The Ethics of Power

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Anytime you are in a position of power you have increased responsibilities to be ethical. We often criticize large corporations for giving large amounts of money to politicians in order to get there way. In a recent business ethics class we discussed Enron and one of the issues was the amount of access they bought to Pres. Bush and VP Cheney in order to influence policy. Enron had vast amounts of financial resources available to them which are a source of power and then they used it to advance their own agenda. This is a common occurrence in business and government, in large measure because most of the power is now held in multinational corporations and the U.S. Federal government. I would contend that the greater power a corporation or government holds the more responsibility they have to wield that power carefully.

The problem we currently face is the federal government is moving quickly to expand its power and then using it in ways that are ethically questionable. Two recent examples of the questionable use of power are the stimulus bill and the report today on the GM and Chrysler future. In the case of the stimulus bill, considerable money was funneled to state government, who the federal government knows are struggling right now. In exchange for the must needed money, stipulations were required that fundamentally changed welfare and other programs. This is a circumvention of state rights and a use of power to force change that would normally go through a more democratic process. The second example is the dealing of GM and Chrysler which should go through bankruptcy procedures to determine which creditors get what. Instead, the federal government forced the issue outside of the court system and ended up with a questionable distribution of ownership. Bondholders ended up on the short end of the stick, despite having most of the money into the two automakers. Tax payers and unions should certainly get a cut of the deal, but look to end up with a far bigger percentage then their debt would suggest. Again, this is a questionable use of power that circumvents the normal processes that are supposed to provide a check and balance to the system.

Many would claim that capitalism is on trial and that recent performance of banks and other institutions suggest that capitalism does not work. The reality is that any government and economic system must be based on ethics, and that no government or economic system will survive long if it engages in unethical behavior. Capitalism has proven very resilient, but even that cannot survive if power gets consolidated in the hands of a few and they act unethically. Our governmental system has also proven resilient, but like capitalism, will not survive if power gets consolidated into the hands of a few and they engage in unethical behavior. There are only two ways to really handle the situation, those in charge of powerful institutions have to act ethically on their own accord, or else you have to decentralize power so that the impact of unethical behavior is not felt as widely. The fact is that we are required to hold organizations that wield considerable power to a higher ethical standard no matter what and so far the change in presidency has not done anything to alter the level of ethics in our federal government.

About Craig Mayberry

Closed Account • Member since Jan 17, 2008

While writing his articles from 2008 to 2011, Craig lived near Lynden and taught at both Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University. He was active in politics and ran for public [...]

Comments by Readers

g.h. kirsch

Apr 29, 2009


You are just too hopeful, and unfortunately unrealistic, regards the effectiveness of moral power, ethics.

Keep a few simple ideas in mind. Capital has one goal, to increase.  Capital is wealth and real wealth is the power to increase itself.  Capital will not, certainly not beyond the limits of enlightened self interest, share power.

Ethics, the spontaneous motivation individuals feel to do right, is ineffective and that’s why we make laws. That’s how democracy can check the fundamental ambition of capital.

It is not a failure of corporate ethics that has us headed for the dustbin of history.  It’s a failure of democracy.

Democracy is failing because faceless, fictional and inhuman institutions have more political power than real people; and real people are largely unable to understand how the few have them harnessed.

That is why currently wealth is being transferred from the many to the few.  The few have the power to do so, and wealth is the power to increase itself.

Which brings us to face the difficult truth that, because wealth is so powerful, until people stand up to wealth, break it up and prevent its re-consolidation, no other moral force will matter.

The only change we can count on would be the people harnessing capital again, and not being harnessed by it.


Craig Mayberry

Apr 29, 2009

It is a catch 22.  There were some ethical failures among many businesses, which requires regulation to supposedly stop the unethical situations.  Regulations, however, are only effective in certain situations where the regulations are enforceable, and many laws passed are not enforceable (how many people speed).  Government is just like business, it is there to grow and gain power.  Name a politician or government that did not want more power.  It is a vicious circle with no obvious end point. 

I do not disagree with your conclusion, you said the same thing as me, just maybe a little more eloquently.

I do agree that ethics is probably on the Utopian side, but I also wonder what other alternatives we really have.  Imagine what a president could do that really believed that power was with the people and worked towards that end.  Based on my observations, many people believed that Pres. Obama would be the one to do that, but it appears after 100 short days that is not the case.