Cui Bono?

The Latin phrase cui bono is a common phrase in dealing with argumentation, especially of a political sort, in its meaning if not exactly in its usage. The phrase means “who benefits,” and is often asked as a question in political discourse when examining the result of choosing a particular course of action, especially if they are making decisions based on self-interest. When one is asking the question cui bono, one is asking who is supposed to derive some sort of improvement or some sort of blessing from a particular course of action. The identity of winners and losers can often sway a substantial base of opinion about the desirability of a course of action, if someone is acting on self-interest (or a desire not to help the interests of certain people) rather than on the grounds of principle. To the extent that we are able to ask and answer who benefits from a particular behavior, we are led to examine the often strange coalitions that can exist in our world between people whose interests may temporarily coincide even if their worldviews are diametrically opposed.

When I was reading a book yesterday [1], I was struck by the fact that the book made such a strident claim that hierarchy was necessary for there to be order. My agreement with this claim, as is often the case, depends widely on the question of definitions. If a hierarchy is defined as an authoritarian structure based on different levels and orders, I would disagree. If, however, it is meant in a more neutral sense to refer to the orderly placement of people in a chain of command where people are accountable to and report to others, then I would agree that any organization of any size, in order to function on a minimally acceptable level, would require some sort of hierarchy, so long as one means by hierarchy order and structure in general. However complicated my feelings about chains of being and structure are [2], I am certainly not an anarchical person by any means.

In fact, in my own personal habits I tend to be a person of rather strong tendencies towards order, for all of my creativity and desire for continual improvement. I stack my books on the bookshelf by source, for example. I collect statistics about my blog and order nations in both absolute number of blog views and in something I call the view ratio, which is the ratio of number of views over the population of the nation or dependency in question [3]. After being surprised a few times at the arrival of books months after I had requested them, when I had forgotten that I had asked for them at all, I decided to create a spreadsheet for me to organize those books that I have requested from various publishers or scholarly journals to show the author and source as well as the date the books were requested, read, and when the review was posted. This gives me at least a quick way to glance at which books are at which stage of the process of reading and reviewing that does not rely on my memory.

In all of these cases, though, the person who these orderly tendencies benefit is me. This is true, as well, for other areas of being orderly in organizing files and other information. I am in no way opposed to that order and structure and hierarchy that serves for my benefit in saving me time and allowing my life to be easier to handle and more successful. Whether we are fond of order because it gives us power, or because it can give us pleasure or provide a space of the world where things are as they ought to be in a world where this is not often the case, the pleasure that derives from order to us is a reason to prefer order to chaos in our lives. The ability to have some sort of solid ground provides a great deal of comfort to those of us who tend to be more than a little bit anxious by nature.

Yet, at the same time, order is easily corrupted. We have to be very careful to examine who benefits from a particular order or structure that we encounter in society or in businesses or in our institutions. To the extent that such order and structure serves us as citizens or employees or customers or members of a congregation or community, we ought to celebrate and defend such order. Likewise, we may even choose to put up with or support order and structure that does not serve our pleasure or personal benefit, but which has just moral claims to our support. We ought to expect in this case that while we may not at present derive a benefit from this order, that we have reason to expect (see, for example, Hebrews 11:6) that there will be some benefit to us thirty-fold or a hundredfold later on, which will repay us for our present lack of benefit from a just social order. There are a great deal of hierarchies and structures that neither serve to our benefit nor have a just purpose for claiming our support and allegiance. And it is entirely just that we should question such structures, criticize and critique such structures, and seek better alternatives to these structures.

Yet, we should also remain aware that even when such structures exist that do not benefit us, and that may instead be very detrimental to our best interests (however defined), such structures exist because they benefit someone. Knowing who is benefited by structures, whether materially or psychologically, helps us to know what sort of people are likely to be hostile to any attempts to change or reform that structure to something that is more just. Knowing who benefits from a given action and who does not helps us to know who is likely to oppose or favor such actions, and that gives us an edge when it comes to building coalitions, as it provides us with people who can be convinced on fairly easy grounds, so long as we are trustworthy and honorable and honest in our discourse. Likewise, knowing who is likely to be harmed by an action or proposal is likely to give a good picture at those who are likely or potential strong opponents of it. This knowledge can be useful, as it helps make sense of why people act the way they do. Our interests, while not all-powerful, are powerful enough to deeply shape the way we live our lives, and the way we respond to the proposals and ideas and behavior of others.


[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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