De-empathizing Power

by: FireTag

October 27, 2012

THE DOCTOR: Colonel Manton, I want you to tell your men to run away.


THE DOCTOR: Those words. “Run away.” I want you to be famous for those exact words. I want people to call you Colonel Runaway. I want children laughing outside your door, ’cause they’ve found the house of Colonel Runaway. And when people come to you and ask if trying to get to me through the people I love! {he composes himself}… is in any way a good idea, I want you to tell them your name. Look, I’m angry. That’s new. I’m really not sure what’s going to happen now.

MADAME KAVARIAN: The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.

THE DOCTOR: Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.

—– Script of Doctor Who episode, “A Good Man Goes to War”.

Even Time Lords need people to give them perspective or they get off-track (the graphic above shows The Doctor getting reamed out by his wife, after all) — so I know that I do. I’ve been having conversations on facebook with family members about the upcoming election, and some of them have actually admitted that they are going to vote contrary to my position. Imagine that! Political division in the family itself. Why, it’s almost like in church, particularly when the disagreements reach into areas of fundamental moral belief or identity — and it’s a lot harder to be ex-family than ex-Mormon, isn’t it?

But it now seems impossible that one side or the other is not about to be very disgruntled. As I wrote in my last post, there remains every possibility that Mitt Romney may be elected President of the United States, and as we discussed in that thread, that has consequences for the religion. But what would that shift in political power to Mormons mean to the internet relationships we develop in forums such as this?

Science continually develops greater information about how brain chemistry impacts moral value systems. For example, increased access to power can decrease empathy because of changes it produces in dopamine and testosterone, according to a New Science news article (subscription required to access) by Ian Robertson. He notes:

“Like many neurotransmitters in the brain, dopamine operates in an “inverted U” shape, where either too little or too much can impair the co-ordinated functioning of the brain. Through its cocaine-like disruption of the brain’s reward system, unfettered power leads to real problems of judgement, emotional functioning, self-awareness and inhibition.

“Unfettered power can also trigger narcissism and a mentality along the lines of the ‘hubris syndrome’ that the former British cabinet minister David Owen identified, where power becomes an intoxicating drug for politicians. And the bizarre behavior of dictators like Muammar Gaddaffi cannot easily be explained in terms of pre-existing personality traits: it is much easier to interpret in terms of the unbalancing effects of power on the brain.

“The tools of democracy – free elections, limited terms of office, an independent judiciary and a free press – were developed in part to combat the effects of excessive power on leaders. Even the Chinese change their leaders every 10 years…

“Nathanael Fast and colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business discovered…that power makes bullies of people who feel inadequate in the role of boss. With power comes the need to perform under the close and critical scrutiny of underlings, peers and bosses. Such power energizes and smartens some, but it stresses others who might have functioned well in a less powerful position. The Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is a good example. He resigned in 2007 after just one year in office, with severe stress playing a major part.

“Other leaders may have too big an appetite for power. …Vladimir Putin, who will have been in continuous power as Russian president or prime minister for 18 years by the time he finishes his current term, arguably shows alarming symptoms of the neurological consequences of excessive power, such as a taste for photographs of himself bare chested or with tigers or bears.”

We have no impending dictators here at WheatandTares, but we do have large differences in our ability to value and/or express empathy.

By the time I’m scheduled to post next, the election will be over — unless, God forbid, we are still litigating over Ohio or some other state critical to electoral totals or speculating about rogue electors. But, afterward, we still have to talk to friends and family. The political issues that animate us aren’t going away, nor is the moral framework through which we see the world. What are the rules we need to put in place on ourselves as good men and good women now in light of the temptations that may be presented to us then?

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3 Responses to De-empathizing Power

  1. Jon on October 27, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    From a voluntaryist point of view it is interesting how peers use their power over you when exercising horizontal power over others. From a voluntaryist point of view I shouldn’t need to pay taxes to fund foreign wars that I don’t agree with neither should I need to fund social programs that I disagree with. But the horizontal power makes statist believe that it is wicked to believe this way and so call voluntaryists “crazy,” etc. So statists show a lack of empathy by saying such “crazies” need to be thrown in jail if they refuse to pay for said taxes, etc.

    Some voluntaryists think that after trying to use persuasion, if someone still advocates throwing you in jail over your beliefs then one should use the principle of “shaming” (like what the people did to Cain after he killed Abel) and disassociate themselves from said people.

    So, in short, what I am saying is people exercise horizontal power over each other and act the part without empathy.

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  2. Julia on October 27, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    That is part of why I register non-affiliated, and only share how I am registered when talking about political candidates at church. Not so much because I care that people know I vote for candidates from both parties or that I consider economic policy to be a moral value. I don’t want to hear things from other people that might make it hard for me to be around them, or serve with them, after the election. It is a purely selfish position, in that regard.

    When I volunteer to be on county or state working groups, I find that while there may be lots of different opinions about what should be done, most people don’t volunteer a minimum of ten hours to simply tell the rest of the group that government shouldn’t do anything at all. People might vote in an election who says that is what they will fight for, but I haven’t ever met those voters actually lobbying or doing work on crafting legislative proposals. I do find other LDS members, and we don’t always agree on how, but I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t willing to talk about how to get as much any of the things that they thought were important, since they had already accepted that it would happen.

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  3. FireTag on October 27, 2012 at 2:32 PM


    I certainly agree that economics are a moral value. Both progressives and conservatives involved in the political process usually do. But it is the different aspects of economics that we perceive as the moral drivers (as well as our differing accessing of information) that often yield diverging policy proscriptions. We have to be careful that we do not automatically assume that someone disagrees with our policy preferences because they are less “moral” than we are. Judgments about personal character have to be made, because character matters both before and after people acquire power, but those judgments have to be made carefully.

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