I am a doofus and turned in my laptop for repairs at FAS IT before uploading my blog post. So please forgive me – the “I Take Issue With” series will take off soon. Until then, however, I’m going to discuss some of the implications of psychology for Christian ethics.
Many psychologists have studied the relationship between power and ethics. The standard experiment goes something like this:
1. Prime the subjects with powerlessness or power.
2. Measure how they respond to ethical problems (by asking or by testing their behavior).
3. Observe whether a correlation exists between the way the subjects have been primed.
Consistently, there has been a correlation – a positive one between power and a loss of moral virtue. People who are powerful – even just for a short time in a rigged experiment!- tend to make moral exceptions for themselves, viewing themselves as more worthy than others. Jonah Lehrer writes, in a wonderful article at the Wall Street Journal, that “the same flawed thought processes triggered by authority also distort our ability to evaluate information and make complex decisions… People in power tend to reliably overestimate their moral virtue.” They make excuses like, “I’m an important executive that must make this meeting, so it’s okay for me to run this red light.” Or “I’m a Harvard student with too much reading to do, so it’s okay for me to cheat on this test.” Or “I have to complete this task, so it’s okay for me to fudge some expenses.” Or “I’m an awesome athlete, so it’s okay if I relieve some stress by having an affair.” Or sometimes, even, “I’m the Features editor, so I don’t have to post my blog on time.”
But God doesn’t give us these excuses. He says just the opposite in Luke 12:48 – “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” So as Christians, we must watch ourselves closely whenever we are in power! Science has only proven what we already knew to be true: power corrupts.