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American conservatism and soft utopianism

Jeffery Hart had a great piece in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday characterizing the core tenets of American conservatism. It does a very good job presenting the ideas of conservatism in a way that transcends the tired liberal vs. conservative argument, where each side is defined by what the other is not. (I suspect that as an English professor at Dartmouth Dr. Hart has had quite a bit of experience explaining American conservatism to others -- perhaps that's why he's so good at it.)

One paragraph really jumped out at me:

"Soft utopianism believes in benevolent illusions, most abstractly stated in the proposition that all goals are reconcilable, as in such dreams as the Family of Man, World Peace, multiculturalism, pacifism and Wilsonian global democracy. To all of these the Conservative Mind objects. Men do not all desire the same things: Domination is a powerful desire. The phrase about the lion lying down with the lamb is commonly quoted; but Isaiah knew his vision of peace would take divine intervention, not at all to be counted on. Without such intervention, the lion dines well."

I think this observation is very helpful at understanding how and why the field of conflict resolution is being politicized. It drives below the positions that obsess most of dialogue these days, getting into the core beliefs that drive modern American political conflict.I think that most of us in the conflict resolution world believe that most human goals are reconcilable. Those involved in conflict may perceive that their interests are completely at odds with their opponents, and that only through the frustration of the other side's desires will they be able to realize their objectives. In my experience, this proposition is more often inaccurate than it is accurate.

It is in human nature to slide into this zero-sum, winner-loser worldview, but that does not mean that it is intrinsically true. In almost every situation there are solutions that "expand the pie," meaning they allow for both sides to achieve most of their goals, and deliver additional value that the victory of one side or the other could not deliver. Beyond simple compromise, this rationalization of conflict optimizes the social benefit to be achieved in each situation, which is better for all parties involved. This contention is at the heart of the field of conflict resolution.

Dr. Hart's observation attempts to equate this tenet of conflict resolution with "soft utopianism," and by extension, pacifism, world peace, etc. (I think putting multiculturalism and Wilsonian global democracy into this category make this a pretty big bucket, but I get the overall gist of his point.) This is the argument that conflict resolution is just repackaged kumbaya-style idealism, based on fluttery optimism about the human condition that is completely divorced from reality. As I've said before in prior blog entries, I don't think conflict resolution is always "soft" -- processes can be designed to resolve conflicts that are as rigid, concrete, and ruthlessly efficient as the disputants want them to be.

But to get to the broader point, I think this disagreement begs the question of human nature. Dr. Hart says, "...utopianism ignore[s] flawed human nature," and I agree with that. But personally I disagree with the assertion that the ability to cooperate and resolve problems are alien to human nature.

What is the nature of man? This is the question of the ages. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that we are good or bad by choice:
"...if it is in our power to do noble or base acts, and likewise in our power not to do them, and this was what being good or bad meant, then it is in our power to be virtuous or vicious. No one is involuntarily happy, but wickedness is voluntary."

Aristotle goes on to say that our baser instincts (presumably the instinct to dominate and destroy opponents) are guided by reason:
"...the temperate person's appetites are for the right things, in the right ways, at the right times, which is just what reason also prescribes."

This seems to me to be the core idea of the Enlightenment. As Dr. Hart puts it in his piece, "Wilsonianism derives from Locke and Rousseau in their belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind and hence in a convergence of interests." It's fine for Dr. Hart to dismiss these beliefs as "delusions," but they were the intellectual pillars upon which the founding fathers created American democracy. As Jefferson put it, "Man [is] a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice."

Biology has come to reveal that both tendencies, selfish competition and selfless cooperation, exist in nature. As Richard Dawkins wrote in his classic book The Selfish Gene, "...savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit" exist in nature, as well as "...acts of apparent altruism..." such as bees committing suicide when they sting to protect the hive.

In the edited volume Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation (2002) this question of human nature is addressed in great detail. In their chapter Peter J. Richerson, Robert T. Boyd, and Joseph Henrich argue that evolutionary forces exist not only on the single organism level, but within groups, and that in contrast to most other organisms, humans use their language ability to further enforce group norms and acceptable behaviors over time. The authors conclude that "...successive rounds of coevolutionary change continued until eventually people were equipped with capacities for cooperation with distantly related people, emotional attachments to symbolically marked groups, and a willingness to punish others for transgression of group rules." Johnjoe McFadden wrote an excellent article in the Guardian analyzing many of these arguments.

So where does all this leave us? Humans are capable of both competition and cooperation, and our politics must acknowledge humanity's capacity for both. A debate over whether man is fundamentally competitive or cooperative can never be resolved, because endless examples can be cited to demonstrate one or the other tendency. Our current social debate is animated by this core question, though it is rarely manifested directly -- instead it emerges in the endless positional footballs that we kick back and forth.

Maybe by diving deeper into the roots of our society's modern disagreements we can begin to envision a new path that we can all walk together.

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