The Empowerment Perspective has Profound, Negative Theological Implications

Rick Falkvinge recently wrote about the word empowerment, and whether it was a suitable candidate for ”core word” of the Pirate Ideology, much in the same way that green parties use the word ”sustainability”. The answer is a categorical no, because of the large swathes of the population which might be alienated by its negative theological implications, and because it has negative theological implications. Let me explain why.

First off, I’m not trying to make a statement by using the word ”theological” rather than ”philosophical”. Maybe philosophical would be better. I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. With that out of the way, let us begin by trying to grasp the essential meaning of the word empowerment. Since I don’t want to belabour this text with an arduously extensive analysis resulting an an arduously long definition, lets just define it as something along the lines of ”granting, teaching or bestowing upon people the power and sense of agency required to improve their lives in certain ways.” Now that last part about ”certain ways” is really important, because that’s what keeps the definition from becoming general to the point of meaninglessness. Now in what precise way improvement is achieved isn’t really important to the general arguement, only that the person doing the empowering has an idea of what they’re empowering people with. An absurdist might be able to say ”I have empowered you with the meaninglessness of meaning by putting a pancake on your head”, but if your goal is to with pancakes feed people starved to the point of immovability, so that they may gain the ability to collect food for themselves, then the pancakes ending up on their head can hardly be considered successful empowerment. Now let me explain why this is bad.

In The Republic, Plato used his famous cave metaphor for describing humanity’s relationship to Goodness and Justice. In the metaphor, some people are tied, sitting down, to a rock facing a short wall and, behind it, the inner wall of the cave. Behind this wall is a fire, and around this fire little creatures parade holding icons on sticks. Now, all the people see are the shadows of these icons cast on the cave wall, and since they know no other world, they assume these shadows to be what the real world is actually like. According to Plato, however, attempting to live and act Justly, is the equivalent of a cave person breaking his fetters and standing up and looking over the wall. Of course, the bright fire and the whole ordeal will be confusing to this person, and so he must, by constantly seeking out the nature of and acting in accordance with justice, navigate his way out of the cave. Outside he will see the sun, which is Goodness made manifest in the metaphor. He will be blinded by the light at first, but by staying on the path of justice his eyes will eventually adjust and he will see the world as it really is. The metaphor goes on from there, but in the interest of saving time I’ll just say that the now enlightened man must return to the cave and explain what the real world, which has now become revealed to him, is really like, essentially preaching the essential nature of Goodness, and justice being the tool by which we measure Goodness. Sort of.

The problem in this is that it assumes that the same things are Good for all people. As Marcus Aurelius noted in his Meditations, universal justice assumes a reason and intellect common to all humans. In other words, Plato’s thesis only works if there is only one sun (Goodness) common to all people. Since people’s needs (and desires, though those are irrelevant illusions for most people, if you ask Plato) might differ, however, one cannot with certainty assume that there is only one Goodness or a single Justice. There could, as it were, exist many suns.

This problem is fundamentally epistemological, and can only be overcome by not assuming there is a universal justice (which, I might add, is not the same as assuming that there are many). This fundamental non-assumption has been institutionalised in religions all across the globe. Throughout the world, people have preachers and holy men have overcome, or at least tried to overcome, the social isolation this solipsistic obstacle might create by stripping away the need for non-isolation through prayer, meditation, introspection, philosophy, etc. In other words, they simply reject their fears, wants, and needs, to varying success, by externalising them and projecting them onto a separate (often times imaginary) entity. In other words, they work around the epistemological impossibility which familiarity with other people’s selves is, by creating entities and authority figures within themselves, thereby liberating their minds of solipsistic loneliness and ultimately disconnecting themselves in varying degree from the immediacy of their sensations, ideally creating a peace of mind absolute and intarnishable by effectively ceasing to experience their physical bodies as containers of their self, instead seeing them as the tool and vessel through which the very universe experiences itself.

That state of mind has many terms – zen, moksha, nirvana, becoming one with the world, finding one’s true self, heaven on earth, loving Jesus, fully accepting one’s mortality, and so on – but the entities are commonly referred to as gods. Commonly, but not always, and the importance of their ontological status varies. This is relevant to empowerment, because when you attempt to empower someone you are either assuming that they want or need the power and just you are granting/teaching/giving them, or you are not. Not making that assumption is problematic because of how it might backfire. ”Empowering” a murderer with the weapons to kill would be dangerous, empowering a child to have chocolate pudding for dinner every day would be irresponsible, and empowering a recovering alcoholic to get drunk by giving him booze is downright cruel.

In other words, you have to make that assumption about a person’s wants or needs when practising empowerment. You could still do all those things I mentioned, of course, but probably not unintentionally. This brings us back to the original problem of universal justice: If you’re trying to help someone with empowerment, you’re assuming that they want or need empowerment. To someone practising the kind of spirituality described above, empowerment would seem counterproductive, maybe even downright blasphemous, because unsolicited empowerment might simply feed superficial and maybe even destructive desires.

For instance, a particular kind of socialist might say that we should empower people to live happily by giving them money so they can achieve material prosperity. I would say that’s a ridiculous notion, since you can just throw currency, possessions and, well, stuff at people to make them happy. On the other hand, a capitalist might say that we should empower people to live happily by giving them incentives to become rich. I would say that’s a ridiculous notion, since you can just throw currency, possessions and stuff at people to make them happy. As a Free Market Liberal I believe that people might have different ways of becoming happy, and that the most effective way of maximising happiness in society is to allow people to do what they want, including run businesses. The material incentives and subsequent wealth is just an interesting side effect. But hey, that’s just political ideology, lets look at some religions.

If you empower a follower of one of the Abrahamic religions (or for that matter a Hindu or a Buddhist) to become rich, they might object that you are merely distracting them from God with money. If you empower them to enjoy culture, they might object that you are distracting them from God with entertainment, and if you empower them to become politicians they might object that you are distracting them with power. You don’t even have to literally believe in divinity in the conventional way to object to empowerment, either. To the epicureans, gods served a strictly metaphysical function, having no influence over the material world, but they still believed unquenchable desires should be suppressed and overcome in order to achieve peace of mind. Similarly the stoics (who were atheists!) would have rejected empowerment as a vain and futile attempt to escape the fact that ultimately there is no food palatable enough, no position high enough, and no friend close enough to satisfy our superficial desires absolutely, and that in so attempting the escape this fact one only exacerbates suffering. As much as empowerment might seem like a compassionate and empathetic idea at first glance, once one scratches the surface it quickly becomes apparent that the concept of empowerment is theologically identical to what many religions call temptation, and that unless you want to make that a central doctrine of the Pirate Party, it has to be rejected as a core principle.

Det här inlägget postades i Piratpartiet, Retorik. Bokmärk permalänken.

6 kommentarer till The Empowerment Perspective has Profound, Negative Theological Implications

  1. Mab skriver:

    Although I share some of your objections I certainly don’t share your conclusions. But lets assume I do for the sake of the argument. What of your objections remain if we switch the word ”empowerment” for ”self empowerment”?

  2. steelneck skriver:

    In The Republic, Plato used his famous cave metaphor for describing humanity’s relationship to Goodness and Justice.

    Please! Though i agree that empowerment is not a good word, i would rather think about ”integrity” that i wrote about over at Falkvinge. The Plato cave is about the cognitive relationship to knowledge, about cognitive dissonance, about how we all try new things against our old cognitives, usually established between our peers, to sort true from false, the cave is about about both learning and indoctrination.

  3. Nicholas Miles skriver:

    Mab: Though ”self-empowerment” certainly switches things up a bit, it also raises new issues. It effectively eliminates the epistemological problems of trying to figure out other people, by limiting the scope of the empowerment to the same individual doing the empowering. This is problematic, however, because its not something you can really build policy around, since you’re basically just saying that everyone should self-empower themselves. That doesn’t really help us when we’re making ideological decisions in parliament.

    You could say that you want to ”allow” people to self-empower themselves and such, of course, but at that point you’re just inventing newspeak for liberalism.

    steelneck: Yes, but the point is to illustrate how it is Goodness that should be ideal which we allow to lead and illuminate us in a dark and confusing world. More importantly, the metaphor demonstrates with its one sun that Plato believes in one Universal Goodness (and one Universal Justice to achieve it) which should guide everything. This has a profound impact on Plato’s entire philosophy, since it makes up a most fundamental premise for the legitimacy of his philosopher king – the enlightened despot who is supposed to know the people better than the people knows itself, because of his familiarity with those concepts of Goodness and Justice that is common to them all.

  4. Ping: Guesstblogger: On the Implications of Involuntary Empowerment | Then Piratska Argus

  5. steelneck skriver:

    Goodness? Try truth instead. That is the whole reason behind having philosophers as leaders (not necessarily a sole despot), his definition of a philosopher is a truth-seeker, doing the right thing because of having seen the truth. Though the whole Republic starts off with the question of what is wrong and right (det rättas väsen in swedish) on a personal level, and the state comes in as a parable following the logic that it is easier to see it large (the state) than in small (a single person). So, it is about right and wrong on a personal level, not about the state, that is only used to explain.

    The old peers back in the dark do not live in a confusing world according to them self, on the contrary. When you come back to the cave with ”destroyed eyes” due to your visit outside, and on top of that saying things that goes against everything they know, they would try to kill you if you tried to drag any one of them out of the cave. This whole issue is what we today, more than 2000 years later call cognitive dissonance, and the mental forces associated with this can be _very_ strong, especially in a larger social context since we are gregarious animals. We all need quite a bit of integrity on a personal level to be able to put our own cognitives to the test, without it we resort to herd mentality and system justification leading to newspeak and double think/talk.

    An example, you probably think Sweden Democrats are people living in a cave, in the dark, in that confusing world, right? Now try to drag one of them out in the light.. I bet that person will put up fight, just as the Plato prisoners. I also bet that the SD-person will try to say the same thing about you, that it is you who live in a cave and need to see the light. So who is right then? I can tell you that it is the one who can show proof, or things that can stand the test of peer review as in the scientific method.

  6. Ping: On Information Fertility | Then Piratska Argus

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