Previously, in Trip's Life...

13 June 2001 - Wednesday

Today's Philosophy Rant: Nonviolence and Social Stability

(Actually, this is more like Monday's philosophy rant, since that's when the execution of McVeigh (insert link to your favorite news site here) incited many people to think and argue about the issue, but oh well.)

I've heard, from more than one person, and on more than one occasion, that it is always wrong to use violence/deadly force against a human being, and no one should do it, ever, full stop: anyone who is willing to kill a human being is criminally insane by definition.

Despite the stereotype commonly applied to people who don't agree wholeheartedly with this view, I don't advocate going out and shooting anyone who looks at you crosseyed, or even people who cut you off in traffic. In fact, I even agree that if everyone in the world were completely opposed to violence, everyone would win fairly big (in the game-theoretical sense, anyway); think what could have been accomplished if even half the US military budget since WWII had been spent on ecological remediation, WHO, spaceflight, or anything else even faintly productive.

Unfortunately, that's not a stable situation. If everyone is pacifistic, everyone wins big, but if even one person decides it's okay to initiate violence to get what he wants, he wins big, and everyone else loses. After all, what are they going to do to stop him? Static defenses won't necessarily work, and even if they do, the effort of building them cuts into the rewards of peace. Not building defenses means anything you have belongs to the deviant (possibly over your dead body), so again you lose the benefit of universal peace. And if there's no benefit to being peaceful, but some benefit to being violent, the lone deviant isn't going to remain unique forever.

(Yes, I realize that I am oversimplifying; one violent person among six billion, or even six million, is not actually a major influence on the average person, but is certainly a major influence on some of them, and you never know when you'll be next...)

If almost everyone is unwilling to initiate violence, but willing to respond in kind as needed, the situation is more stable: only deviants would start trouble, but they could then be dealt with. The benefits of being mostly peaceful are not as great, but the damage done by deviants is much reduced. (For fans of the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, this is analogous to the Tit-for-Tat strategy, which in the long term wins out over Always-Nice, Always-Rotten, and any other strategy devised so far.)

Admittedly, this is not as clear-cut a situation as Never Be Violent Ever Period: for all possible situations, how much force, if any, is allowed? how much, if any, is optimum? On the other hand, the fact that this does require more thought than a single simple slogan suggests that it's probably more applicable to the real world.

This is not to say that I support the death penalty in practice, mind you; I don't trust a government to execute the right people any more than I trust it to do anything else right, which is about as far as I can throw it. But I have less than no problem with self-defense to whatever degree of force is necessary. It would be nice to repair violent criminals and make them functional members of society, but a dead mugger/neo-Nazi/tobacco executive is definitively not a threat to anyone any more.


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