Power = Responsibility

That is, if you want the world to be a “better” place

If you’ve watched Spiderman, you would have heard the quote “with great power comes great responsibility”. The last time I heard this was in Spiderman: No Way Home, which — mini spoiler alerts — I thought was kind of cheesy and disingenuous in the context of this Spiderman movie (because in this movie, Spiderman basically creates a ton of collateral damage by trying to save 3 bad guys from the diseases they had that caused them to be destructive when they could have very easily avoided that by sending them back to where they came from), but I digress.

Recently, I have heard from three different sources that all touched on this proposition through different angles and made me think about it much deeper. When I hear “with power comes responsibility”, I feel like there is a logical jump somewhere. What about having power inherently means that you should also take more responsibility? And to whom?

After a lot of reflection, I believe I have found that the answer lies in the fact that if you want the world to be a better place, then you would also want those in power (the “powerful”) to always take into consideration how their actions affect those not in power (the “powerless”) — which is the responsibility that we’re talking about. Here, I’ll talk about how I’ve come to these conclusions and draw some implications.

My Three Sources

PBD Podcast | Episode 114

From Episode 114 around timestamp 28:40 of the PBD Podcast, the host Patrick Bet-David goes on a bit of a monologue. He argues that whenever he hears people saying things like, “you can’t have it all”, it’s usually because they want to give themselves an out. Later on, he talks about 3 words in particular that people fear:

  • The R word: Responsibility
  • The A word: Accountability
  • The C word: Commitment

Then, Patrick says that in order to do anything great in life, you have to have these three. To him (as I speculate), those who “have it all” are those who are responsible, hold themselves accountable, and show commitment to the things that they want. Also to him, those who aren’t successful are essentially afraid to do at leasts one of these things. In this way, this connects to the idea that powers demands responsibility because to “have it all” is to have power.

Jay Shetty Podcast | Episode from 01/10/2022 with Ed Winters

As I’m writing this, I have not finished listening to this episode where Jay Shetty brings Ed Winters to talk about being vegan, but one part struck me. The guest, Ed Winters, essentially argues that humans come from a position of power over animals. As humans have more power (something you can debate, but the fact that humans pretty much dominate over animals’ natural habitats to me is solid enough proof of that), humans have a responsibility care for the animals, and so humans should try to stop the suffering of those animals by becoming vegan (a decision that other animals can’t consciously make because they do not have the power that we have).

Before I continue, let me be transparent and say that I’m not vegan nor am I trying to convince you to be vegan. However, I believe the author made a very good points which I cannot do justice in 2–3 paragraphs (do listen to the podcast if you want the full, over 1 hour long reasons why you should be vegan — or at least hear the other side). I personally will continue to think deeply about this question of being vegan in my life and how I want to live it.

With that said, this again brought this idea of power with responsibility. The author touched upon my conclusion a bit but not quite, and this added to the list of things that made me ponder on this question of power and responsibility.

Spiderman: No Way Home

The last source was Spiderman: No Way Home. If you haven’t watched the movie, I’d suggest you do because it was quite good. In the context of this essay though, I think this movie is the source that made the most clear explicit claim that if you have power, you have a responsibility towards the powerless.

Why Should the Powerful Care About the Powerless?

Upon being exposed to those three sources, this is the very question I asked myself. I just thought that there was a logical jump somewhere and I couldn’t figure out what, and if I couldn’t figure out what it was, then this whole power/responsibility claim would just be BS. So, I decided to reflect, and here’s how I found the answer.

Photo by Kirill Sharkovski on Unsplash

What would happen if the powerful didn’t care about the powerless?

In mathematics, there’s something called “proof by contradiction”, and it essentially works by showing that there would be an inconsistency if the claim being proposed does not hold true.

In this case, I decided to ask, what would be bad about the powerful not caring about the powerless? If the powerful just make their decisions solely based on their own self interests, needs, and desires without caring about the powerless or those whom those decisions affect, then this is what would happen.

FIRST, By virtue of being powerful, the decisions of the powerful affect a wide range of people.

