Anti-War Sentiments & Institutions

Anti-War Sentiments & Institutions

Over time human beings have become more peaceful. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explains that much of the reduction of violence between humans has been influenced by the institutions we create to govern, organize, and structure our societies, relationships, and human to human interactions. Without institutions to help pacify humans, violence would be an easy and convenient solution to many of our problems.
 
 
Pinker uses anti-war sentiment to show how important institutions are in making people less violent. He writes, “to gain traction, antiwar sentiments have to infect many constituencies at the same time. And they have to be grounded in economic and political institutions, so that the war-averse outlook doesn’t depend on everyone’s deciding to become and stay virtuous.” We can praise virtuous monks, we can admire peaceful protestors, and we can hold conscientious war objectors in high regard, but if political and economic institutions do not align with peace, then anti-war sentiment won’t grow beyond these few groups. It is easy to say that humans should all be kind, peaceful, and considerate of others, but without the right institutions, virtues don’t matter much.
 
 
People don’t like admitting that their behaviors are driven by large structural and institutional factors. We like to imagine that we are good individuals and that our conscious choices and decisions are what drive our behaviors. We see ourselves as deserving of good things and criminals and deviants as deserving of bad things because of individual choices in life. When we think about the world becoming a less violent place (if we think about that at all) we imagine it is because we are part of a new breed of humans who are more civilized, smarter, less impulsive, and more valuing of human life. Some of that may be true, but if so, it is not something special about humans today but likely something about the institutions we have built which have changed us and our social worlds.
 
 
Pinker’s anti-war sentiment quote shows how that is true. It is hard for a population to become overwhelmingly peaceful and anti-war when their neighbor has invaded their country (as we see in Ukraine now). It is hard to favor peace when your own economy is a train wreck and invading your neighbor will give your economy a boost through natural resources (perhaps as we see with Russia). If violence is a quick and easy way to boost your economy and the institutions surrounding you don’t punish you for violence, then you have fewer incentives to be peaceful and anti-war. Institutions, incentives, and larger political and economic structural factors matter – often more than individual virtuosity.
An End to Institutionalized Superstitious Killings & A Bumper Sticker

An End to Institutionalized Superstitious Killings & A Bumper Sticker

Very few peoples and cultures today participate in some form of ritual killing of other people or hold any beliefs that human sacrifices are necessary to appease a deity and ensure good fortunes for the future. Very few people have to worry about being killed for possessing magical powers or for having somehow been in contact with an evil mystical being. However, throughout much of human history, these were legitimate concerns and fears for many human beings.
 
 
In his book The Better Angel of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “in most of the world, institutionalized superstitious killing, whether in human sacrifice, blood libel, or witch persecution has succumbed to two pressures. One is intellectual: the realization that some events, even those with profound personal significance, must be attributed to impersonal physical forces and raw chance rather than the designs of other conscious beings.”
 
 
This is a major step for humans and the societies we build and live within. At least within WEIRD countries, we have moved to a place where the institutionalized killing of a human being can only be carried out if there is empirical evidence to demonstrate that the human being committed a crime. This trend is constantly being advanced, as we now require stronger evidence, such as clear DNA evidence, in order to convict an individual. We are increasingly uncomfortable with state police forces using deadly force when apprehending dangerous criminals. Further, we accept institutionalized killings in fewer circumstances. Even murder isn’t always a guarantee that some form of state endorsed violence or killing will be used as a valid punishment. 
 
 
Pinker continues, “a great principal of moral advancement, on par with love thy neighbor and all men are created equal is the one on the bumper sticker: shit happens.” Humans today recognize that physical forces are beyond the control of an individual. We also don’t accept (in legal settings at least) that terrible natural phenomena like floods and landslides, are not retributive acts of a deity angry at people for their sins. We can accept that good things may happen to bad people, and that bad things may happen to good people without another human or advanced deity interfering through some form of mysticism or divine punishment/reward.
 
 
The bumper sticker view of life has combined with a greater increase in the value of human life and happiness in recent human history. We don’t punish people with violence for crimes that humans could not possibly have committed, and we resort to less violence when punishing humans for crimes that we have strong evidence that they did commit. We resort to incarceration, fines, and community service for most forms of punishment today, not scarring, whipping, or burning at the stake. Even in the rare instances where we do still support institutionalized killings, we do so in the most peaceful and nonviolent manner possible (at least in countries where lethal injection is the method used for capital punishment). These are just two high level explanations that Pinker offers for a global decline in violence in his book. We are less mystical and less likely to support institutionalized violence. 
Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Mysticism in the United States doesn’t really feel like it lends itself to violence. When we think of mystics, we probably think of someone close to a shaman, or maybe a modern mystic whose aesthetic is very homeopathic. Mystics don’t seem like they would be the most violent people today, but in the past, mysticism was a convenient motivating factor for violence.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker describes the way that mysticism lends itself to violence by writing, “the brain has evolved to ferret out hidden powers in nature, including those that no one can see. Once you start rummaging around in the realm of the unverifiable there is considerable room for creativity, and accusations of sorcery are often blended with self-serving motives.”
 
