Essay on the Correlation of Power and Morality

Essay Politics

Power and morality are concepts that have a direct relationship with each other. This relationship tends to be complex and paradoxical (Fleischmann et al. 219). Both are present in societal groups and influence the action of individuals. Power can affect the decision-making of leaders and group members. Morality can alter human behavior and promote ethical decisions. The influence of the two concepts has led researchers to conduct studies to assess their correlation. The studies contained empirical data along with contradicting results due to the different intensity of power and their relationship with moral decisions. This essay will discuss how the different levels of power, disinhibitions, and orientations can affect human behavior and lead to immoral and moral decisions.

Definition of Power

The concept of power refers to an individual’s authority over other people. Max Weber (1978) defined power as an individual’s influence over others. An individual that possesses power has the authority to command or give orders to others. Some examples of individuals in a position of power are country presidents, company CEOs, and religious leaders. Country presidents can command military forces and approve laws. Company CEOs are responsible for important decisions regarding an organization’s welfare. Religious leaders establish rules that followers obey and teach. 

Individuals in positions of power receive power from different sources. French and Raven (1959), introduced legitimate power, reward power, expert power, referent power, and coercive power as the bases of power. Additionally, Raven introduced informational power as another base of power. Legitimate power comes from formal rights, such as voting or a birthright. Reward power refers to the power that comes from an individual’s ability to reward compliance. Expert power describes an individual’s power over others as they possess higher levels of expertise. Referent power is the power that comes from others’ respect and high regard toward an individual. Coercive power refers to the authority that an individual acquires through the implementation of punishments. Informational power describes an advantageous position where an individual possesses important information which they can use to control others. These sources show the different types of power and how they may affect moral decision-making.

Definition of Morality

Morality is an abstract concept that refers to acceptable behavior in society. Field experts approach the subject of morality in varying ways. Various research has stated that morality is indicative of society’s perception regarding the concepts of “good”, “virtuous”, “just”, “right”, and “ethical” (Ellemers et al. 2019). Morality mostly dictates that a behavior is moral if it benefits a party and does not harm others. Morality demotes selfish behaviors, such as cheating and stealing, as they are actions that result from putting an individual’s interest over others.

The scientific, philosophical, and political fields perceive morality differently. Biologists and evolutionary scientists perceive morality as the display of fairness, empathy, or altruism in animal groups. Philosophers and political scientists approach morality as an abstract concept that depends on language-driven interpretations to identify moral behaviors. Psychologists aim to apply morality in human development and clinical implications (Ellemers 2019). These varying perceptions towards morality indicate that the definition of morality may depend on societal groups and their approach to acceptable behaviors.

Power’s Effect on Moral Resolutions

Depending on the level of power, individuals will approach moral resolutions differently. Higher levels of power promote deontological moral resolutions while lower levels of power promote consequence-based solutions (Lammers and Stapel 2009). Individuals, such as Presidents and CEOs, will tend to solve ethical issues by depending on established rules. For example, a cigar company CEO may approach the importance of corporate governance by adhering to government-mandated laws. They may ignore the consequences of their organization’s activities and focus on their adherence to the rules. This implies that individuals with higher levels of power may measure morality through rules and laws. However, Lammers and Stapel’s (2009) study also stated that self-interest can reverse the effect of power on rule-based decisions. Individuals may put their self-interest over the rules which may lead to immoral actions.

Individuals that possess lower levels of power tend to rely on consequences rather than rules to address ethical issues. Individuals with lower levels of power can be members of an organization, a lower-level managerial position, or the public. Using the same example in the previous paragraph, organization members may look at the consequences of their activities and the health effects of smoking . This can result in the development of ethical solutions that take the effects of smoking into account. However, one of Lammers and Stapel’s (2009) experiments indicated that moral orientation may also affect the relationship between power and moral decisions. Individuals with lower levels of power may potentially adhere to rule-based resolutions depending on their moral orientation.

Aside from the levels of power, other studies indicate that different processes can affect the relationship between power and morality. According to Fleischmann et al. (2019); integration orientation, deliberation orientation, and rule orientation affect the association of power with deontological and utilitarian approaches. Integrating emotions and cognition in moral decisions can lead to both deontological and utilitarian approaches. Focusing on outcomes can promote utilitarian moral decision-making. Lastly, following moral rules had negative effects on utilitarian and deontological approaches. These results indicate that orientations have significant effects on power and moral decisions. It also gave an insight into the contradicting studies regarding power, deontological methods, and consequential methods (Lammers et al. 2009; Lucas and Galinsky 2015; cited in Fleischmann et al., 2019). 

