Conflicts and Societal Scaling

The Problem of Peace

Peace is a precarious thing. Amid our varied goals, our barely reigned passions, and haphzard communication, we find constant cause to quarrel with anyone we meet. Even deep familiarity doesn't bring respite; even by loved ones we are hurt, and even loved ones we hurt in turn.

It is such an odd, primal urge—the urge to strike back, to escalate a conflict. Its peculiarity peaks when we curse at our tables for stubbing our toes, or at our computers for some error surely of our own making. Modern neuropsychology has somewhat elucidated this mysterious passion.1 We know now that, like all mammals, whenever we are hurt (or perceive some hurt), our brains scramble to find some culprit to blame, whether reasonable or not. And then, just like any other mammal, we are primed to retaliate against that culprit, either as a warning or as a deeper desire to destroy.

This urge to retaliate quickly leads to escalation, because our nature is not to simply return what we've been given, but to heap on extra hurt. And the problem of conflict magnifies the more people gather together. With every newcomer to a society comes a host of new diadic relationship that might fail--a possibility of conflict between the newcomer and each person already in the society. With only two thousand people there are almost two million relations between them, two million chances for a spark to engulf everyone.

Locke highlights this natural desire to self-judge, and this overindulgence:2

...hostility, passion and revenge will lead them to punish others too severely. So nothing but confusion and disorder will follow, and that is why God has—as He certainly has—established government to restrain the partiality and violence of men.

The restraint of retaliation is a primary requirement for any society, otherwise simple slights can turn easily into feuds or civil wars and leave chaos and destruction in their wake. It is no surprise, then, to find very early a standard of behavior to allow men to live together, in Hammurabi:3

This law, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth," was enacted to repress the flames of mutual hate, and to be a check on their undisciplined spirits. For who when he would take revenge, was ever content to return just so much harm as he had received? Do we not see men who have suffered some trifling hurt, straightway plot murder, thirst for blood, and hardly find evil enough that they can do to their enemies for the satisfying their rage?

To this immeasured and cruel fury the Law puts bounds when it enacts a "lex talionis;" that is, that whatever wrong or hurt any man has done to another, he should suffer just the same in return. This is not to encourage but to check rage; for it does not rekindle what was extinguished, but hinders the flames already kindled from further spread. It enacts a just retaliation, properly due to him who has suffered the wrong.

And so we have the first law of social living, the "lex talionis": do not harm in retaliation more than you have been harmed.

While the lex talionis curbs the potential spiraling of conflict, its usefulness is limited to the domain of retaliation. And while natural community bonds tend to structure relatively harmonious relationships for small communities, when everyone knows everyone else, these natural bonds don't generally extend to strangers.

And so we see arising across a myriad of civilizations, from Zoroastrianism4, to pre-Socratic Greek philosophy5, to Judaism6, to Confucius7—from all of these we see the "Silver Rule", a call not to harm others.

This is highlighted and brought to the forefront of liberialism:[^locke]

The state of nature is governed by a law that creates obligations for everyone. And reason, which is that law, teaches anyone who takes the trouble to consult it, that because we are all equal and independent, no-one ought to harm anyone else in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.

Even now, many Libertarians fall back on the Silver Rule in the form of the "Non-Aggression Principle" as the sole required principle needed to govern human relations:8

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the "nonaggression axiom." "Aggression" is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.

It's easy to see the power of the rule, especially in a land of immigrants like the United States. With each new prospective member of society coming from an unknown culture, there could be a danger that the net effect of this new person on the lives of existing citizens could be harmful. Will this new immigrant defraud me, or harm me? Am I obligated to help this person if they fall on hard times? Will they make me do things I don't agree with? The non-aggression principle is not only a guideline of prohibited and acceptable conduct, it is also a guarantee of safety from everyone else in society, known or unknown. Regardless of how foreign another's values might be, as long as every interaction you have with them is voluntary and consensual, no harm can come of it.

In terms of classical economics, if you have the opportunity to withdraw from every interaction, then that means you always have an action available to you that is at least neutral. If you're not withdrawing from the interaction, as you always have the right to do, then in some sense you think it's better for you to stay, that you're getting "value" out of the situation. Now, instead of each interaction being a potential threat, each interaction is purely an opportunity, and the more people you have the opportunity of interacting with, the better. By this logic, open borders and globalized commerce are no-brainers—if all interaction is consensual, then all interactions that take place have some kind of economic "value", and must of corse be beneficial. And in some sense, it is true that all consensual interactions add value. But it's not clear that the sense in which that's true is the sense that matters.

