the morality of authority, as influenced by scientific research

Total Posts:  389
Joined  10-01-2007
14 November 2010 21:25

I agree with the premise that science should inform our understanding of morality. 

Lammers, Stapel and Galinsky* researched what happens to people in authority and those subordinate to them.  They found that superiors come to abuse authority because they come to believe they are entitled to do so, and that subordinates come to relinquish their rights because they come to believe they do not deserve those rights.  Specifically:

“The powerful impose more normative restraints on others, but believe they themselves can act with less restraint. The less powerful, in contrast, are less inclined to impose norms on others, but more rigidly follow these themselves. This means that people with power not only take what they want because they can do so unpunished, but also because they intuitively feel they are entitled to do so.  Conversely, people who lack power not only fail to get what they need because they are disallowed to take it, but also because they intuitively feel they are not entitled to it.”

* Power Increases Hypocrisy, Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior, in press.

A summary** of this research states:

“…these results do indeed suggest that power tends to corrupt and to promote a hypocritical tendency to hold other people to a higher standard than oneself.”

“…people with power…break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel…that they are entitled to take what they want. This sense of entitlement is crucial to understanding why people misbehave in high office. In its absence, abuses will be less likely.”


Assuming these conclusions are reliable, how can they be applied to the authority structures we establish in our various human institutions?  That is, what insights from neuroscience are relevant to these findings, or what research in neuroscience is suggested by them?  How may we avoid an improper sense of entitlement in superiors and a codependent sense of unworthiness in subordinates?  What principles should be applied when establishing checks and balances against the abuse of authority by superiors, and to ensure the protection of individual rights of subordinates?