Power and Immoral Behaviors

The effects of power on moral decisions include its influence on immoral behaviors. According to Lammers et al. (2015), Power can cause disinhibition which can promote immoral actions. The disinhibition that power causes may come from self-interest along with the feeling of having control over others. This disinhibition can then lead an individual to disregard the needs of others and focus on their self-interest. For example, an individual with an informational base of power may find themselves in a position where they can manipulate a member of a group. The disinhibition that they experience from informational power can then lead them to blackmail a member. Another example would be political leaders exercising authoritative power over the public, such as the events in Tiananmen Square . Powerful leaders may experience disinhibitions along with the deontological-based approach that high levels of power promote. The combination of these factors can lead to immoral actions that benefit the powerful party.

However, disinhibition from power can have a contradicting effect. Lammers et al. (2015) stated in the same study that disinhibition can cause increased moral impulses which promote ethical behaviors. Moral impulses can include feelings that relate to ethical behavior, such as selflessness and empathy for others. The increased moral impulse may be due to orientation, levels of power, and the interest of an individual. Disinhibition can lead an individual to prefer ethical decisions that result in others receiving the benefits. For example, an individual with legitimate power may feel a sense of protection toward their constituents. They may develop government projects that provide housing and occupation to help those in need. 

Lastly, immoral behavior from the possession of power can come from increased self-focus. Lammers et al. (2015) stated that power promotes self-focus which can then lead to unethical and selfish behaviors. Depending on the base of power, orientation, and disinhibition; an individual may develop enhanced self-focus and begin to prioritize their needs over others. For example, an individual with referent power may develop an unhealthy ego which can promote immoral behaviors. Their self-importance can cause them to manipulate and disregard others. However, the same study also indicated that individuals that do not have power tend to develop other-beneficial unethical behaviors. This type of behavior is when an individual exercises unethical behaviors for the benefit of others. Concerning this, Lammers and Stapel (2009) stated that lower levels of power promote consequence-based or utilitarian decision-making. The two studies suggest that lower levels of power promote unethical behaviors for the benefit of others. An example of this would be a homeless child who steals bread from a store to feed their younger siblings. The action of stealing is unethical, however, the consequence of the action benefits another party.

Effects of Need for Power to Morality

Aside from the effects of possessing different levels of power, more recent studies focus on the effects of the need for power. The studies revealed that the need for power promotes competitive victimhood and negatively correlates to system justification (Kahalon et al. 2018; Hassler et al. 2018). A disadvantaged group that has a need for power and a moral reputation exhibits competitive victimhood. The group’s need for power promotes their perception of victimhood. Similarly, a group responds negatively to system justification as their need for power increases. This low level or complete lack of power may promote utilitarian decision-making which causes disadvantaged groups to perceive themselves as victims of society. The need for power further illustrates how lower levels of power respond to deontological and utilitarian approaches.


The relationship between power and morality is complex and contradicting. Various studies have shown that the different levels of power, disinhibitions, and orientations can lead to immoral and moral decisions. Higher levels of power promote a deontological approach in decision-making, however, the added factor of disinhibition and orientation can lead to contrasting results. Lower levels of power promote utilitarian decision-making, however, adding disinhibition and orientation will lead to different results. Both the high and low levels of power have the tendency to promote immoral and moral decisions depending on an individual’s orientation and the effects of disinhibition. This paradoxical relationship between power and morality illustrates the complexity of human behavior and the various factors that can affect decision-making.

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Fleischmann, A., Lammers, J., Conway, P., and Galinsky, A. 2019. Paradoxical Effects of Power on Moral Thinking: Why Power Both Increases and Decreases Deontological and Utilitarian Moral Decisions. Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol 10(1). Available at Accessed January 16, 2022.

French, J. and Raven, B. 1959. The Bases of Social Power. Studies in Social Power, vol. 6, pp. 150-167. Available at . Accessed January 17, 2022.

Hassler, T., Shnabel, N., Ullrich, J., Arditti-Vogel, A., and SimanTov-Nachlieli, I. 2018. Individual Differences in System Justification Predict Power and Morality-Related Needs in Advantaged and Disadvantaged Groups in Response to Group Disparity. Sage Journals. Available at Accessed January 16, 2022.

Kahalon, R., Shnabel, N., Halabi, S., and SimanTov-Nachlieli, I. 2018. Power Matters: The Role of Power and Morality Needs in Competitive Victimhood Among Advantaged and Disadvantaged Groups. British Journal of Social Psychology. Available at Accessed January 16, 2022.

Lammers, J., Galinsky, A., Dubois, and Rucker, D. 2015. Power and Morality. Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 6, pp. 15-19. Available at Accessed January 16, 2022.

Weber, M. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (G. Roth & C. Wittich, Eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press. Accessed January 16, 2022.

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