One challenge to the sufficiency of consent as a basis for ethical interaction is the problem of distress. Protection in consent-based ethics comes about because the option to withdraw is always available and removes one from harm. One can imagine the difference between negotiating for passage on a ship while at a pier versus while drowning in the water -- in the former situation, the withdrawal state of non-interaction maintains a stable situation, in the latter, non-interaction could lead to death. Non-aggression only guarantees protection if a safe withdrawal option is available.

It is sometimes said that "it isn't consent" if someone agrees to something while in distress. If the distress isn't caused by the other party, then the agreement is consent. Continuing down the line of "true consent" versus not is a red herring and misses the point of consent. The reason that consent under distress raises problems is not that the consent isn't true, but that mere consent no longer provides protection.

It used to be the case in the United States that non-interaction was a much more viable option. One could withdraw themselves into the frontier to hunt or to farm, which presented a minimum reasonable standard of living for most people. Nowadays, it is less clear how any citizen could go about such a withdrawal. Given the lack of feasible withdrawal options and the increased expectations of standards of living, consent-based interactions will not guarantee safety (and thus many citizen may feel like the system does not protect them) until the baseline state of affairs is improved so that withdrawal does not cause distress.

The Golden Rule and the Duty of Care

" truth we are each responsible to all for all, it's only that men don't know this. If they knew it, the world would be a paradise at once."

  • Father Zossima, Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

While crippling the escalation of conflict with the lex talionis leads to more peace, and prohibiting harm on fellow citizens with the Silver Rule leads to yet more peace, ultimately, if anyone is sufficiently distraught in their condition, they could be easily persuaded into bringing about conflict out of their own distress. For peace to reign, we must not only prohibit harm, but promote care. This is not to invalidate the importance of the Silver Rule, but since, of the many possible causes of interpersonal disharmony, interpersonal aggression has diminished as a problem, an increasingly large portion of interpersonal conflict arises now from a deeper lack of wellbeing.

It may seem difficult to imagine wellbeing as a core value of relations with strangers. Even in close relationships it may be difficult to assertain what is truly in the best interest of our friends and loved ones. But it is certainly the case that there is another kind of relation within our grasp that extends far beyond "do not harm" and into a "standard of care". Care is the concern for the wellbeing of some other, and the act of promoting that wellbeing. In caring for others, we extend our sense of the "self" so that a harm to them feels like a harm to us, not as a matter of consequence, but as a matter of identity -- that is, the harm to us is not because a hurting other is somehow inconvenient for us, but because in some sense the other is not distinct from us, and as a self split across multiple bodies we yet feel the hurt.

The English Common Law system, which forms the basis for American law as well, has been incorporating elements of Care since before the Magna Carta, with the birth of the trust system in the 12th century England. Nowadays, trusts may feel like an impersonal instrument of wealth, but the fundamental innovation was one of care. When a man in England was dying yet wanted to ensure the continued well-being of his daughters, he might enter into a contract with a friend, where the friend (the "trustee") would inherit the estate and hold the legal ownership, but would use the estate to care for the daughters (the "beneficiaries"). Trusts are, fundamentally, a separation between the legal control of some asset and the benefit of some asset, linked by a standard of care. In fact, it wasn't until the 20th century that it was allowed that a trustee could be compensated for their efforts, so deeply held was the idea that the motivation should be one of personal care, that a trustee was first and foremost a friend.

For some time the idea of a standard of care remained in the realm of contracts, so that for a standard of care to be required, there needed to be an explicit agreement of both parties. In the late 19th century, the idea of the standard of care was extended into situations where it was not explicitly agreed upon, giving birth to the legal concept of negligence, which concerns itself with the consequences of caring less than the relationship demands you should. This is an often overlooked innovation in the history of human relations -- that now one might be implicitly legally obligated to care for another by the nature of their relationship, without any agreement. Among the most commonly known fields of negligence is malpractice, also known as professional negligence -- this body of law establishes the standard of care by which many professionals (such as doctors, lawyers) must conduct their trade with some minimum level of skill.

"For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. ...Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love. Then every one of you will have the power to win over the whole world by love and to wash away the sins of the world with your tears..."

  • Father Zossima, Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

  1. Panksepp, Jaak. Affective Neuroscience: the Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

  2. Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government, in the version presented at Link.

  3. Aquinas, Thomas. "Gospel of Matthew" in Catena Aurea, Translated by J.G.F. and J. Rivington. Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841. Link.

  4. "Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others." Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29

  5. "Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing." Thales

  6. "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." Hillel, Shabbath folio:31a, Babylonian Talmud

  7. "What I do not wish others to do unto me, I also wish not to do unto others." Confucius, Analects 5.12 (Slingerland translation)

  8. Rothbard, Murray. For A New Liberty. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006. Link.

In [2]:
import sys; sys.path.append("/home/metaperture/proj/tools/")
from utils import wordcount
wordcount("scaling-society.ipynb"), wordcount("*")
(2300, 4795)
In [ ]: