My First Principles of Conflict

I am blessed — or maybe cursed — with the ability to see multiple sides in most conflicts. From a young age I would introduce disparate groups of friends to each other, only to see conflict break out and find myself in the horrible position of alienating one group by taking a side, or both groups by not taking a side.

I captured this image of conflict on Oct 8, 2011 in Washington DC during the Occupy Wall Street protests. This image is available with a Creative Commons license in my Flickr account.

This document describes the first principles that underlie my understanding of conflict based on personal experience. It is a work in progress.

  1. We all have different standards for what constitutes ‘evidence’. Evidence for or against: climate change, vaccine safety, gun control, immigration reform and other hot topics is available just by searching Google for “evidence for/against X”. We never need look at the other side but can rely on the oracle to give us the truth we want. This point is about more than just confirmation bias or other forms of motivated reasoning, though they are usually implicated. We may accept anecdotes as evidence in some cases and reject them in others. Frequently it comes down to different standards of trust. If we don’t trust government or mainstream media, we reject their assessments of evidence.
  2. Almost all of us want to avoid harm, but we apply the concept of harm to different spheres. If you are an abortion rights opponent you are concerned with harm to the unborn child. If you are an abortion rights supporter you want to avoid harm to the already born person. Likewise if you dispute the severity (or existence) of climate change you want to avoid harm to the economy. If you support the need for immediate action to mitigate the effects of climate change you are probably concerned with harm to ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.
  3. The only mind I have real power to change is my own. So long as I will not budge on my standards of evidence and harm domain, there is little hope I will change my own mind on an issue. This is the bind we are all caught in. So where is the way out? Do we want to keep fighting the same culture wars for the next hundred years?

The most contentious social issues will not be resolved by changing our opponents’ minds, but by changing our own. I don’t mean giving up our moral values, but expanding our understanding with the practice of moral empathy and a willingness to practice the ideological Turing test for the issue until we can represent our opponents’ position so well that they would not know we didn’t hold their position. Ideally we should be able and willing to improve their arguments against our position!

Moral empathy is a prerequisite to moral re-framing. Once we understand that our opponent’s values are as important to them as ours are to us, we have to seek common ground solutions to the serious problems that plague us. Our side will never unilaterally “win” on any issue because every win is only a temporary setback for the other side.

I will flesh this out with examples on three of the hottest issues of the day: abortion rights, gun control and immigration reform. I will publish a separate set of articles that will be linked from this one when they are completed (timeline: by the end of April 2019).