goodfight

People fight.  It’s what we do.  As much as it would be wonderful for humanity to be enlightened enough to benevolently share all the good things in life, so we would all have enough, human history is a good object lesson in how unusual and unlikely that is.  The reality of the human experience is that if there’s only one chocolate chip cookie, and either you get it or I get it — I’m going to want the chocolate chip cookie, and you’re going to want the chocolate chip cookie.  Extrapolate that out to everything pleasurable in society (from penthouse apartments to clean water) and you see why fighting is part of the human condition.  Each of us works in our own self interest.

People always assume that “making peace” entails urging people to resist their selfish urges and to become saintly and selfless, so they willingly give the cookie away.  It’s true that some embrace that approach, as if we could just train the selfishness out of people and we’d all get along.  But that strategy only goes so far.  Sometimes groups will set rules that constrain selfishness and allocate the good things fairly — but as soon as a new entrant joins the group and flouts the rules to get more than he or she is entitled to, the arrangement can come unglued.

In fact, we love conflict.  All our TV shows and movies are about conflict — the more dramatic the better.  This has been true all the way back to Shakespeare.  People getting along is boring.  Stories about people fighting (maybe over a love interest, or money, or power) get our blood pumping.  We want our entertainment to be exciting and stimulating, and conflict fits the bill.  In fact, we all are subconciously writing the stories of our lives, and we need to see ourselves as the protagonist, overcoming obstacles and fighting for what’s right to get to the ultimate reward at the end.  Conflict gives us energy and purpose, and we’ll invent it if we need to in order to keep things interesting.

Capitalism is designed in just this fashion.  It says: people are selfish, so let’s leverage that selfishness for the benefit of society.  I don’t want to work hard and then give away all my work for nothing.  The market makes it so that I have an incentive to work hard, because then I can be rewarded for that work by others.  I may stay up all night building chairs or mining bitcoins, and the next day I can trade those things I made for money, which lets me buy all the chocolate chip cookies I want.  So long as people play by the rules (and the rules are well designed) this system turns out to work pretty well.  It incentivizes us to innovate and create and work, giving us a satisfying narrative, while moving society forward.

The challenge is when conflict runs off the rails.  Conflict between competitors over market share is fine.  But conflict between rival gangs is not fine.  When conflict boils over to violence, the benefits are undone.  Sometimes people can get so caught up in a conflict that they justify immoral actions to themselves, as in: yes, I know it’s wrong to lie about my opponent in the student government election, but the impact would be so devastating if he (or she) won, that I really have no choice.  The ends justify the means. And then the other side concludes that they have to match fire with fire, which justifies their immoral behavior.

This creates a race to the bottom.  You don’t want to bring a knife to a gun fight (both literally and metaphorically).  We may be high minded in the abstract, thinking that we wouldn’t sink to such despicable and immoral levels, but if we see the other side sinking, we may say to ourselves: we have to follow suit to avoid being pushed around or taken advantage of.  It reminds me of the U.S. after 9/11, saying “now we have to take the gloves off” in dealing with terrorists — the implication being, yes, we know this violates our conscience, but our opponents are so terrible that we have to do it.  Which, of course, justifies further outrages on the other side.

How can we keep the good parts of conflict (the energy, innovation, excitement, motivation) but protect ourselves from the bad parts (violence, demonization, unethical behavior)? How can we resist the temptation to demonize the other side, and use the evil characature we paint to justify our own evil actions?  Our civic institutions were designed to constrain these tendencies: there’s no need to rile up a mob to exact frontier justice on someone who victimized you if the police can be relied upon to take care of the matter.  But we’re losing confidence in our civic institutions to work as effectively as they have in the past, partially due to the dislocations being wrought by new technologies.  So how can we restore that trust?  Maybe algorithms can provide an answer.