One of the prevailing ideologies from our past comes to us in the form of the slogan “Might is right”. It is the ideology of the strong taking what they can, what they deem to be rightfully theirs and attaining from those that have. It separates the haves and the have-nots. More poetically, Jack London would have called it the law of Club and Fang. Another form, although slightly different, comes to us from one of the greatest sophists of the 19th century.
Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:
Physiologists should think twice before positioning the drive for self-preservation as the cardinal drive of an organic being. Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power -: self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent consequences of this.
Besides being wholly unscientific and poetic garbage this sort of outlook as had a tremendous effect on our modern philosophy. For instance in schools in the U.S. history is still taught as the history of the great man, just as Carlyle would have had it. Not as the history of a people or a culture, but as the story of the those who rose to power. And just the same microeconomics is taught as the science of self-interest, still upholding the spirit of Adam Smith’s vile maxim of the masters of mankind “All for ourselves and nothing for other people”. While predating Nietzsche and Carlyle, Smith’s maxim is directly supported by the “discharge of strength” so idolized by Nietzsche.
But “Might is right” is the easy answer. For anyone that accepts that the chief role of man is to “discharge” his strength, although I don’t know why you would accept that, I have a simple question for you: In which scenario is the use of power most effective, the strongman taking food from the weak, or the strongman defending the weak from the other strongmen? If the strongman is truly stronger than the weak man then it shouldn’t take any power at all to take the food, but for the strongman to defend the weak would take a considerable more amount of power.
Let’s put this in another way. You are on a schoolyard and you see a bully beat up a younger boy and take the money from his wallet. Well perhaps you don’t care too much for the money but you noticed the bully left the boy’s lunch box and you are hungry. You could easily go over and take the lunch box from the boy because he’s weaker than usual from the beating. But where is the test in that? You may feel some small boost in confidence levels but that will be superficial and short lived. But, let’s say you go challenge the other bully and take the money from him to give back to the original boy. That is the true test. Of course you could keep the money for yourself but I would argue that you would most likely receive the more pleasure from giving the money back.
Here we have specific scenarios in which case altruistic actions are motivated by self-interest. This can also be contorted to fit a financial scenario. Let’s say you have a thousand dollars you are wishing to spend. Now you have two options, go spend it on a new T.V. or donate it to charity. Which would be the more effective discharge of your financial strength. The latter option very much. Most people can buy a simple commodity like a T.V. but it takes more security to simply give the money away to somebody else. It makes more of a statement. This is why we see vulture capitalists suddenly become so concerned with donating money to charity, it makes a statement. That millionaire could easily take that money and buy some luxury but instead they say “Look at me give all this money to charity. I don’t need the money it’s useless to me.” That is the true discharge of strength in this scenario.
In fact we can really see all exchanging of money as a discharge of strength. I earned this dollar, and by spending it I am using the power and influence it brings to purchase a commodity. You may notice that some people get a sort of thrill when spending money. People will stand in line for hours just to buy the newest gadget and yet it really never brings true pleasure. Whereas quite the opposite case, some of the most pleasure I’ve seen received from an object were photos sent by charities showcasing the kids that any particular donor’s money helped save.
Now for a moment let me be very specific about the purpose of these brief arguments. I’m not advocating a ethics based on the discharge of strength. Quite the opposite actually. I’m saying that with this notion so firmly embedded into our society, it can actually be reversed into advocating a sort of twisted hedonistic altruism where those with the power give to those without simply for the feeling of it. It’s not where we need to be, but it’s a start.