 
There are two important factors to recognize in this quote from Pinker, and both are often overlooked and misunderstood. First, our brains look for causal links between events. They are very good and very natural at thinking causally and pinpointing causation, however, as Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, the brain can often fall into cognitive fallacies and misattribute causation. Mystical thinking is a result of misplaced causal reasoning. It is important that we recognize that our brains can see causation that doesn’t truly exist and lead us to wrong conclusions.
 
 
The second important factor that we often manage to overlook is our own self-interest. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in The Elephant in the Brain, our self-interest plays a much larger role in much of our decision-making and behavior than we like to admit. When combined with mysticism, self-interest can be dangerous.
 
 
If you have an enemy who boasts that they are special and offers mystical explanations for their special powers, then it suddenly becomes convenient to justify violence against your enemy. You don’t need actual proof of any wrong doing, you don’t need actual proof of their danger to society, you just need to convince others that their mystical powers could be dangerous, and you now have a convenient excuse for disposing of those who you dislike. You can promote your own self-interest without regard to reality if you can harness the power of mystical thinking.
 
 
Pinker explains that the world is becoming a more peaceful place in part because mystical thinking is moving to smaller and smaller corners of the world. Legal systems don’t recognize mystical explanations and justifications for behaviors and crimes. Empirical facts and verifiable evidence has superseded mysticism in our evaluations and judgments of crime and the use of violence. By moving beyond mysticism we have created systems, structures, and institutions that foster more peace and less violence among groups of people.
An Offense Against the State

An Offense Against The State

Who is harmed by a homicide? Certainly the individual who loses their life is harmed, but who else? Any family that is connected to the individual or depends on them is harmed, but beyond that, one can argue that the entire society to which the individual lived is harmed. If you take this broader view, then it makes sense that the crime of homicide could be an offense against the state, and not just an offense against a single individual or their close family.
 
 
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker thinks about what this shift in perspective regarding the crime of homicide means for violence between and amongst human beings. He writes, “for centuries the legal system had treated homicide as a tort: in lieu of vengeance, the victim’s family would demand a payment from the killer’s family… . King Henry I redefined homicide as an offense against the state and its metonym, the crown.” When murder shifted from an offense against an individual or their family to an offense against the state, the potential rewards from murder dissipated. A single family could only do so much to seek retribution from a murder. And if the killer was big enough, strong enough, and influential enough in the local community, there was no chance that the family could ever seek justice. Murder was a path to riches, to status, and to power when it was only a crime against a single family or person.
 
 
The state, however, had more power, resources, and authority than any local individual. There may have been some individuals with extreme power and the ability to get away with murder, but shifting homicide to an offense against the state reduced the number of individuals who could kill without regard for consequences. Murder, for most, no longer existed as a good pathway toward greater riches. Shifting the offense shifted incentives and encouraged greater civility, reducing violence. The state, and its justice system, created an institution to reduce violence where previous institutions encouraged violence.
Fueled by Indifference

Fueled by Indifference

In December of 2021 I was in Las Vegas and on my way back to the airport the GPS took me through a tough part of town. There were numerous homeless people along one stretch and tons of trash strewn across the streets.
 
 
Today I retweeted a picture from Los Angeles with a caption, “Not a third world country, your country.” The picture featured a train pulling shipping containers along a stretch of track completely littered with garbage, boxes, and junk.
 
 
The stretch of Las Vegas I drove through and the picture from LA reflect the indifference in the United States that fuels really awful realities for so many places and lives. Our country is so focused on the individuals that we fail to see our collective responsibilities. We are so prone to thinking about improving the world through our own hard work and efforts to be a good person that we see larger problems that demand collective action and feel helpless. I couldn’t help every homeless person I drove past in Las Vegas, and I can’t clean up the train tracks in LA by myself. The problem is beyond what I could do, so why should I even think about it. It is easier to just blame others for their laziness, lack of morals, or to simply be indifferent.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference.” Harari is writing about human animal consumption, and about the way industrial agriculture operates. He is also critiquing the idea of using animals as a technology for food sources and human nutrition in general. Animals by all means appear to be conscious and have experiences, but we don’t think about it. We are indifferent to their suffering, we ignore the issue, and we go about our lives fueling great harm to animal lives that we consider lesser than human lives.
 
