Why Do We Have to Pick Sides?

Not long ago I was discussing the famous Sons of Liberty who sparked the events leading to the American Revolution.  We grow up hearing of their exploits as heroic, bold, and founded on the highest principles.  Yet there is an alternative account too.  If their deeds are described devoid of historical context they have all the attributes we would associate with terrorists.  It was violent, destructive, thuggish, and as fueled by hate as principle.

The traditional historian will tend to whitewash these historical figures and focus only on the ultimate outcome, an independent nation, and assume that because it exists it is good, and therefore whatever led to it was also good.  The radical revisionist will brand them as evil and by extension whatever their deeds may have helped to accomplish must be bad and the right thing would have been no revolution at all.

Something about the history of whatever political jurisdiction we grow up in makes us incredibly dumb when it comes to analyzing actions and individuals.  If your dysfunctional neighbors had a nasty divorce that you knew about only through the grapevine, would you immediately proclaim one side just and the other unjust?  You’d be smart enough and staid enough to stay out of it and understand that both sides are equally likely to be in the right, if there even is a right at all.  Yet people few centuries ago with whom we share little in common got into complex conflicts and we feel the need to come down hard for or against one side or the other.

Free yourself from the patriotic reading of history which demands good guys and bad guys.  You don’t need to pick sides.  You can admire or be repulsed by all sides in historical epochs, or simply admit ignorance and have no feelings whatsoever.  The need to find the “right” side always results in fact-bending and uncomfortable association.  It makes you dumber and less happy, as there is always some alternative version you feel the need to respond to or stamp out.

History is not a football game where your team either wins or loses based on what the textbooks say.  It’s a bunch of messy stuff that already happened, and who was more or less wrong or right has no bearing on your life today unless you let it.  Don’t shackle yourself to the deeds of dead strangers.  If you want to understand history, move beyond good and evil.

Evil Doesn’t Mean Irrational

I was singing the praises of rational choice theory to a friend – telling him it can help people understand cause-effect relationships in the world and navigate better towards their goals, rather than just getting bitter – when he posed an objection.  Sure, he granted, most people are acting to get what they want and not just to torment you for its own sake, but what about those few people who may be genuinely evil, and truly revel in your misery?  How can rational choice account for this?  Don’t they destroy this worldview?  Isn’t it impossible to understand what they’re aiming at and negotiate to avoid pain?

I asked for a specific example.  He mentioned a friend of his who gets angry at people and immediately assumes evil motives.  When someone says they’ll show up at 10 and comes at 10:30, she thinks it’s because they’re simply a terrible person, and there’s no rationality behind their selfish tardiness, therefore there’s nothing she can do to cope with or avoid being the victim of it.  It’s a very helpless, disempowering way to look at things.  It’s also patently false.

Even if we grant that the person is pure evil, hell bent on her discomfort, this theory has provided no explanatory power for the particular actions taken.  Why didn’t the person just key her car or slash her tires if inconveniencing her was the goal?  Why did they show up 30 minutes late, instead of 60, or not at all?  What accounts for the particular choices made?  Clearly, some kind of calculation was involved.  If being a jerk was the goal, the person must have reasoned that showing up 30 minutes late was the least costly way to exact the most jerkiness.  In other words, they looked at costs and benefits, and made a rational choice given their preferences.

Once you strip away the emotion and realize that, evil or not, people still make rational choices about what means to employ in seeking their ends, it tends to melt away the anger and helplessness a bit.  If the person was rational enough to choose whether to be late and by how much, does it seem probable they did it just to tick you off?  Not in most cases.  Far more likely, they had a phone call, or forgot to get gas ahead of time, failed to account for traffic, or any number of other things, and they determined sacrificing 30 minutes was the least bad solution.  But even if they wanted to cause trouble, knowing they have a cost/benefit calculation just like you do can help you see possible work-arounds.  How might you change their incentives to improve the chances of punctuality?  The onus is on you to accept their preferences, whether you like them or not, and learn to get what you want anyway.

