Human Conflicts come from Structural Disequilibrium

Sigmund Freud assumed that humanity bares a sinister instinct of self-destruction, which acts as the counterpart to all other instincts preserving life. It’s a psychological argument that human agency is at fault for all conflict, and as K.Waltz (Man, the State and War) once said, in trying to explain everything with psychology, such proponents ended up explaining nothing; for how can we stop two innately violent people fighting, other than by keeping them apart? Konrad Lorenz (scientist and author of ‘On Aggression’) put such weight on the importance of agency that he ended his book with the hope that we will evolve beyond our more base instincts.

“I believe that reason can and will exert a selection pressure in the right direction. I believe that this, in the not too distant future, will endow our descendants with the faculty of fulfilling the greatest and most beautiful of all commandments [that love and friendship should embrace all of humanity].”

Your FaultSuch arguments see the locus of the important causes of war to be found in the nature and behaviour of humanity. Confucius put it even more simply when he said

“There is deceit and cunning and from these wars arise.”

It’s actually a little bit of a blame game. But what if we weren’t programmed to be violent? What if violence and tensions arose only as a result of imbalances/disequilibria between different structures?

The causes of civil war was the topic of my undergrad dissertation. It was in fact a terrible piece as I only had a few days to write it up. But my research was extensive, and I hadn’t since challenged my basic premise that no single cause of war should be highlighted above the others – until this last weekend. Up until then I separated individual agency from the structures that they lived within, and so had to admit that our innate tendency towards violence could be one explanation of conflict. But I was wrong.

I was refuting (or trying to) an argument that we should base our diets on what the eco-system permits, by arguing that morality should supersede economic logic. I said that each way of thinking, whether it be economic in the thought process employed, or moral, or whatever else, is a lens through which we see the world. Sometimes, after an event has taken place, someone might call you stupid, and provide you with an argument that in hindsight seems obvious, but for some reason you completely overlooked at the time. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid; you were capable of thinking of that on your own. You just weren’t seeing through that particular lens at the time. Put simply, we don’t employ all lenses equally, because we have built them as internal structures within our mind, and used them since birth to make decisions.

lenses through which we see the worldIn every day life we are required to think economically, politically and socially. It’s essential to the tasks that modern economies expect us to perform. And yet it’s quite hard to discover who is moral and who is not. Perhaps more scarily, for many societies it’s as socially acceptable to joke about not being moral as it is to joke about not being clever. And when we do hear someone joking about not being very clever, we usually have an instinctive judgement reaction. We’re able to agree or disagree, even if we don’t actually say what we think. But what about when someone jokes about not being a good person? Then, it can be very hard to judge. Our moral lens is simply less frequently used than our economic one, and as a result it’s slower to adapt.

Right now you exist within an economy. You probably go to work, pay the bills, pay your taxes. In short, you lead quite a rigid lifestyle economically speaking. And yet put into the state of nature, with no economic structure in sight, you’re very likely to start thinking in terms of survival. ‘OK. I need food, water, shelter, safety, warmth.’ Given such a scenario even a devout moral vegetarian will become immediately aware that their eco-system has changed. They’re placed firmly back into the food chain, and will probably hunt and eat meat. But, will they have spent time to make a moral justification? Or will they be fine with the economic one, that their survival rests on their eating meat? Perhaps eventually that person will think of a truly moral justification. But it takes more time for that moral structure to adapt, and thus our immediate economic actions aren’t always the most moral.

It was when I made this argument about the different modes of thinking, and the speed of adaptation for each, that I realised I was thinking structurally. And when in the above example one structure adapts at a different speed to another, there arises a disequilibrium between the internal moral structure for decision-making, and the internal economic one. When the need arises we do what we have to, even if the next day we may feel guilty. Or in other words, these lenses through which we perceive the world are structural components of our thought processes, just as the economy, state, society, and international arena are all structural components of the world order. When those structures are imbalanced, or moving at different speeds, the result is an outpouring of emotions, and potentially aggressive behaviour (this behaviour can be aimed inwards or outwards). Just because we have a natural potential for aggressive behaviour does not mean that natures forces our hand. Even the actions of individual agencies are ruled by structures.

Just in the interests of explanation think about an economy which rapidly grows, while the state structure remains relatively stagnant, and although social expectations rise, little socially actually changes. Russia at the outbreak of the First World War fits this example perfectly. Socio-political expectations rose along with the economic reality, and yet when these expectations weren’t met, frustration and aggression was the result. So when it entered WW1 it entered with severe structural disequilibria, and when it left, it did so to civil war.

