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Great Divide: Tolerance vs Discipline

July 6, 2011

Should people enjoy their lives as they see fit or should they sacrifice to make the group stronger? Each impulse – to enjoy life and to maintain discipline is useful in different scenarios. Humans are social creatures who live and die together. Cooperation has always been critical for our survival, even more so in modern times. Survival often requires that all members of the group act in unity, are healthy, are willing to sacrifice their effort and resources for others and are vigilant against outsiders.

The other side of the divide emphasizes individuality, happiness, experimentation and freedom. As long as I don’t hurt you, I should be free to do as I like. In fact, trying to enforce small group norms on a larger societal structure can waste resources and encourage bickering between groups who could otherwise get along and cooperate. Scale is very important here. If someone is an “insider” they must be kept in line and be ready to fight at a moment’s notice. If someone considers themself an “outsider” trying to force them to act in such a manner will alienate them and even cause them to fight back. While the New York government outlaws New Yorkers eating trans fats, no one advocates that America invade India to force them to stop eating trans fats. The further out someone is in your circles of sympathy, the less likely you are to expend effort to impose discipline on them. Parents usually impose far stricter discipline on their children than society imposes on its citizens.

Paternalistic impulses stem not from a desire to squelch happiness, but from a desire to make sure a group can fight and survive. For example, consider the War on Drugs. Why are painkillers such as OxyContin legal while opium is illegal? Chemically they have very similar effects, but their uses are different. Perscription painkillers are used to make people function in society, whereas illegal drugs are used in a manner that makes people less productive. Drugs that don’t affect productivity either way substantially, such as cigarettes, are tolerated unless they hurt health. The reason why people care about one another’s health is because health is required to be able to fight. It can’t be that they care about one another’s happiness, otherwise drugs such as psilocybin and marijuana would be legal. Workoholics might make themselves miserable, but they are not imprisoned.

Hansonian Questions:
How is this division a key division, underlying many others?
Many of our culture wars involve tolerance of relaxation and enjoyment at the expense of discipline: The War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the War on Food, forcing children to work hard on schoolwork and accepting dominance.

How do people acquire their sides in this conflict?
I would guess that people with stressful childhoods are more likely to side on the discipline side, but I don’t really know.

How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning?
Discipline based behavior is useful in small united groups, Enjoyment-tolerating behavior is good at lowering the costs of cooperation tolarge or varied groups. Each set of norms is good for a different scenario.

Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict?
Peaceful compromise is one side of the argument. Discipline is about forcing others to sacrifice for your survival.

How is this different than farmer/forager?
Both farmers and foragers needed to impose discipline on their members to survive. Both needed to maintain health. Farmers might be more willing to accept drug use because it allowed them to relax and escape the monotony of their lives. Foragers might be more willing to accept risky behaviors as long as the behavior kept from harming others.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 4:10 pm

    This is a good initial investigation into the topic. Looking forward to seeing it further developed 🙂

  2. July 7, 2011 3:17 pm

    Perhaps I’ll post when I notice behavioral patterns that fit this divide. I originally got this idea from our twitter exchange.


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