Noblesse Oblige

Spider-man has often spoken the moral principle that power brings responsibility.


Clint Hamada CC BY NC

 This moral principle is rarely taught in moral philosophy, but it is an important idea that was the basis for the principle of noblesse oblige.  That was the principle that the powerful people of society (the nobility) had an obligation to serve their people.  Luke Froeb’s Managerial Economics textbook seems to mock this idea, but it is in the Bible and it is one of the most important concepts for making a just society.  Luke 12:48 says: “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.”

There are two main ways to define power: power to make other people do things and the power to do things on one’s own.  In the rare case in which actions have no externalities on other people, the latter kind of power does not necessarily bring responsibility, but any power that affects others brings a noblesse oblige.

One of my favorite professors in college, Kesho Scott, said that racism is a form of power and when minorities don’t have power, they cannot be racist.  I agree in theory, but every person has some amount of power over every other person they relate to.  The IAT test shows that almost everyone has racist tendencies and everyone has a responsibility to counter it.  But she was correct in her moral sentiment because people with more power have more responsibility.  For example, both slaves and slave owners probably harbored some racist animosity, and the slaves would have much greater cause for it than the owners since the owners got a lot more benefit from the slaves than vice versa.  But the slaves’ racist attitudes weren’t the problem that caused racial injustice.  Only the owners’ racism was a problem.

Similarly, being part of a majority group creates power which also creates a responsibility to be more careful than people in a minority group.  For example, a minority group is likely to experience more racism than people in a majority even if everyone has the same likelihood of being racist, so the majority should put more effort into reducing their racism because a minority inherently has less power.

As Sebastian Junger wrote:

“For most of human history, freedom had to be at least suffered for if not died for. That raised its value to something almost sacred. In modern democracies, however, an ethos of public sacrifice is rarely needed because freedom and survival are more or less guaranteed… The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.”

In 1946 Viktor Frankl wrote that responsibility should be celebrated just as much as freedom:

“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”

Posted in Discrimination
2 comments on “Noblesse Oblige
  1. […] obviously have no responsibility to do something if you don’t have the power to do it. Thus power creates moral responsibility and the absence of power absolves […]

  2. […] Because majorities inherently have more power than minorities, majorities have more responsibility to use their power with noblesse oblige. […]

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