The question of whether or not war among humans is unescapable is a troubling one for it goes to the core of who we are as a supposedly logical and rational species. Some argue that conflict is inherent in our makeup with deep biological roots that cannot be overcome. However, others believe that no creature with any level of rationality is destined to yield to their supposed aggressive nature. So who is right and what elements contribute to such a reality?
The idea that humans have a predisposition towards violence, either intraspecies or interspecies, has been debated for decades. Both sides attempt to utilize the behaviors of other primates as empirical support for their positions, but different primate species demonstrate different levels of innate violence even within the same genus as rhesus macaques are very violent, but stump tail macaques are generally non-violent. Overall studying primate behavior does suggest that environment shapes behavior almost exclusively versus genetics for even when rhesus macaques are transplanted into a stump tail troop the rhesus change and adapt reducing their violent behavior.1,2
Based on this information there appears to be two driving keys to conflict: survival and expression of dominence. Interestingly enough both of these keys involve the acquisition of resources. Initially one could state that all violence and aggression boils down to resource collection. Looking at all of the conflict over history rarely, if ever, can one characterize a conflict where resources were not the driving force initating that conflict regardless of whether the war was on of conquest or independence. Resource motivation for wars of conquest are self-explanatory where motivations in wars of independence are to “unshackle” resource access controlled by the ruling parties so one can control his or her future.
If an individual has enough resources to survive the need for violence is reduced because the weighted necessity of those resources is reduced. For example what is the probability of acceptance if someone with 10,000 dollars in the bank is offered 10 dollars to do 100 pushups verses someone who has 100 dollars in the bank? Although the cost benefit ratio of the deal for both individuals is generally the same, the overall weight is different for the 10 dollars is more valuable to the second individual than the first; therefore the second individual is more likely to accept the arrangement.
The same can be said for displays of aggression and conflict engagement. When an individual or group has a lot of resources the costs of war seem greater than when that entity has few resources even if the costs are the same. This psychology is especially true when resources are scarce to the point where survival is at stake because the aggressor rationalizes three options: 1) a low quality life leading to a hastened death due to lack of resources; 2) a quicker death due to the conflict; 3) a longer live due to new resources acquired through victory; in all negative scenarios death is the worst outcome, but conflict does create a pathway to more resources and continued survival where the status quo does not.
This cost element can also be regarded as only a secondary element to initiating a war. While war is costly, especially in the most extreme fashion (the loss of life) and most cost benefit analysis reject war, most individuals do not first consider a cost-benefit analysis, but instead question whether or not they the war will be successful. What is the point of conducting a war, no matter what the benefits, if one cannot win? A low probability of victory is what stops a vast majority of individuals/groups from engaging in conflict; however, it is also what allows inequality and injustice to persist as well.
Clearly resource allocation and shortage heavily influence aggressive tendencies in creatures, even those of higher intelligence, because if one has an abundance of resources then violent action is unbenefical because the gains are mitigated, one can solve problems with the abundance of available resources. While this reasoning is logical it still begs the question of why do different groups initiate aggressive actions against other parties even when they have enough resources to survive? Even though resources play the major role in aggressive and violent behavior there are clearly other factors that initiate violence. What are these additional elements?
The secondary elements that catalyze aggressive behavior appear to be pride/ego and freedom. Even if a creature has adequate resources to survive, if they lack the freedom to use those resources or acquire more resources they may resort to aggression to change this situation. One could acknowledge that such action is also influenced by a lack of resources, but not isolated to that situation. Pride/ego induces aggression in one of two ways: 1) when one feels wronged on some level by another, which then deamnds some level of consequence against the offending party; 2) when one wants to prove that he/she is better than other individuals;
Further exploring the human psychological aspect to conflict when resources are not the sole driving force, ego is an interesting element to conflict because it is not insinctive instead it is brought on by cultural or soceital triggers. For example everyone at some level wants to be respected, but not everyone feels the need to consider him/herself better than someone else. The expansion of ego drives the desire to compare each other in effort to judge self-worth, which then drives conflict. The acquisition of resources, chiefly money, is the principle measuring factor used by humans when distinguishing superiority between individuals. Remove this relative judgment standard in favor of a self-absolute standard and it stands to reason that conflict would decrease. Instead of judging each other on a comparison basis, one would only judge the possessed number of resources against a self-imposed standard ignoring all others. The need to be regarded as better than another human drives people, even when equal, to seek more and war/conflict is one way to acquire that more. In one respect the problem is not that aggression or violence is in human nature, but instead it is in our complexity, consciousness and society.
