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.