Peace, love and understanding


I wrote the below in response to a Christian friend who believes that love, tolerance and understanding are always the best ways to deal with people. In his world there are no bad people, only those who ‘exhibit difficulties’ and need our help and love.

In game theory there is the idea that in a system of cooperation where people trust each other, cheats will naturally evolve to take advantage of those who trust indiscriminately. If things are made too easy for cheats they come to predominate the system of trust collapses. For the system to work at all, there have to be people around who are prepared to punish cheats. They represent the necessary disincentive against cheating.

It has been shown in game theory that cooperation is a more successful strategy than every-man-for-himself and this is also true of real life. All of us benefit from belonging to a community of bakers, butchers, carpenters and so on. We work better as a team than alone and team members need to be able to trust each other. The best approach seems to be to trust everyone in your society the first time you meet them. After that you just do what they do. If they prove trustworthy, you continue to trust them. If they take advantage of your trust and cheat you then you should have nothing more to do with them. You should warn others that this person can’t be trusted and slowly that person will be ostracized and go to the wall.

Punishing cheats protects your community from further breaches of trust and then cooperation can go on again unhindered. Ostracism and punishment are not optional extras but essential to the smooth working of society. Without disincentives, cheats proliferate and the community ceases to function. Therefore do-gooders are quite rightly despised by many people.

In traditional, settled communities where everyone knows each other there is little opportunity for cheats to do much damage. Word soon spreads that he is not to be trusted. However in big, modern cities with transient populations where most people are strangers to each other, cheats can thrive. Here there is a large supply of strangers to be cheated on a one-off basis. Once a person has been cheated, the cheat simply moves on to the next unsuspecting victim. Of course most people in cities have learned to be wary of strangers. Even so, getting a bad reputation and being ostracised are clearly no longer disincentives to the cheat in the city with millions of potential victims. Instead laws, police and prisons are needed.

All of this is intuitively understood by small children. If they are shown a circle on a screen trying to get to the top of a hill and a helpful square gives the circle a push, the children approve of the square. They are then shown the circle making its way up the hill again, only this time to be knocked down by a triangle. The children get upset and disapprove of the ‘naughty triangle’. They approve when punishment is meted out to the triangle.

However, when another group of children are shown the triangle knocking the circle back down and this time the square does not punish the triangle, the children get upset not only with the triangle but also the do-gooder square. They instinctively sense that a person who doesn’t punish bad behaviour is acting immorally. It seems to be only liberals who have the sense they are born with educated out of them.

History teaches us the same lesson. Hitler wanted to exterminate various groups of people yet Gandhi advocated passive resistance. Hitler would have murdered every last Jew, Gypsy and gay and encountered no resistance if everyone had followed Gandhi’s teaching. Luckily the Allies stopped Hitler with the force that pacifists abjure. In a world of pacifists a single maniac can wreak havoc since pacifists, in wanting to keep their own hands and consciences clean, won’t lift a finger to stop him. ‘War is never the answer’, they say. Yet sometimes war is indeed the answer and often the only way to stop bad people is by using force, not by showing them kindness or trying to demonstrate that ‘we are better than them’.

Keeping your hands clean and leaving the job of stopping bad people to others is a deeply unethical position. Equally, by showering bad people with love, tolerance and understanding Christians and liberals make the world safe for cheats and a consequently a worse place for the rest of us.


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