SECOND, among those people affected, it’s more likely than not that some, many, or most of those people will either be powerless or at least be less powerful than the powerful making the decision. What I mean by “powerless” is that they have less of a recourse to take countermeasures against those actions in case it affects them negatively.

THIRD and FINALLY, if the powerless cannot take countermeasures, the world would be a worse place. More people will be angry and deprived of what they have or want because more people will be negatively impacted by the actions that the powerful take.

THEREFORE, this means that a world in which the powerful don’t care about the powerless is a world that is worse off.

What is a worse — or better — world?

I had a long philosophical discussion with a friend about this. I asked him a question, which was, “do you care that the world is a better place?” His response was, “what exactly do you mean by the world being a better place?” In the previous section I also talked about the world being “worse off”, and it’s a similar (but opposite) idea to the world being a better place.

What I always go back to is that a world in which there is less direct suffering is a better world.

I believe it is universally recognized that death is one of the greatest form of suffering, and one could argue that even animals know and fear death. We all fear death. If death is the worst form of suffering, anything that could bring someone closer to that is also a form of suffering. That could mean being directly hurt on one’s physical body or mental state, or it could mean one finding themselves in a situation where they have a harder time taking care of their body (e.g., being fired, losing a loved one, etc). Even smaller forms of suffering should be considered — like being late to or missing an important appointment which could lead to being fired which could lead to other things that essentially brings one closer to death.

Treating that suffering (anything that brings us closer to death) almost as an axiom and recognizing that virtually no living creature enjoys suffering (by extension of not wanting or liking death), I believe that the world is a better place when there is less direct suffering. However, I also want to make it clear that I don’t believe a world where there is no suffering is a better world (this can be a topic of its own that I’m not going to get into in this blog). So, my belief is that a better world is when there is less direct suffering but not necessarily no suffering, and I believe that most people inherently believe this too.

The missing piece: wanting to have less suffering

I’ve established above that when the powerful don’t care about the powerless, there is more suffering due to the fact that the actions that they take are more likely to negatively impact the powerless. With that said, the statement “with great power comes great responsibility” and the statement “the powerless have a responsibility to care about the powerless” can only be true when one wants to have a better world—defined as a world where there is less suffering.

You Should Want to Have a Better World

I ask the following question: imagine that right now at this very moment, 100 hard-working people are about to get fired for no good reason at all or for reasons beyond their control (e.g., this happened a lot with Covid). Wouldn’t you want less of them to get fired? I also ask, imagine that right now at this very moment, 100 people are at the hospital with a life threatening disease. Wouldn’t you want less of them to die from this disease? Hopefully none of them? Something even more relatable: who wouldn’t help their friend if they’re about to fall and get hurt — hopefully preventing them from getting hurt? The way I see it is, if we can avoid needless suffering from happening, I absolutely want that to happen, and most people do too. Most people should anyways.

What if you are one of those people who don’t care that there is less suffering? I still think you should care, and here’s why. You definitely have your own self-interests. There are things you want (if you didn’t, you’d just kill yourself or something…), and you are more likely to get those things when everyone else is better positioned to give them to you or get out of your way to get those things (as long as those don’t harm others of course). So, if you’re not going to come at it from a selfless standpoint, I think it’s OK to come at it from a selfish standpoint because the outcome is the same: everyone is more happy.

And really, that is my point. Everyone is more happy and there’s less suffering when more people want to have a better world—including those who want to have a better world. So, everyone should want to have a better world.

This should include the powerful

With all of these, it’s clear and easy to see why even the powerful should care about the powerless. Specifically, the powerful should care and try to limit how the actions they take negatively affect the powerless. This would make for a better world in which everyone, including those powerful, benefit. And if we make the assumption that most people want the world to be better, then it makes sense to say that with great power comes great responsibility, à la Spiderman.

One Last Thing: Recognize Your Own Power

If you think you don’t have any power, think again. It’s easy to see those who are more powerful than us: the rich, the politicians, the famous, those with a better job, etc. It’s hard to look inward to see how we have more power than others. You can almost look at the power you have as a sort of privilege you have that others don't. If you are reading this (i.e., being in a position to read a blog on this Medium site), you definitely are better off than many.

