Coded gray.

Wednesday 24 July 2002


Pic of the day: Maybe later.

War or peace

Poverty breeds war. War breeds poverty.

Morality can be confusing if you use integers. War is evil. And evil is a choice. Yet certain conditions are much more likely to result in war than others. How is this possible?


We know quite well what conditions are conductive to peace, and what to war. Basically, a high standard of living makes people peaceful. This should surprise no one, for two obvious reasons:

When you can expect a long life, you have more to lose by dying early. If most people die young anyway, it counts more to get around to the breeding as soon as possible; and weapons, uniforms and tales of heroism do impress many young women. And their families.

When you are wealthy, you have much to lose from a war. First and foremost, if you lose your life you won't be able to enjoy your luxury. But even as a non-combatant, you will have to pay for the war. War is expensive, and someone must pay. Taxes go up, or the government prints money to pay for its expenses, diluting the real money and creating runaway inflation. In any case, you are left with less. And less and less, the longer the war goes on.

Poverty is conductive to war, because there are many who have little to lose, and because lives are already cheap. Poor people also tend to breed faster, so you don't end up with four grandparents without offspring at all just because some guy dies. (And besides, if your kids die anyway, at least they'll die as heroes.)


But material standard of living is not the only factor. Democracy plays a big role. It is an axiom that democracies do not wage war on democracies. People generally don't want war all that much. Under a totalitarian regime, they go along with it, since people who protest will die even faster. But if they could have secret votes, they would have chosen differently.

Also under a dictatorship, it is common to arrange a war to distract the people from internal problems. In democracies, the government is usually replaced before it gets that far. (Recent events make you wonder if this always works, but it is at least more likely to.)

For a civil war, the most common these days, there also needs to be some way to finance the rebel army, since they usually cannot rely on taxes to the same extent as the incumbent government. Therefore civil war is usually found in countries with rich natural resources concentrated in limited areas, areas usually controlled by a group of people who already have some degree of common identity.


If external conditions play a large part in deciding whether or not there is a war (or a civil war) then it follows that people in peaceful nations need not necessarily be morally superior to people in war-torn countries. They may simply have too much to lose and not enough to win, and might have acted differently under harsher circumstances.

Does this absolve people of personal responsibility for taking part in organized killing? There are those who refuse to make war, even at the cost of their own life. In our time, Jehovah's Witnesses come to mind, and there are individuals from other groups as well. Obviously if everyone refused to kill, all wars would stop. Whether this would be a good thing or not, is left as an exercize to the reader.

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