 
Harari’s thoughts on indifference are reflected in the two recent experiences that I shared. In LA, shipping containers on trains are being raided for the goods they contain. Amazon boxes, goods shipped from oversees, and whatever else happens to be in shipping containers are being stolen and the packaging is being tossed about. Our focus on ourselves, our own goods and experiences, and on what we have has put us in a position where we are indifferent to the damage that our personal desires have on the rest of the world. In Las Vegas we enjoy the nightlife of the strip, the shopping and entertainment of the hotels and casinos, and the renowned restaurants. We don’t think about the people who have had tough luck, made bad decisions, or just not been given extra help when they are down. Unless our GPS takes us an unconventional route, we ignore the problems of poverty around such a glitzy city. I am certainly no better than anyone else in these regards.
 
 
 
Somehow we have to find a way to be less indifferent. Somehow we have to find a way to value collective organizations and efforts. Somehow we have to empower institutions that will help us care more about other lives (human and animal) and other places. As I note, it is too hard for any one of us to help the homeless or clean the environment on our own. It is easy to be indifferent, and there are too many bad things and important causes for us to focus on anything in particular. We need to have institutions that further collective action and overcome our individual indifferences. 
Admitting Collective Ignorance

Admitting Collective Ignorance

I generally agree that we are too confident in our opinions and judgments about the world. We live with a lot of complexity and very few of us are superforcasters, carefully considering information and updating our knowledge as new information comes along. We rely on personal experiences and allow ourselves to believe things that we want to be true. However, there are some modern institutions which help push back against this knowledge overconfidence.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions “ (emphasis in original). As Harari notes, physicists openly admit that we cannot study what happened in the first moments of the Big Bang and scientists cannot explain what consciousness is or how it arises. On the largest problems science is great at admitting collective ignorance, something that is very unique among humans. Throughout our history many humans have attempted to answer the most important questions through narratives and stories, resulting in religions and dogmas. For modern science to eschew this trend is rather remarkable.
 
 
I would say that modern science actually goes a step beyond admitting collective ignorance in the largest questions we can ask. Something I often noted during my masters program, where we read a great deal of academic public policy and political science papers, was how often we could argue that authors were confident in their findings in the body of the paper (sometimes overstating the impact of their finding) only to admit in the conclusion that their study was limited in scope and could not be generalized to broader contexts. Within social sciences at least, papers encourage researchers to place their work within an appropriate context, and from my experience, the best papers do a good job of being honest and realistic about their conclusions. They admitted ignorance even when identifying effects that appeared to be real.
 
 
Humans cannot admit ignorance in business, politics, and religion. A CEO who admitted that the company didn’t really know what was happening and that they were operating from a place of ignorance probably won’t be CEO for long – especially not if they face a stretch of bad luck. Very few voters would elect a candidate who admitted to being ignorant on much of the world. Religions (in my view – which could be wrong) seem to provide more answers than admissions of ignorance (although Christians at least seems to admit that humans cannot understand their deity’s decision-making process).
 
 
Science is a unique place where we can admit that we don’t know much, even when announcing findings and things we have learned from careful study. This is one of the strengths of science and something we should do a better job communicating.  An admission of ignorance within science is a sign that scientific institutions are functioning well. That seems to have been forgotten at times during the pandemic, and often has been mocked by people who are unhappy with regulations and decisions by public policy officials.
Hierarchies that Disavow Fictional Origins - Joseph Henrich - The WEIRDest People in The World - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Hierarchies that Disavow Fictional Origins

In Joseph Henrich’s recent book The WEIRDest People in the World he discusses a study he performed where he offered rural tribal people in South America a choice between getting a spice block today, or two spice blocks at a later time. This type of delayed gratitude study is common, but what was uncommon was Henrich’s subject. Most delayed gratification studies are conducted in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies and provide insights about who is going to be successful as an investor, in going to college, or generally in being less impulsive throughout life.
 