I don’t think I should tell you where you are more powerful than others (that’s for you to reflect on), but I did a little reflection for myself and I’m going to share some of the places where I know I have more power than others.

  1. I went to one of the best universities in the world: MIT. Having this either on my resume or just even mentioning it at a party or something always gets a reaction. Solely based on this (regardless of my major—which is computer science and in and of itself adds more power), it is slightly easier for me to do certain things—like get an interview for a job—than it is for others with a less “prestigious” school.
  2. I am able bodied. This means that I don’t have to worry about how accessible a building is. I am also in the majority—most people are able bodied, and this can mean that we often won’t think about how we can make buildings or things more accessible to those who are not able bodied.
  3. I am a man. Just biologically speaking, I’m more likely to be stronger than women in the same scenario. Having more physical strength is definitely a form of power, and the thing is that doesn’t even touch the surface of all the ways men have more power than women in society or the many things that men simply don’t have to think about (e.g., going out at night). I do my best to learn how I can be mindful and aware of this dynamic in society, but I know there’s always more to learn.
  4. I am human. Over other living beings, we easily are the most powerful because of our brain and our ability to use technology to overcome the strength and physical power of other animals.
  5. I have a really fast metabolism. For instance, I barely maintain my weight eating 3 big meals a day (or 2 even bigger meals). This means that there are many things that I don’t have to worry about in terms eating that others do. This also mean that I should be aware about other people’s relationship with diet.
  6. I currently live in the US. I am originally from D. R. Congo, and the kind of privilege you get just by being here relative to there is insane! Simple things like being able to order food, having running or hot water, having electricity, super fast internet, having nice roads to drive on, etc, are all privileges that most people in the US have just by being here. Others in some other countries simply don’t.

I wanted to do this to give examples of simple and non-simple ways where it is easy to see how one is more powerful than others. Some of these are relatively smaller forms of power, but they are power nonetheless. Of course there are many more ways that I have power that I didn’t write here. The point being, in order to properly care for those who are less powerful than we are, we have to realize the power that we have in the first place.

How I care—or try to

I am not an expert, and I probably won’t be in a long time. At the same time, I don’t want to be misunderstood when I am pushing for the “powerful” to care for the “powerful” in how I am asking to care. I think there are good and bad ways to care (which I am still learning), and here are some ways that I believe are good:

  • Increasing my awareness: I try to be aware about social issues, and I always try to keep an open mind. The most important ways I’ve done it recently was through reading the book Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow—which dives into the issue of sexual assault in the workplace and especially in the media industry. I wrote about this in Best Book I Read in 2021, and overall I highly recommend this book.
  • Being an advocate for equality of opportunities: When in a position of power, I believe one should always try to ensure that people have equal opportunities. This means that if someone wanted to do apply for something, they should be evaluated solely on their merits and nothing else. Things that make them “less powerful” in society shouldn’t be taken into account and only what is needed for the job should. Being in a position of power, one will often be able to call out when such a situation is not happening and hopefully make change happen.
  • Being an advocate for access where it is lacking: On the other side of the equality of opportunities lies the fact that sometimes one isn’t aware of the opportunities that they have—often by virtue of not being in a position of power where they would be exposed to those opportunities. So, it is also important me to do my best to expose these opportunities whenever I can, and that is something that I try to do.
  • Being an advocate for awareness: Finally, bringing awareness of the different power dynamics at play is also an important way to care. When I do realize or understand a power dynamic situation, I try to make people aware of it whenever appropriate or necessary.
  • Considering how my actions affect others: I said before in this essay, but it’s something worth repeating. I try to ask myself, will this affect other people? If so, how? Will it be bad? The answer isn’t always clear, but being aware of this helps me figure out how to act. Sometimes, it means checking in with the person. Other times, it’s obvious when something should or shouldn’t be done.

There are many other ways to care. Being in a position of power and just in general, these are the ways I choose to care. So while with great power comes great responsibility—importantly the responsibility to care how our actions affects others in such a position, but it is also important to care properly and reflect on how to care.

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Robert M. Vunabandi

Robert M. Vunabandi

I’m a human, living on earth, and doing Software Engineering. I enjoy reading thoughtful posts, and I like to write! So, here we are.