Is Conflict Inevitable?

Imagine you’ve been hiking in the wild for several days, with six others. Feelings are raw. Some think others aren’t carrying a fair load, some have been arguing politics, some are workplace rivals, and one has been having an affair with the spouse of another.

For weapons, the group has only a few small paring knifes. It is about time to find a place to stop for the night, and up ahead you spy a pile of rocks just the right size for violence – small enough to lift, and big enough to crush a skull. So you suggest stopping there for the night.

You think, “Violence is bad, but there is going to be violence here, so I might as well start it, so I can win. I’ll pretend to sleep then when others are still I’ll get up and smash my rival’s skull with a rock. I’ll conspire with my best ally George, who I may have to betray later. After all, the violence may continue until only one of us is left alive.”

Now, yes, it is possible to have Hunger-Games-like situations where everyone strongly expects everyone to fight until only one is left standing. And yes, in such situations you are better off hitting first, before they can hit you. But the first question you should always ask is, just how sure are you that you are in fact in such a situation.

This is what I think every time I hear people talk about inevitable future conflicts, be they Earth v. alien, robots v. humans, human v. animal, west v. east, rich v. poor, liberal v. conservative, religious vs. atheist, smart v. dumb, etc. Yes, if enough folks will see this as unrestrained war to the death, then you should consider striking first. And yes, there probably will be some sort of war eventually. But if you are wrong about the war being likely soon, you could cause vast needless destruction.

Alas, there is a unusually strong temptation to think in terms of inevitable conflict in far mode. In far mode we think more using a few sharp categories of us vs. them, we insist more on following basic principles no matter what the cost, and we think more in terms of dramatic story lines.

Worse, over the very long run, we do in fact expect a lot of winning and losing. Some firms will grow and others will go bankrupt, some professions will rise and others will fall, some musical genres will be remembered while others are forgotten, some families and races will have many kids while others have few, etc. This makes it easy to frame the long run as a no-holds-barred struggle to the death.

But if you are tempted to think this way, you should realize that that it will be very hard to preserve everything you like against future competition. It is very unlikely that you could simultaneously ensure the triumph of your planet, species, race, language, nation, city, musical tastes, favorite sport and team, preferred style of dress and home decoration, favorite story genres and characters, favorite school and profession, etc. If you are going to fight to the death for one thing, you will have to be ready to give up most everything else you like, if need be, for that one thing. And by initiating unreserved conflict in the hope of getting a first mover advantage in favor of your one thing, you may hasten the loss of many other things you treasure.

It seems to me that for most of the things you like and treasure, your best way to promote them is via peaceful trade and persuasion. Yes, most of them will probably fade away, outcompeted by something else. But your best bet to extend their duration is usually to compete peacefully, prospering as best you can to gain resources to help you support the things you like.

Maybe on the hike, Fred is your rival at work, and maybe he will beat you to that promotion you both want. Maybe he is also considering making a move on your gal. You might lose that competition too. Even so, you are usually better off trying your best via peaceful competition, than bashing in his skull with a rock during the night. He who competes but loses, and walks away, may live to fight another day.

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  • Ely

    This reminds me of Hofstadter’s superrationality approach to Prisoner’s dilemma.

  • lemmy caution

    Most wars are irrational and damaging to both sides. There are plenty of wars that were huge Darwinian advantages to the aggressors though. Think about how much territory was acquired in the US’s wars with the Indians and in the Mexican American wars. Settlers in the US had huge numbers of kids as a result of the availability of a west. The pilgrims at one point had an average of over 9 kids each.

    Wars today are back to being a bad idea due to our lack of taste for genocide and forced expulsion. In an Earth v. alien or robots v. humans conflict though, I am pretty sure at least one side would be ok with some harsh tactics.

  • We live under a Leviathan that punishes homicide like the example contemplated. In a pre-state condition, might murdering Fred be the rational thing to do some of the time? Foreign policy “realists” often say that “the tragedy of great power politics” is that there is no leviathan at the global level, so each power seeks to dominate others lest it be dominated. You have contrasted the singleton vs unconstrained hardscrapple ems scenarios. If one wants to preserve something into the future doesn’t it seem more sensible to establish a singleton/leviathan ensuring it or pre-emptively alter the current mix of entities so that one’s own lineage persists? There’s no global supercop preventing your extinction.

    • anon

      “Foreign policy “realists” often say that ‘the tragedy of great power politics’ is that there is no leviathan at the global level, so each power seeks to dominate others lest it be dominated.”

