising power.  And certainly more opportunity to act on bad intentions.
  2. It's more important and useful to judge the powerful - they're the ones you want to influence and change their power level.