 
In Henrich’s study, tribal people living with little contact with people from more WEIRD regions of South America were less likely to take more spice blocks tomorrow compared to one spice block today. However, Henrich argues this was not due to an inability to delay gratification, an inability to think about the future, or some sort of personal shortcoming that has left people in rural areas stuck behind people in WEIRD areas. The reason, Henrich argues, that people in rural areas were not willing to delay gratification was that the institutions of their tribes didn’t provide any real incentive for them to do so. The individuals Henrich studied lived in communities where it was expected that surplus resources would be shared back with the larger tribe. The individuals themselves were not delaying their own gratification, they were simply choosing to accept one spice block they could use today, rather than accept a surplus tomorrow that they would be expected to share with the rest of their tribe later.
 
 
I like this anecdote because it shows that sometimes we reach wrong conclusions. Sometimes we assume we know what it means for someone to behave a certain way, but we fail to recognize all of the complex incentives and motivations that may be driving the person’s behavior. We often fall back on relatively simple and reductive explanations. The people in rural villages are “backward” because they cannot delay gratification and that is necessary to catch up with WEIRD societies. People in poverty are poor because they are lazy and don’t work. Rich people got to where they are by making smart choices and working hard. Each of these examples is overly simplistic, and possibly wrong. They are also all examples that can be, and have been, used to justify hierarchies that are ultimately based on little more than imagination.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.” Kings in Medieval Europe argued that they were naturally and divinely chosen to lead their peoples. Slave owners in the American Antebellum South argued that they were naturally superior to their slaves. Hitler argued that the Aryan race was naturally superior to all others. The rich today, in basically any country, argue that they are naturally superior (or more deserving of their wealth and fortune) than poor people. But in each case, the hierarchy is imagined. No one wants to admit that they are unfairly at an advantage, that they have more resources, leisure, power, or wealth than others simply by chance or at least partly due to some amount of random luck in success.
 
 
As Henrich’s study shows, wealth disparities don’t have to be considered “natural.” In the tribal villages he studied, village elders were the leaders who made decisions regarding resources. There were no individuals or households that had dramatically more resources than anyone else. Households and individuals responded to the incentives of the system accordingly. In the United States, we respect our elders, but don’t place them in leadership positions just because they are old and wise. We have institutions and systems in place that encourage individual accumulation of resources, and we stash our old people in storage in retirement homes – basically the opposite system of the tribe that Henrich studied. The institutions, cultures, and incentives around us matter a lot, and they determine what we find natural. We often ignore those factors, however, when we think about the hierarchies in place within our society, and chose to disavow the fictional origins of our hierarchies and believe that they reflect a natural and unavoidable aspect of humanity. 
There is no Escape from Imagined Orders

There is No Escape from Imagined Orders

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans are forever trapped in imagined orders. Whether it is the American Dollar, human rights, or nations, we are trapped within agreed upon institutions for organizing our lives. The reason we are stuck with the imagined orders we have created is because they are what enable billions of humans to cooperate and interact without dissolving into lawless violence. What exists in a single person’s head is combined with what exists in the minds of others to form real institutions, practices, and patterns that shape our interactions and understandings of the world. Our imagined orders are social constructs, and they cannot be eliminated – they can only be replaced.
 
 
“In order to change an existing imagined order,” writes Harari, “we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.” Harari’s quote is not completely accurate. We can dismantle an imagined order without replacing it through lawless chaos, but it is unlikely that a state of lawless chaos will remain for long. In order to get many humans to cooperate together, especially to commit violence and destruction which is likely not in their own best interest, you often need some sort of imagined order to serve as the motivating impetus for the violence and destruction. You might get a sufficient number of people to riot and burn the system down without really knowing what will replace it, but eventually, a new imagined order will take over. More common, however, is the situation Harari explains, that one imagined order is slowly replaced by another.
 
 
“There is no way out of the imagined order,” writes Harari. Escaping one imagined order simply leads to a new imagined order. The divine right of kings was dismantled and replaced by ideas of human rights, which encouraged and supported the development of representative democracies. Imagined orders exist together and can build upon one another, but they cannot be escaped altogether. One way or another, for humans to live and cooperate together, we need large-scale imagined orders which prescribe and  proscribe certain behaviors, responses, and relationships across the billions of people living on earth.
Imagined Orders Versus Natural Orders

Imagined Orders Versus Natural Orders

Imagined orders are myths that we agree upon and uphold through our actions and beliefs. There is no clear or objective basis to an imagined order to which everyone can agree at all times. Often, imagined orders exist on a continuum with numerous caveats and carve-outs as needed to maintain order and stability. They help shape our institutions and societies by creating a sense of common understanding and accepted beliefs and behaviors.
 