      That’s why I don’t buy the “realist” model of IR. In practice, defending territory/power etc. is always easier than expanding. So, even in anarchy, the equilibrium is for everyone to claim easy-to-defend property rights and commit to defending them as needed, some skirmishes occurring mostly for signaling reasons, but very little outright aggression. See David Friedman, “A Positive Account of Property Rights”.

  • Rob

    But what about the real world in which lots of people cherish sacred values, or at least can be so readily stimulated to sacralize their values; and, as Boehm discusses in the Epilogue of his new book, in which the very anti-bully egalitarian propensities we inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors is at such odds with establishing effective centralized global governance needed to cope with the threat of conflicts fostered by such sacralization of values?

    • Rob

      *are* at such odds

  • Tell it to the Cherokee, Kemosabe.

    There’s a key aspect of the background of you scenario that governs the attractiveness of violence, which is the surrounding society’s mores. Violence is awfully unattractive nowadays because if you kill someone you’ll go to jail, or lose your life, if you injure someone, you’ll likely be punished. My guess is that during the Neolithic, and even more recently, violence was a much more attractive option. It wasn’t peaceful trade with Gauls, Jews and Brittunculi that built Rome.

    That being said, as you say, peaceful competition seems a better avenue in general. But I doubt many people would disagree.

    • lemmy caution

      I agree. Pinker’s book is good on the decline of violence. I think it is a real phenomenon. A lot of it is due to the decline in the payoff of violence. When the payoff to violence rises though, all bets are off.

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        I wonder if the decline of violence has a locus of stability similar to
        that of the demographic transition to lower fertility.
        The stability of mores
        that inhibit violence requires coordination (or a leviathan state that
        amounts to coordination). Currently, the demographic transition
        occurs when incomes rise even without explicit coordination,
        because of currently frozen-in preferences from our evolutionary
        heritage – but maintaining it is likely to require coordination.
        Perhaps both maintaining low violence and maintaining low
        fecundity are contingent on future success in coordination?
        Lose one, lose both?

  • But the first question you should always ask is, just how sure are you that you are in fact in such a situation.

    I’ve had to live this and make a judgement for real several times.

    In reality, it only depends on the subject’s perception of the violence potential. If real, and he acts, he was prepared. If a false alarm, and he acts – he still wins. That is pure survival; a bear doesn’t feel guilt about mauling a camper wanting only to take cute pictures.

    To get a better feel for the experiment, I’d like to see specific variables inserted where the subject KNOWS for SURE there will be violence.

  • Dave

    This post is riveting. When I review my life I see that my reactions are really pacifistic when the rubber hits the road. This has always worked,so far.Yet in far mode and in my imagination I am prepared to do utmost violence. For example I have an assault weapon in my closet.

    In experience peaceful resolution works but does not make history. What you hear about and gauge as typical is actually the rarer.

    Yet history is full of the most horrible violence. I am trying to put that into perspective,and have seen my share of death,which is so dramatic that it stands out. The fact is that there are a hundred thousand people in my town and only one of them slit the throat of the little girl who took a shot cut though the woods. Or beat the neighbor with a hammer while his friends stabbed him fifty times

    • In experience peaceful resolution works but does not make history. What you hear about and gauge as typical is actually the rarer.

      Yes, availability heuristic strikes again.

  • Becky Hargrove

    Excellent post. I especially have too much of a fondness for knowledge of all kinds, and do not want to see it lost.

  • Cleanthes

    15 men, 11 women and a baby made it to Pitcairn Island after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. The men killed each other until only two were left, one sickly. The sickly one died of asthma and the sole survivor, John Adams (aka Alexander Smith) remained until the RN discovered Pitcairn in 1808. Two of the women had died by that time, neither by human violence.

    So, there’s the situation where you ought to kill ’em first.

  • Robert Koslover

    Unfortunately, there exist important historical examples where failure to recognize that the enemy is preparing to attack, and thus failure to preempt the enemy, has led to defeat and destruction. The key to maximizing ones security is not to err in either direction.

  • mjgeddes

    But good old fashioned thuggery is so much more satisfying 😉

  • Mitchell Porter

    “Conflict isn’t inevitable.” “Yes it is.” “No, it isn’t.” “Yes, it IS!”

  • Roger

    I believe we have a cognitive blind spot on competition. There are actually two distinct classes of competition, constructive and destructive.

    Destructive is a zero sum game which destroys or harms one party to benefit another. It leads to patterns of offense, defense, and resources are dedicated to surviving the game while eliminating your competitor. These actually become massive sinks for lost value. They are negative sum, often to an extreme degree.

    But there is also constructive competition. This is competition with rules that minimize harm and optimizes value creation. Indeed the point is to compete to create value. Scientists compete constructively to discover facts and theories. Tennis players compete constructively to get exercise or enjoyment (around a closely defined zero sum game). Employees constructively compete to create customer value and get the next promotion.

