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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