The moral defense of despotism

Despotism? Isn’t that a dirty word, equivalent to tyranny? Why would anyone defend such an idea?

Let’s play a thought experiment.

Consider this scenario: A cruise ship crashed on a deserted island. The captain and the crew have all been killed in the process. And the passengers of the ship have no means of communicating their plight with the wider world. Thankfully the island is verdant and abundant with natural resources, more than sufficient to ensure everyone’s survival.

I think most civilised and unselfish people would all agree that the passengers should all cooperate and coordinate their activities, dividing responsibilities according to ability, so that some would gather food, some would construct shelter, some would care for the weak and/or unwell (eg young children and the elderly).

That all sounds good right? I think we would all agree that such communal cooperation would be morally good.

Conversely, imagine if a rugby team was on the ship (maybe celebrating their victory). Because they were built bigger and stronger than most of the other passengers, they had the strength to bully everyone into doing what they wanted doing, forcing everyone to become their servants or minions under the threat of violence. So, these strong ones set the rules in society, shaping them according to their own wants and desires. In effect, implementing “might is right”. If someone decided to seize power through strength of might like this, I think we would condemn that as morally evil.

But what if there was also a small group of manipulative connivers on board the cruise ship? (Maybe there were some politicians and big company CEOs on a conference, wining and dining…) Through their cleverness, they managed to deceive, outwit, and manipulate everyone on board, including the rugby team, to accomplish the goals of these connivers? So, instead of through physical strength, they effectively seize power through the strength of their intellect. Despite the absence of violence, I think we would all still agree that this was still morally evil and unacceptable.

Imagine if there exists someone else among the survivors, who was both stronger AND smarter, who was able to overthrow the other two types of power grabbers either by outwitting them and overpowering them… I’m guessing you’d say the same principle would still apply? That the idea of anyone seizing control of society, concentrating power and influence into one person, is intrinsically bad?

However, what if this person who was stronger and smarter was actually an ascetic sage, such as an enlightened shaolin monk? As an ascetic, he would have no desire to seize power purpose of benefiting himself solely. So you could say he seized power in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of those with nefarious intent. Furthermore, as an enlightened sage, he would have the wisdom to lead the people to guide them and direct them to greater peace and prosperity than if they were left unguided. Would this still be intrinsically evil?

Technically, this is still a despot, but a benevolent one. Is a democracy composed of selfish individuals intrinsically better than a despot who is selfless? Is democracy so worth defending that you would sacrifice the moral good that is peace?

Of course, for benevolent despotism to work, the despot must combine selflessness with competency, as well as the strength and intellect to enforce it. We must all acknowledge that this is a combination not normally found in humanity.


Author: Hoong-Wai

I'm a sinner. I have an interest in economics, philosophy, politics, science, sociology, technology, theology (in alphabetical order). I care about truth and justice. I can be a contrarian.

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