    The challenge for society is to convert destructive competitions into constructive ones.

    • The difficulty with restraining competition is that once acquisition of power becomes a product of competition, it will pull for destructive competition. The only way to limit this is to limit the quantity of power that can be acquired through competition.

      Those who acquire power through destructive competition will try and thwart this. That is the easiest way to tell who is trying to acquire destructive power because they will use destructive means to acquire and hold power.

      When survival becomes contingent on competition, then destructive competition becomes the ultimate survival skill. Then destructive competition only determines who is left, not who is best.

      There is far too much destructive competition in all fields. Finance, politics, even science. Funding is contingent on winning the competition for funding. The proposal evaluation process is not capable of distinguishing differential merit in proposals at the levels it is being forced to do so. What receives funding is grantsmanship, not scientific merit.

      • Roger


        Could you clarify some of your thoughts for me please?

        What do you mean by acquisition of power attained by competition? How does it matter how power was attained? What are you referring to as power? Could you provide examples?

        In a way, survival always requires competition, competition between competing alternatives or paths. Life is continuous problem solving, and if you eliminate the variation of potential solutions and the competition between which paths lead to surviving and thriving and which lead to immediate death, then you have in effect moved toward total failure. We must constantly choose between competing paths.

        Competition is not a bad thing. It is a necessary thing. That is why I stress constructive competition as highlighted below in my answer to KPres.

        I agree with you that we are not at a utopian state of perfect constructive competition. Even in science and free enterprise, our institutions of competition are not ideal. However, if there was no competition for grants, then everyone would get a grant, which means nobody could. Do I believe society could benefit from improved grant funding? Yes. And by this I mean the funding process should be more constructive at separating good requests from bad. Constructive competition solves problems better.

    • KPres

      Even your so-called “destructive” conflict is constructive in the long run, because it weeds out the losers so that they have less influence in the future.

      • Roger


        As Daedelus mentions above, you are selecting for survival. If the game is survival by eliminating rivals, you will be optimizing for destructiveness. You will be left with one propagating solution by destroying all the other solutions. This would be extremely destructive and wasteful.

        Constructive competition is not competing to create problems it is competing to solve problems. Slavers competing with each other to find and enslave natives is competition to exploit. Coke competing with Pepsi to provide you a tasty beverage is competition to solve a problem for others.

        Constructive competition is also less destructive within the rules between competitors. Coke and Pepsi are not allowed to lie about each other, steal from each other, kill off employees, burn down factories, or repress each others freedom to compete in constructive ways. They compete constructively by minimizing costs, persuading consumers, improving distribution, creating new or improved products and so forth.

        Another thing about constructive competition is that competitors get better at solving problems by the mere existence of competitors. They can benchmark, borrow ideas, learn from each others failures and so on. Constructive competition is a self amplifying value creation, problem solving system.

        Darwinian evolution (and social Darwinism) is much more destructive and much less constructive.

  • richard silliker

    As long as there are secrets there will be conflict.

    • Dremora

      You and your family (3 people) are stuck on an island with another family (3 people) and food supply that feeds only 3 people until rescue arrives. Both you and the father of the other family has a gun with 3 shots of ammo left. There are no secrets.

      • richard silliker

        yes there are.

      • Dremora

        Which ones?

    • kevin jones

      just like how i am secretly boning your mum! boom conflict.

  • richard silliker

    Ask the other 6 billion people on earth.

  • This is a topic which comes up a lot in science fiction, and in discussions of first contact with alien civilizations. There’s always the big question: “do we strike at potential enemies or risk them doing it to us first?” It’s generally phrased as an absolute — that civilizations have the ability to exterminate each other, there is no higher power, so the only question is whether ensuring one’s own survival is best served by pre-emptive genocide.

    One also saw this back during the Cold War, in discussions of deterrence strategy and the destabilizing effects of things like missile defense, civil defense, and stealth weapons.

    In both cases, it seems like there’s a big disconnect between “far thinking” as Robin calls it, and actual immediate problem-solving. In other words, it’s all very well to theorize about whether SDI would provoke a pre-emptive Soviet strike, but you also have to think about whether today, some particular Thursday in 1986 or whenever, the Soviets would decide to ignite a global war. Or whether today, a Thursday in 2086 when we’ve discovered an alien civilization, they would decide to launch an interstellar attack on us.

    Things which seem logical and inevitable in far thinking become absurd or at least highly unlikely in specific thinking.

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  • kevin jones

    this is complete shit

  • kevin jones

    I’d rather shit in my hands and clap then read this article