Might makes (or breaks) right

I was really struck by a recent local news item here in New York. Some young people vandalised an equestrian statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman in Grand Army Plaza in midtown Manhattan.

Might makes (or breaks) right

Memorial to 107th regiment from New York, WWI. Fifth Ave & 67th Street. Manhattan. (photo:SNS)

I was really struck by a recent local news item here in New York. Some young people vandalised an equestrian statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman in Grand Army Plaza in midtown Manhattan. They yelled slurs and slogans that suggest they believed Sherman to be a racist oppressor and a KKK sympathiser. But General Sherman was a hero of the American Civil War, leading Union troops in decisive battles which defeated the breakaway southern Confederate States and helped end slavery. Similar incidents have taken place all over the city as political protests have given way to vengeful destruction of many of the symbols of America’s heritage. The widely beloved World War I soldiers memorial at Fifth Avenue, for example, was defaced with demeaning graffiti, festooned with a foreign banner while the American flag was thrown on the ground and set on fire. It’s hard to imagine what the men honoured by this monument could have done to earn this treatment. They were the 107th Regiment, local New York boys, who fought for their country over a century ago, many of them gave their lives. People are understandably incensed.

So much of these attacks on historical sites is utterly incoherent as well as being deeply hurtful to those who understand these artefacts, which have nothing to do with any issues underlying the current agitations. What motivates people to do this? I’m starting to have a theory. And it’s related to something else I’ve been preoccupied with lately: the old adage “might makes right.” I’ll explain what I mean…

Let me start by saying: nobody ever says “might makes right” and means it. Many people BEHAVE like they mean it. Tyrants, thugs, bullies, and crime bosses, who force their will on others because they can. But even they don’t go around claiming that might makes right. They invent justifications after the fact, or they don’t bother making moral arguments of any kind. They just do what suits them.


So, when we say “might makes right” it’s an accusation or an attempt at objective description. Either way, we say it to ascribe a worldview to others, not ourselves. Millennia before the modern aphorism was coined, Thucydides suggested that moral questions are only meaningful between people of equal strength, recognising that the weak have no way to enforce a moral proposition. But his was an empirical observation, not a normative or prescriptive one. Plato wrote stories with characters who said that strength is synonymous with virtue, only to be shown the error of their thinking by Socrates, the perennial hero of Plato’s stories.

Still, “might makes right” does seem to touch on something fundamental reflected in long standing behavioural codes. Most traditional concepts of “legitimate” authority are essentially allocations of force, ritualised threats of violence by the strong and the corresponding ritualised surrender by the weak, to avoid further injury.

Not surprisingly, this behaviour is prevalent throughout the animal kingdom, and we are animals, after all. But for us, it didn’t remain a mere practical arrangement. At some point, we bought into the myth of legitimacy in what are just assertions of power. Questions of “honour” were settled by duelling or other ritual combat. Religions used punishment to enforce their notions of piousness. Kings and emperors ruled by right of conquest and victory in battle, yet accepting their authority and pledging fealty to them became considered virtuous. Even now, democratic governments assert their power over citizens, and most of us consider it not just necessary and expedient, but RIGHT, to comply with the legitimately constituted authorities.

“Ah, but that’s different!” you say. In a democracy, the strong don’t force their will on the weak. We all partake in the process! The majority rules, but we all have a chance to be in the majority.

But is it really so different? If the electoral victors get to gang up on the electoral losers, and enforce their will through the literal threat of violence and imprisonment, is it not functionally the same as the strong enforcing their will? Only, in this case, the “strong” and “weak” are defined collectively.

When modern constitutional republics were established, their founders (having recently overthrown monarchy and/or imperialism) anticipated this problem. There is even a term for it: “tyranny of the majority.” To protect against this, many constitutions have large areas of personal freedom and self-ownership that are never supposed to be violated, even by the democratic will. But, over time, we seem to have lost sight of those safeguards and caveats, as more and more encroachments of the collective will against individual freedoms seem to be accepted, even advocated, in the name of some “common good” and sometimes, perversely, even in the name of defending specialised concepts of freedom against some perceived oppression.

But in this new version of “might makes right” there’s a twist: it is informed and animated by the assumption that might makes WRONG, or more precisely, that WEAKNESS makes right. Perhaps it’s because we’ve all been taught that it’s bad to think “might makes right” (and for the record, I do think it’s bad!), that many people have adopted the extreme opposite position, even though it’s patently absurd. This is a common fallacy, this habit of thinking that “X is false” necessarily means “negative-X is true.” I like to call it the “whatever-is-not-forbidden-is-required” mindset (as if it doesn’t occur to us that we could possibly choose from the vast spectrum of options in-between the two polar opposites).

While current trends in idealism and social activism tend to tolerate (even demand) the use of collective force against individuals or groups perceived to be in the wrong, the underlying moral presumption is that whoever is stronger or more successful is inherently evil and wrong and whoever is weaker or less fortunate is inherently morally superior. And the stronger/weaker assessment isn’t just about the people directly involved, but derived from their membership in demographic groups. History, usually a very distorted reading of history, is called upon to decide which among the various demographic characteristics you possess is associated with a group that is the most oppressed or unfortunate, and your moral standing is determined by weighing that against countervailing elements in your group-identity profile. Your moral competency—and even your moral worth—is judged by that.

Friedrich Nietzsche sort of keyed into this when he said that all morality is an attempt by the weak to subjugate the strong. It’s a tantalising insight, though I disagree with his ultimate position. Yes, morality is an attempt to get people to moderate their impulses and to refrain from certain uses of their strengths, but it applies universally. We ALL must refrain from aggression, abuse, or subjugation of others, even if we have the ability—the “strength”—to do so.

In other words, for moral purposes, it’s important not to assume “strong” and “weak” as absolute traits, but recognise that they are contextual; we can all potentially take on the role of “the strong” and morality helps navigate that. For instance, I may be poorer than you, but if I’m using greater physical strength to beat you up, then clearly, it no longer makes sense to treat me as the “disadvantaged” party. Or I may be physically weaker than you, but if I bring a gun and an entourage, then suddenly I’m “stronger.”

There are a lot of social and political upheavals in the world right now where people are (hopefully) grappling with these questions. But incidents like the monument vandalisms strike me as salient. Similar antics played out during the BLM protests of 2020, when statues of Union commander in chief Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln—two men almost universally credited with the biggest contributions to ending slavery in the United States—were defaced, ostensibly to protest the legacy of slavery! Demands were made to remove or destroy the monument, in Columbus Circle, to Christopher Columbus, the first European explorer to reach the New World, who is regularly the target of stunningly anachronistic bouts of moral outrage.

Perhaps the saddest of this type of incident during the 2020 riots was the depraved and sustained assault (complete with blood, faeces, and a noose) on a statue of the 19th Century abolitionist Matthias Baldwin, who dedicated his life to fighting slavery and improving life for Black Americans, and advocating racial integration in American society as early as the 1840s! Black lives actually mattered to him and he put his time and money where his mouth was. But he was a white man, and that was enough to make him evil, apparently.

Matthias Baldwin used his wealth and influence—his “might” if you will—to pursue what was right. And that’s the key. Might doesn’t make right. It also doesn’t make wrong.

“Right” is the moral value we want to achieve or preserve. “Might” is just a tool we use, either to defend or to destroy that value.

The author is a lawyer, writer and editor based in Manhattan, New York. (Photographs taken by the author)