Plate SpinningThe best way to think about how structures cause conflict is to picture a game of Plate Spinning (a game where plates are kept from falling to the floor by spinning them atop of a series of poles). If one of the plates begins to spin at a slower speed than all of the others then it begins to wobble. There is an immediate disequilibrium between the different plates, and potential for damage if the plate is allowed to fall. My contention is that each of these plates represents a different structure; or rather each of the poles and people spinning represents a different structure, and the plates represent the visible agencies who are seen to be causing conflict, but are in reality only reacting to structures which have changed their behaviour out of sync with their partners.

What do you think?


  • i like the metaphor of the plate-spinning game and the various lenses with which we look at the world. But I have a hard time figuring out the link between that and the argument that whatever violence is innate in us is not a cause of conflict.

    Incidentally, in the case of the modern cosmopolitan vegetarian thrown back to a cave-person ecosystem, I don’t consider it immoral for that person to hunt and kill animals. The moral justification is quite simple, on the one side of the utilitarian calculus where there used to lie the petty pleasure of eating animals (denied because overruled by the pain of the animal) now lies survival. And survival is no longer overruled as easily as a petty pleasure.

  • Three questions here: are violent inclinations an innate part of the human condition? If yes, then do they necessarily lead towards conflict? And, does the method of utilitarian calculus provide a sufficiently moral means of judgement in all situations?

    I’ll take them one by one:

    1) Common sense leads one to say yes, violent inclinations occur within all of us. We can see this in young children, who seem to all use some form of violence in their toddler years, whether it be pulling the cat’s tail, or slapping a parent’s hand because they take their dummy (pacifier in American) away. Most of the academic readings also lead one to say yes. People like Freud and Lorenz were quite famous in their insistence that we are a naturally violent species. Indeed they argued that we had to take steps to ‘drain’ away our natural reservoirs of aggressive energy. However, As animal behaviourist John Paul Scott, professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University, has written: “all of our present data indicate that fighting behaviour among higher mammals, including man, originates in external stimulation and that there is no evidence of spontaneous internal stimulation.” Many people go through their entire lives without any violent behaviour whatsoever. And, although I definitely would have liked to have hit a few more people back in school, I can’t remember wanting to use violence against anyone since leaving school. Admittedly the self is a poor subject to use as an example. But the onus of proof in this case seems to be on those who wish to prove that we are innately violent as opposed to those who are not, since the evidence only provides examples of violence. There is no evidence that we are all violent.

    2) If we did find evidence that there is in all of us, at all points in our lives, an ingredient, gene or chemical which incites us towards violence, then would this necessarily create conflict? At best, it would provide an underlying cause, but not a proactive one. When you hear someone saying that they feel like hitting someone, they almost never do, do they? They might instead say something like “don’t give me an excuse to hit you”, because, for most people a feeling simply isn’t enough to prompt action. We are rational creatures, and in most cases choose to rationalise our actions. Where we are able to do this, we usually do so with reference to a structure of some sort.

    3) The utilitarian calculus is a very useful method of analysis, but also crucially flawed. It accounts for the mathematical nature of the world, but downplays the more qualitative, relative one. For me personally, the closest I can come to explaining immorality in very concise, admittedly partially reductive manner, is with reference to selfishness i.e. attributing more value to oneself than to others. And this is precisely why the utilitarian calculus breaks down as a tool for moral reasoning in many circumstances. We might say that it is morally justifiable for one person to kill another in order to survive, if both were forced into a state of competition and had no other choice. But would we say it was still morally justifiable if the winner was a soldier and the loser was his daughter? In numerical terms, and from an observer’s perspective, it makes no difference; but to most people it really does make a difference, because we believe greater value should be given to the daughter. I’ll take another extreme example. Hitler’s moral justification for the Holocaust was almost entirely Utilitarian; he reasoned that the quick and efficient extermination of one people would result in the increased utility of humankind. Yet we think these actions to be the very epitome of immorality. How does this come to pass? The reason is that when you’re in the actor’s shoes as opposed to the observer’s, then your choice to survive at the other being’s expense pre-supposes that you attribute greater value to yourself than that other. And if you need to eat many other beings to survive, then you are saying that you have greater value than many other beings. Does that really seem moral to you?

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