Tuesday, April 16, 2019


During an online conversation, the question of Natural Law came up. Personally, I don't believe in any sort of natural law, as I don't understand there to be concepts of rights or strictures that are objective in that they are independent of human reason. It turns out that there is a standard rebuttal to this, that being the universal prohibition against murder. And while to do concede the point that murder is universally considered wrong, I also pointed out that "murder is wrong" is a tautology, as a justified homicide is not considered murder; that is, the fact that a killing is wrong is what makes it "murder." This lead an interlocutor to press me on why people were able to live in groups without killing one another.

I admit that I find the question strange, since I understand the answer to be a simple one: Individual and collective self-interest.

As far as I'm concerned, the social convention that allows us to live in peace is the understanding that I don't need to resort to violence to achieve my ends. And since violence is a) risky and b) comes with personally unacceptable external consequences, I don't bother.

There is nothing that says that violence is always the best option, or even a worthwhile option. Sure, there are people who see violence as a marker of strength, but there are circumstances where, even for them, it doesn't justify the costs. In other words, violence, like anything else, is not a solution, it's a trade off.

In societies with weak overall social structures, rates of violence are high, because personal violence is often answered with more violence. Hunter-gatherer societies could have rates of death by homicide as high as 30%. Blood feuds and vendettas were common, in part because of an arms race between being violent enough to intimidate others and being proud enough to not want to be intimidated. One can make the point that omniscient/omnipotent deities and punishing afterlives were an attempt to tamp down on this by positing a power that couldn't be hidden from, couldn't be overpowered and that would dole out punishments. This changes the calculus for believers, in the same way that not knowing who may be a secret police agent chills speech critical of the state, as speakers never know when an unacceptably high price may be exacted. (Of course, making paradise or perdition "certain" works a bit differently.)

While societies tend to come up with rules that allow for a certain level of harmony, but they also tend to enforce arbitrary mores. One can understand where "You will not kill outside of the rules," is essential to social trust broadly. "You will keep holy the day of rest" seems a little less important; at least to me.

But in the end, what makes it function is the idea that right now, the trade-offs favor peaceful interactions more than the alternatives, because a) humans are pretty crappy at taking on their environments completely unsupported. Bear Grylls can jump out of plane in BFE and be living like a king in under a week, but for most of the rest of us, we need backup or we starve in the cold or are eaten by Grue. And the more advanced (and affluent) a society becomes, in general, the more backup we need to keep things humming. And b) generally speaking, more people allow for greater division of labor; more people can specialize and that makes it easier for everyone. (This doesn't scale indefinitely, however.) So larger and large aggregations of people allow for yet larger aggregations.

Now, I admit that I could be wrong about this. But what I often find interesting is the idea that outside some sort of enforced Natural Law that people would find that resorting to violence suits their purposes on a regular basis. I suppose that not believing in any sort of deity, yet seeing the world as a (reasonably) peaceful place requires that I understand there to be incentives for non-violence. But I do find it curious that so many people believe that the opposite is true.

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