It’s much easier emotionally to just call them evil and irrational and propagate the myth of your own helplessness.  It might feel good in the moment, but it’s a terrible way to reach your goals, and it fails to explain the real world.  In fact, the vindictiveness that can result is likely to make them truly angry with you, whether they were at first or not, and want to exact revenge, perpetuating the conflict.

Worry less about the morality of others or their motives, and put more focus on what caused them to choose what they did and how you might alter what they view as in their best interest.  You’ll enjoy life more, and you might find people around you aren’t as bad as you think.

Beyond Good & Evil

Since our move to South Carolina I’ve had a renewed interest in American history and, in particular, the history of the South and the institution of slavery. I’m a Yankee invader, so my notions of the South were pretty simplistic. I saw monuments and read snippets that were incongruent with the narrative I grew up with regarding the Civil War, slavery, and the South in general. It became clear how uncomfortably complex the whole mess was.

A friend recommended Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese. What an excellent book! The author filters some things through a lens of Marxian class theory, which is not really my thing, but the book is jam-packed with counter-intuitive insight and uses tons primary sources in a very enlightening way, not just a bombardment of long quotations or endless footnotes which historians sometimes do. The book is a great reminder of how much more complex the world is than we try to make it in retrospect. American slavery was not a simple story of good people and evil people. It was not a simple case of economic exploitation. It was an elaborate and highly nuanced institution with unlikely defenders and enemies. It was an evil institution, but the people within it were not necessarily evil or good.

I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that institutions can be good or evil even if the people within those institutions are not. I think it’s important to remember this. It doesn’t let us off the hook with sweeping declarations of good and evil. It forces us to look at the world as it is, and understand that people respond to incentives, and that good people can support bad institutions because of false beliefs. It doesn’t mean they aren’t accountable for their beliefs, but they mightn’t be knowingly engaging in evil.

Genovese’s book revealed that some slave owners abhorred the institution. Why didn’t they simply free their slaves? Sometimes state law prohibited or made very difficult the freeing of slaves. Some owners believed that, once freed, the slaves would risk re-enslavement by others, a much crueler life in the free but still racist North, or great hardship in a world for which they were not equipped. Whether this was true, there was some reason for slave owners to have such fears. Some freed slaves did suffer these fates. One doesn’t have to hate slavery any less or agree with the logic of these conflicted slave owners to allow the possibility that they needn’t have been pure evil. One former slave owner wrote how wrong he had been to assume that the slaves needed him and that he needed the slaves. He described how poorly most plantations were doing financially, and how the end of slavery actually improved them economically. He talked about how well the former slaves got on away from the plantation. Both of these outcomes surprised him. His worldview was so entrenched that he failed to see how the institution was harming not only the slaves but his own economic well-being.

The more difficult fact is how many slaves claimed to not want freedom, and how many chose not to take it when given the chance. One could make the material case that some slaves might have had better lives on a plantation than the other options available at the time, and that is certainly worth considering, but it strikes me that there’s something deeper at play here. There is a belief in one’s own helplessness and a fear of the unknown common to all people who have long been oppressed. When the Soviet Union fell there were stories of people who did not know what to do and longed for the security of the previous tyranny. Abused spouses sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Fear of the unknown dangers of freedom does not make the captives bad people in any of these cases. It reveals the complex nature of such institutions and reminds us that long-run oppression of such magnitude requires far more than physical force: it requires some level of belief on the part of oppressors, oppressed, and third parties that the institution is either moral, necessary, or at least inevitable.

We do ourselves a disservice if we boil everything down to good vs. evil and explain every tyranny as the result of raw physical power. People are complicated creatures who seek the most gain at the least expense and who accept or contrive all manner of beliefs to justify their choices. Or maybe the beliefs come first and determine the choices. Either way, in the long run ideas shape the institutions we live under. History and our own times are better understood when we treat people like rational actors whose choices are shaped by their beliefs rather than evil egomaniacs or saintly altruists.

There is a lot to learn from the experience of American slavery. It was a unique institution, but not so unique that it doesn’t have modern lessons and parallels. Many people failed to see beyond slavery. What evils do we fail to see beyond or imagine the world without? Robert Higgs provides some provocative food for thought here.

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