Morality And Power Essay

This essay has a total of 965 words and 5 pages.

Morality And Power



Thucydides' written history of the Mytilenian Debate and the Melian Dialogue reflects the
reality of a period where morality is dependent on the exercise of power and those who
possess it. The main theme running through the course of these two debates is that those
with the power to act as they wish inherently have the power to dictate morality. The
arguments that decide the fate of the Mytilene are made not strictly on the basis of
morality but on how their power allows them to exercise the moral course they choose. The
Melian dialogue reveals how those in power can dictate morality in terms of self-interest.
Both cases also demonstrate how morality is also a function of self-interest. The question
of the relationship between power and morality also hinges on the definition of these two
vague terms.

Morality, in the broader sense of moral order, has been defined as "a set of rules which
define what is right and wrong." (Outka and Reeder, p.5) Who decides what is right and
wrong often depends, as with Thucydides' history, on who has the power in a given
situation. Power can broadly be defined, as the capacity to achieve what one wants.
(Dickerson and Flanagan, p.24) In the case of these two debates, the Athenians were the
party who possessed the power. They had the coercive ability to decide the fates of both
the Melians and the Mytilenians. This power was derived strictly from the military might
their empire was able to build up. In both cases, power allowed them to dictate morality
to the inferior parties.

Thucydides' history of the Mytilenian debate details the discussion of a council deciding
on how to punish the citizens of Mytilene for a failed revolt. The two options on the
table are to either slaughter all the inhabitants, as had been previously agreed upon, or
to leave them without severe punishment. Cleon, the Athenian responsible of initially
deciding to slaughter Mytilene, argued that it was necessary to take his brutal course of
action for the safety of the empire. He stated succinctly that "leadership depends on
superior strength and not on goodwill." (Thucydides, p.213) He believed that killing the
Mytilenians was a question of safety for the empire;

If you are going to give the same punishment to those who are forced to revolt by your
enemies and those who do so of their own accord, can you not see that they will all revolt
upon the slightest pretext, when success means freedom and failure brings no very dreadful
consequences. (Thucydides, p.216)


In this statement, Cleon argues that Athens has a moral duty to put down this revolt in
the harshest way. He makes it a moral argument because it is in the self-interest of
Athens, and any state, to protect its citizens. It is their moral duty. The Mytilenians,
in their own self-interest, would argue that it is immoral to slaughter a whole
population. They are both right.
Continues for 3 more pages >>




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