An argument against pacifism

Mark Kurlansky (picture Random House)

I wrote a few posts ago about a talk by Mark Kurlansky, author of “Nonviolence: the history of a dangerous idea”. I’ve now read the book. I wasn’t very impressed by the talk, and I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed by the book, either.

The argument in the book is basically that nonviolence – which is an active alternative to violence rather than merely the absence of violence – is morally preferable to violence and ought to replace it. Insofar as that is an argument at all, it is one I am interested in, naturally. (It is striking to read arguments from the 1920s and 1930s about how war is positively a good thing, by contrast.)

But where the book goes wrong is that it is content simply to assert a preference for nonviolence over violence, without properly examining what it takes to make that preference a reality. Federalism, of course, is the result of precisely that examination, and there is precious little federalism in this book.

Federalism and pacifism are different things, as Lord Lothian observed here, and there is a small commentary from me here, too.

The book left me thinking a little more, though, about federalism is preferable to pacifism. Obviously, there is Alexander Hamilton’s comment (in Federalist Paper number 6) that “To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties situated in the same neighbourhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”

But I think it is also possible to explain why pacifism does not work, in addition to the empirical observation that it doesn’t. The answer, turning to game theory, is that pacifism is not an evolutionary stable strategy.

The evolutionary stable strategy is a concept coined by the mathematical biologist John Maynard Smith to describe a pattern of behaviour within a population that is preferable to any other pattern of behaviour. A population that follows its ESS will be more successful than a population that does not, so that any population will tend to follow the ESS rather than anything else.

The classic demonstration of an ESS lies in the problem of hawks and doves (which actually suits the analysis of pacifism rather well). A population is composed of two types of individual: hawks, which will fight whatever the circumstances; and doves, which will never fight at all.

A population composed entirely of doves will be vulnerable to invasion by hawks, who will fight members of the dove population and exploit them to get what they want. Importantly, though, a population of hawks is also vulnerable to invasion by doves. A group of cooperating individuals will prosper even while they are subject to attack by the hawks around them. Logically, there must be a point where the ratio of hawks to doves is optimal. Too many doves and there is an opportunity for some more hawks to fight their way in: too many hawks offers scope for some more cooperation to replace some of the conflict.

By way of an example of what this means in practice, think about a department store. Most people pay for the goods they buy (i.e. they are doves) while a few people will steal them (i.e. the hawks). Now, while it might seem preferable for the shop if nobody stole, in practice it turns out better for the shop to cope with a small amount of theft. They even have a word for it: shrinkage. This may seem odd but is actually quite sensible. The measures needed to prevent all theft outright would probably cost too much money and would certainly deter a lot of shoppers – who would want to be strip-searched upon leaving John Lewis? – so there turns out to be a limit on how far shoplifting can be reduced; on the other hand, of course, too much stealing will drive the shop out of business. There is a balance to be struck, and the ideal amount of shoplifting (from the shop’s point of view) might turn out to be greater than zero. (This is not to be taken, though, as encouragement from this blog to go out and steal).

What you would expect to see, then, in human society is the co-existence of cooperative and confrontational strategies. The balance between the two might vary over time – the occasional rise and fall of pacifist movements such as the Albigensians and the Anabaptists, chronicled in Mark Kurlansky’s book – but a balance it will remain. The growth of pacifist movements does not presage and will not lead to the growth of pacifism. The spread of pacifism will reach its limits within human society.

However, this is not reason for despair. The point is that federalism is based on an understanding of the limits of pacifism and proposes a way to rise above those limits. We understand what causes cholera, and can cure and prevent it too.

The prevention of wars cannot be left to human society – that’s what the ethology and game theory reveals – but it depends instead on human institutions. Disputes within and between communities will inevitably arise, and the temptation to resort to force to resolve those disputes will arise also. Institutions are needed to preclude that use of force. Nonviolence without those institutions will get nowhere.

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