 
Natural orders, on the other hand, are the basis of the scientific theories and observations that humans can make. No matter where we are on the planet we can make the same observations of the speed of light, of protons and electrons, or of gravity. An important distinction is that natural orders exist whether we believe in them or want them to exist. Imagined orders only exist when we believe in them and want them to exist. Yuval Noah Harari describes it this way in his book Sapiens,
 
 
“A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them.”
 
 
We can ignore natural order, pretend it isn’t there, and abandon trust and belief in the scientific institutions that deliver knowledge regarding natural orders, but that doesn’t make the natural order itself go away. However, this is something that has occurred throughout human history with our imagined orders. The divine right of kings to rule is an institution that has been discredited and largely abandoned across the globe, but at one time was a powerful institution. Similarly, Roman and Greek religions were abandoned and were left for me to study in English class in high school as mythical stories. The myths which held the Soviet Union together also failed and were abandoned. Once a myth is no longer accepted, it is easily rejected as little more than fiction.
 
 
Harari argues that this fragility of myths is what drives us toward constant vigilance and ritual surrounding myths. Our judges wear long robes to appear more wise to help give credibility to their decisions. We hold large official and serious investigations around events such as the January 6th riot at the US Capitol to help preserve our electoral system. We play the national anthem ahead of sporting events to remind everyone of the fiction of our Nation. The reality, however, is that judges only have authority if we all recognize and agree that their words and declarations are important. Determining what was a violent riot and what was an impassioned plea for freedom can depend on perspective (though when it comes to January 6th and how objectively awful Trump was this one doesn’t seem defensible). And the United States isn’t a real thing. There is no clear reason why our country exists in the exact place that it does – indeed at one point the same territory existed but it was not the United States.
 
 
This doesn’t mean that these myths are bad or are not useful. They help us live our lives, cooperate, and coexist. They are useful fictions, even if they are fragile, built on little more than vague concepts and ideas, and require silly rituals like singing a special song before playing sports. 
Community & Trauma

Community & Trauma

In many ways I think it is a good thing that our nation does so much to celebrate the individual. We mythologize our greatest national founders, we try to embody the spirit of our greatest leaders, and we look up to great entrepreneurs today who are trying to solve some of our most challenging problems. Hard work, ingenuity, personal responsibility, and talent are the things we praise the most in these individuals, focusing on how great our society can be if we all strive to be as good as these leaders. Unfortunately, this hyper-individualism focus of the United States seems to be pulling us away from engagement with our communities as we focus inward on our selves, and can have devastating effects.
 
 
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has argued, especially with the COVID-19 Pandemic, that our nation faces a crisis of loneliness. We have fewer social groups and organizations that we engage with. We spend more time in our homes watching TV and less time participating in social and community focused groups. When we are shut away inside, this puts some individuals at risk of domestic violence, drug abuse and addiction, and mental health challenges like depression. Ultimately, as our community institutions are left to dwindle with our relentless focus on the individual, we risk increasing the trauma that individual members experience, which has a positive feedback loop on diminishing notions of community.
 
 
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond writes, “Milwaukee renters who perceived higher levels of neighborhood trauma – believing that their neighbors had experienced incarceration, abuse, addiction, and other harrowing events – were far less likely to believe that people in their community could come together to improve their lives. This lack of faith had less to do with their neighborhood’s actual poverty and crime rates than with the level of concentrated suffering they perceived around them.” Trauma destroys community, and destroyed communities create more opportunities for trauma. The more trauma and the weaker a sense of community, the more isolated and hopeless people become.
 
 
I don’t think anyone can overcome trauma on their own. People who have experienced any trauma, from minor to extreme, need the help of stable, compassionate, and trained individuals to live healthily. However, our hyper focus on the personal responsibility of the individual fails to account for trauma. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps, demonstrate extreme grit, or maintain self-control when dealing with trauma. You need community, you need other people to help create safe places where you can engage in the world around you, and you need caring people who can serve as role mentors and coaches to help you get through.
 
 
As we have allowed community to dwindle, we have removed the supports that help us overcome trauma. We have removed safe spaces for us to see that we can interact with others, come together to have fun and complete socially beneficial projects, or to provide support for one another. We focus on what we as individuals can do (even when it is being socially responsible and volunteering our time), not on what we can be as a community. This drives our isolation, leaves those who experience trauma without positive and healthy outlets, and diminishes our sense of community, further crumbling the lives and institutions of those living in poverty or trying to get through deep trauma. Celebrating the achievements and success of the individual is great, but not when it comes at the expense of our community and the institutions that help support all of us.