With great power comes great responsibility-but why?

July 20, 2023 10:07
Photo: Reuters

We’ve all heard the familiar saying by now, “With great power comes great responsibility”. What had originated, as far as I’m aware, in a Spiderman movie (a line quipped by Aunt May to Peter Parker), has now morphed into a slogan that is oft-trotted-out in the most innocuous of circumstances - from valedictorian speeches to the musings of a perfunctory political speech at a poorly attended rally.

The intuition seems to be pretty straightforward: those who wield greater powers, capacities, and wherewithal, should in fact step up to contributing more towards the accomplishment of “broadly morally desirable” objectives.

Yet one may also see the opposite as true. For one, those in positions of greater political and official power, may have already done a lot to get to where they are - thus on grounds of fairness of distribution and contribution, we may not see such individuals as bearing any, let alone extra, responsibilities. Consider a veteran soldier who has risen through the ranks through servicing his country with unwavering loyalty - presumably, upon rising to the rank of Brigadier-General and on the cusp of retirement, they need not bear as much responsibility as a colonel navigating the dynamics of military leadership.

Now, there is an available rejoinder to this view. It may be true that the brigadier-general deserves to be assigned less responsibility in virtue of their being old, senior, and nearing retirement. It may also be that they can be cut more slack (e.g. enjoy a wider range of permissions) on the grounds that they have earned such room for flexibility and discretionary treatment. Yet neither of these contradicts - in any meaningful sense - the adage that their greater ability comes with more substantial responsibilities. One may challenge my specific comparison - by positing that colonels do in fact wield more power than brigadier-generals. So suppose that’s true: would this not still therefore justify our assigning more responsibilities to colonels, even despite the nominal hierarchy within the military?

Our intuitions concerning responsibilities are unhelpfully murky and muddled, for three reasons. First, there are too many factors and possible considerations - with capacity standing as only one amongst them, and not necessarily the most important one, at that. Second, it is difficult unpack what ‘more responsibility’ means - does it mean a wider scope? A larger number of lives at stake? A greater extent of demandingness can be expected and rationalised reasonably? How can we navigate the dynamics at work here when it comes to clarifying the contours and shape of responsibility? Third, and above all, what of collective and group responsibilities? Does the Brigadier-General bear more responsibilities in virtue of his shared duties with a larger number of soldiers under his command, or does the colonel bear a greater set of responsibilities due to his relative proximity to on-the-ground, front-line warfare?

All very interesting questions. But back to the original enquiry - why, if at all, should greater capacity entail greater responsibility?

One reading is that those who can potentially exercise a wider range of powers, can be held reasonably responsible for opting to not, or failing to wield such powers. We would not fault a child for not being able to determine the complex reactions required to assemble safety checks and limits on a nuclear bomb. We may fault Oppenheimer in his later life, or someone of his intellect and knowledge, for not knowing the same - given Project Manhattan. Oppenheimer thus bears the responsibility to produce failsafe mechanisms for the bomb, on grounds that it is far less excusable and justifiable for him to not know how to do so, than the child. A more idiosyncratic example may be this: we would hold someone who is a weight-lifter as far more responsible for their failure to rescue a drowning child in a shallow pond, than someone who is semi-unconscious due to a long-standing ailment. With greater capacity comes reduced margins for error and excusability.

Another reading is that it is comparatively less costly for those who are more powerful, to do more. Compare a 1 million USD donation from Bill Gates, with the same amount of donation from someone with a net worth of ‘just’ 10 million USD, or, indeed, 1 million USD. For the bare millionaire, 1 million USD would effectively comprise all of their wealth; or 10% of the deca-millionaire. Yet for Bill Gates, 1 million USD would be merely 1/120,000 of his wealth. Hence the costliness - and consequent subjective significance - of a 1m donation clearly varies from individual to individual. Now apply the same logic to non-monetary forms of power, and it's not hard to see why we’d expect more from those who can afford to incur greater costs.

The final explanation - and this is a theoretical argument that I have yet to fully work out, if I could be completely honest - concerns what I’d dub ‘Inverse Prioritarianism’. The prioritarian argument suggests that we should always focus on the interests of worse-off, on grounds that they are the neediest, and for whom improvements can yield the greatest marginal utility. In contrast, the ‘inverse-prioritarian’ position is that we should always assign more responsibilities to those who are the best-off, for they are the least needy/vulnerable, and for whom ‘depletion of resources’ would be least marginally costly. I suppose this draws upon the above reading, yet augments it through the lenses of prioritisation. It would also allow for instances where the powerful do suffer significant setbacks on face value (e.g. 10 billion fine slapped on a 12-billion USD billionaire), and yet such setbacks’ marginal disutility (e.g. the multi-billionaire becomes a 2bn USD-net worth individual) is at best highly limited. In these cases, we should indeed prioritise taking the 10bn USD from the 12bn USD, if no other options are available, as compared with, say, 1 million from someone with 1.3 million USD. This is because the billionaire can still live a luxurious and lavish life with 2 billion USD, whilst with just 300,000USD left, the erstwhile millionaire may find themselves substantially marginally worse-off.

All of the above directions offer promising bases for future research. So here’s to the responsibility of digging deeper into the questions at hand here.

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Assistant Professor, HKU