There is a question that I sometimes ask myself. If I were to have amazing super powers, will I end up as a superhero or a supervillain?I have thought about it in some detail, and the only answer I can give is that I don’t know.
At first, one might think that the answer is straightforward. If I am a hero now, in my own small way, I will become a greater hero with greater power. A similar conclusion can be drawn if I am now a villain. The implicit assumption here is that these powers will only magnify my natural tendency for good or evil and not change it.
History, experiences and some analysis, however, show that power can not only alter a person’s propensity, but also their very definition of good and evil.
One of the reasons many people are good to others is their ability to empathize. Too much power can make them lose this ability, which in turn affects their goodness. In societies where slavery is accepted, even otherwise good people can sometimes not empathize with these slaves. They are treated as something that only has a purpose of adding to the convenience of their owners, much like how the status of animals is reduced to that of food in some cultures.
There is this story of King Nahusha who was celebrated for his righteousness, and was installed by sages as an interim Indra when the original Indra was in hiding for his sin of killing a Brahmin (Brahmahatya). After becoming Indra and attaining divine powers, Nahusha became arrogant and unscrupulous. He even insulted the sages to whom he owed his power, and this led to his eventual downfall.
We often feel righteous indignation while reading about the dishonorable and evil conduct of Indra in some instances. At such times, it is good to remember that it is the most righteous and deserving of Kings who likely became an Indra. If they can fall so much under the influence of power, how far can ordinary human beings fall? The purpose of these stories about Indra is perhaps to remind us of our own fallibility and urge us to be ever vigilant.
The same can be said of those political leaders who are guilty of corruption and arrogance when in power. Or of supposed spiritual leaders who end up as crime lords, thereby teaching us the supreme spiritual lesson that they themselves are not above corruption, and so we must all be careful.
It could be that some of them were evil to begin with. But there are others who were sincere to their cause and were changed when they rose to power. In case of some, the evil tendencies lie latent, waiting for the right conditions to manifest. Take for example those who are good out of fear, and who themselves do not realize it as long as the fear exists. Power can break the shackles of fear that chain the beast of evil tendencies in such men.
For the sake of completeness, I think we should consider a change in the other direction as well. If a person indulges in some evil out of fear, or out of weakness, having more power may bring out the natural goodness in them. This, however, is a remote possibility (in my opinion) because those who have fear when they are weak will have likely fear when they are powerful. They will probably be afraid of losing that power and will go to any extent to retain it.
The cases we have considered so far are ones where the behavior of people have changed, but not necessarily their definition of good and evil. To understand how this definition or moral benchmark itself may be dependent on the power we wield, we only need to look at people, kind and compassionate people, who won’t bat an eyelid while killing a mosquito. As per their moral standards, killing a mosquito is not evil. They may be a good to humans, but not for mosquitoes. If a person were to have so much power that humans are like mere mosquitoes in comparison, will they feel bad about exterminating those ‘worthless’ humans that they perceive as an inconvenience? This is the attitude that many all-powerful monarchs and military rulers have exhibited.
Thus, coming back to the question that started this discussion, it is not just that I don’t know if I will make a superhero or a supervillain, I don’t think it is easy for anyone else to be sure either!