There in lies the chief problem when attempting to eliminate conflict among humans; resource allocation is a fixable problem, but is made much more complicated because of this personal ego attribute. For example most societies use capitalism as their economic system, a system the demands competition and unequality between the members of that society due to the necessity to assign winners and losers in such a system. Therefore, in this system even if resources are abundant enough that everyone could receive what is necessary to survive individuals could be (and are frequently) outcompeted for those resources by those who already have significant resources. This enhanced competition factor is largely the reason why more inequality exists in the first place.
Not surprisingly capitalism has a notorious feedback system where those who have resources increase their probaibility of getting more resources while those who don’t have resources decrease their probability of getting resources in the future. Sadly while some continue to believe that capitalism is principly a meriticracy such a characterization can no longer be accurately applied in modern society, for numerous examples exist where smart and determined individuals fail to acquire suitable resources because those who already have resources force the use of special connections and secret handshakes to enhance resource acquisition probabilities. Unfortunately as long as capitalism retains its competitive characteristic and individuals are free to compete for all resources despite their personal resource standing (i.e. no resource acquisition ceiling) there is little reason to suspect a lasting and significant reduction in conflict within a capitalistic system.
While human psychology provides a significant barrier to reducing conflict it can also provide hope through the same mechanisms. Interestingly studies find that people in general are more cooperative than economic rationality within a capitalistic system would predict3-6 creating meaningful questions within the study of reciprocity. One theory to explain this gap is that individuals utilize altruism as a signal to indicate their quality.7 Such a signal is meaningful because the demonstration of the altruistic action has cost to the actor and this cost is viewed as creating a sense of sincerity in the actor. This altruistic action is thought to bridge the gap between strangers who cannot rely on friendships to explain a lack of point-for-point reciprocity.
One can also use the application of altruism to shift the relative nature of superiority that capitalism promotes. Instead of individuals using their acquired wealth and resources as a signal for superiority they could use their ability to give to others as that signal. Such a mindset has been the general hope of some, but clearly has not come to pass possibly because it has only been passively applied by society rather than actively. Unfortunately while the complete elimination of relative self-worth would be ideal it appears that the transference of how realitve self-worth is evaluated is the best one can expect.
Some may argue that threats of war between major powers has declined demonstrating that aggression is not purely biological. The problem is that these declines can be attributed not to a change in biology or even one in societal behavior instead a change in weaponary. It is the advancement of weaponry used to wage war and a conscious understanding that one must use these weapons to win, but their use reduces the resource gains from war due to excessive levels of collaterial damage. Interestingly enough these new weapons make it less likely for a major power to conduct war, but more likely for a single individual or small group to conduct war. Thus the advancement of weaponry may actually shift the nature of large-scale aggression and conflict. If this shift actually occurs it will displace the long standing belief that when the benefits of war outweigh the costs, war occurs, versus when the costs of war outweigh the benefits war will not occur. With pride continuing to be a catalyst the cost of war become almost microscopic and if we turn that corner as a species, aggression, conflict and war become inevitable.
Overall ending general conflict among humans will be incredibly difficult because of the competitive nature of capitalism and how that nature is applied with human psychology and social relationships as well as war having become a formal part of human culture. While the frequency and ferocity of war conducted by human ancestors can be debated, it cannot be debated that in recent history war has been conducted constantly on both large and small scales. This empirical application of the process of war makes it more difficult to end war because individuals do see winners and losers not just losers from the conflict. It would be easier to argue against the benefits of war if humans had never engaged in it in the first place. However, despite the realities of ego, experience and survival it is possible for humans to throw off the “yolk” of conflict, but it will demand a perspective change and an active effort of utilitarian sacrifice.
1. Kummer, Hans. In quest of the sacred baboon: A scientist's journey. Princeton. University Press. 1997.
2. Chaffin, C, Friedlen, K, and De Waal, F. “Dominance style of Japanese macaques compared with rhesus and stumptail macaques.” American Journal of Primatology. 1995. 35(2):103-116.
3. Colman, A. M. “Cooperation, psychological game theory, and limitations of rationality in social interaction.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2003. 26:139–198.
4. Fehr, E, and Fischbacher, U. “The nature of human altruism.” Nature. 2003. 425:785–791.
5. Ostrom, E. A. “Behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action.” American Political Science Review. 1998. 92:1–22.
6. Palameta, B, and Brown, W. “Human cooperation is more than by-product mutualism.” Animal Behaviour. 1999. 57:F1–F3.
7. Roberts, G. “Cooperation through interdependence.” Anim. Behav. 2005. 70:901–908.