From Daybreak: “On the natural history of rights and duties. — Our duties — are the rights of others over us. How have they acquired such rights? By taking us to be capable of contracting and of requiting, by positing us as similar and equal to them, and as a consequence entrusting us with something, educating, reproving, supporting us. … If power-relationships undergo any material alteration, rights disappear and new ones are created — as is demonstrated in the continual disappearance and reformation of rights between nations. If our power is materially diminished, the feeling of those who have hitherto guaranteed our rights changes: they consider whether they can restore us to the full possession we formerly enjoyed — if they feel unable to do so, they henceforth deny our ‘rights’. Likewise, if our power is materially increased, the feeling of those who have hitherto recognised it but whose recognition is no longer needed changes: they no doubt attempt to suppress it to its former level, they will try to intervene and in doing so will allude to their ‘duty’ — but this is only a useless playing with words. Where rights prevail, a certain condition and degree of power is being maintained, a diminution and increment warded off. The rights of others constitute a concession on the part of our sense of power to the sense of power of those others. If our power appears to be deeply shaken and broken, our rights cease to exist: conversely, if we have grown very much more powerful, the rights of others, as we have previously conceded them, cease to exist for us. — The ‘man who wants to be fair’ is in constant need of the subtle tact of a balance: he must be able to assess degrees of power and rights, which, given the transitory nature of human things, will never stay in equilibrium for very long but will usually be rising or sinking: — being fair is consequently difficult and demands much practice and good will, and very much very good sense.”
This has been one of the central understandings that informs my politics — the one argument for equity that I find compelling. When any single political group becomes so powerful it no longer needs the other’s consent, or where it is do able to dominate it that it need not fear retaliation, it can dismiss that group’s protests and either dominate it or exclude it. All with the clearest conscience.
And the impotent fury of the powerless at the smug and ignorant moral self-satisfaction of the powerful is a truly dangerous force — especially if the powerful group (thinking inside its own logical bubble) overestimates its power and overplays its hand before the powerless group is truly helpless and unable to retaliate.
Anyone who sets aside the filters and logic of popular philosophy, and closely observes the relationship between power and truth will see something strange: first-person perspectives bend and warp around power without deciding to, or even noticing it is happening. The power-induced change in feelings and thoughts — even memories — are experienced as an epiphany or moment of clarity. “Now that I think about it, I see the truth, a truth that was there all along, I just never noticed…!”
I know a couple where one spouse took on a new energizing project, while the other was sinking into a debilitating depression. The energized spouse, looking through the lens of a new power balance, suddenly had insights about the depressed spouse and their years of marriage, and reassessed its value.
From the perspective of the old power balance, both would have recognized this shift as a betrayal of the worst kind, at exactly the moment when loyalty matters most.
But this is no longer the active perspective. The very standard of what is true, just and good changes with the change in power-relation. An epiphany occurs. The situation transfigures into a liberation story. …Or it transfigures for one side, the side with the power, the side who sees the truth. The other spouse is in no position to protest. The weak perspective can be disparaged and dismissed in the terms of the stronger one. And the weak perspective might even have to adopt the strong perspective if the relationship is to continue. This creates an illusion that there was really only one valid side to this conflict. The winners write history.
It is all unnervingly innocent, it happens constantly, and it is all concealed under language that artificially preserves an appearance of integrity and continuity.
And this story, writ large, is the story of our times.
1 thought on “The shift”
The power dynamics in Davidsonian triangulation are indeed central. This is true even in science, as Planck long ago pointed out. A condensed version of Planck’s principle is “Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out.” The “truth” (and rights) espoused by a group fade away as that group becomes weaker. For example, the right to enslave others was never “proven” to be immoral, its proponents have simply weakened in power over the past several centuries.