The following is the first post in the Civilization and Cooperation sequence, with the goal of laying out a coherent, explicit, and actionable model of what humans are doing when they form societies and adhere to their rules.  Each essay is intended to communicate something like a single step of a proof—they should stand alone, but are much more interesting in conjunction.


As a child (not raised within a church but surrounded by friends who were), I was always struck by the phrase thou shalt not covet in the last two Old Testament commandments.

Coveting (it seemed to me) was an entirely internal action, one which could at least in theory have no impact on the external world—if you had strong moral boundaries against theft, adultery, and (I guess) whining, then there seemed to be no reason why the act of coveting itself would be a problem.  There were certainly things which I coveted which literally no one else on Earth was aware of, so ... ?

Eventually, eight-year-old me generated a pet theory: once in the Christian heaven, people can do anything they want, and thus it was not enough to simply block bad behavior.  Heaven is a walled garden, and it's meant to be at least in part a wish-fulfillment paradise—thus, the only people you can safely allow inside are those who not only reliably act well, but also robustly desire only virtuous things.  If someone was holding off only because of external prohibitions, they'd wreak havoc once they got into the wish-fulfillment zone.

(This theory was further reinforced by my vague understanding that swearing/cursing was also Forbidden, along with things like "being angry for petty or trivial reasons.")


Another way to express the above theory is something like "external restraints are less reliable than self-restraint."  Anyone who has ever been responsible for preventing a toddler from gleefully offing itself will likely agree—there is a limit to what can be accomplished by cleaning and childproofing and making decrees.  The job becomes vastly easier once you can recruit the toddler's own motivations, and convince (or bribe) it to not want dangerous things in the first place.

(This is what's behind the questionable-but-not-entirely-outlandish practice of letting toddlers touch the hot stove, once.  Usually, goes that theory of parenting, once is all they need.)

No complex system of rules and boundaries can work via entirely external imposition (at least, not until we're surrounded by autonomous surveillance/enforcement drones at all times).  There are just too many ways to do something wrong, too many times when you're unobserved and can "get away with it," too many edge cases and loopholes in any explicit framework.  Catching and punishing transgressions is too slow and lossy; people have to (more or less) want to adhere to the rules, because of their own values and principles.


This leads us to the central thesis of this first essay.

Consider a range between autonomy and civility, represented below as a gradient between red and white in accordance with the fun-to-play-with MTG color system:

(For the rest of this sequence, I'm going to use the terms "autonomy" and "civility" in a moderately nonstandard way, as the least-wrong handles for the concepts I want to communicate.  Therefore, if you quote a passage that includes one of them, please also include this explanation or a summary of it.)

We can define autonomy as something like "the freedom to choose among any of the options that are permitted by physical law."  In other words, if you can do it in the sense that it's technically possible, then you can do it in the permissive sense as well.

(Total autonomy is something like savagery or anarchy; I've chosen to avoid those terms to avoid motte-bailey-ish confusion over connotation.)

Civility, on the other hand, can be defined as something like "the willing relinquishment of available options."  Taking things which you could do, in theory, and instead committing to not-doing-them.

(At least, to some nonzero degree, and within some contexts, possibly with specific conditions.  More on this later.)

The process of blacklisting options (i.e. increasing civility) is civilization; one becomes more civilized with each option removed from the table.  Thus Freud's excellent quote "The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization." In a state of total autonomy, there is nothing to stop me from hitting you on the head with a rock whenever I feel like it.  Once I robustly give up that option, I become more civilized than I was before—at least with respect to my relationship with you.


A few small points about this model.

First, it may seem strange to frame civility and civilization in terms of what actions are left untaken, as opposed to what actions are actively preferred.  Investment bankers who always wear well-kept, high-quality business suits are not necessarily cognizant of the fact that they have given up the option of wearing t-shirts, or sun skirts, or kimonos, or fursuits, or no clothes at all; the dress code seems prescriptive rather than proscriptive.

But it's worth noting that there's no special reward for conforming to the prescription "you must wear a suit."  Rather, it's part of the price of entry to that particular subculture (that particular civilization, if we think of each possible subset of options-relinquished as representing a point in civilization-space).  Whereas if one were to flout the prescription, there would in most cases be immediate consequences.

This is broadly true of behavioral norms, independent of context; it's no coincidence that the Mosaic commandments are mostly written "thou shalt not" rather than "thou shalt." Additionally, there's model simplicity to be had in attending to the excision of various options (which are often common to many domains) rather than to the addition of various prescriptions (which will be wildly different in different contexts).

Second, note that the gradient above is open-ended on the right side.  If we define civilization (verb) as the act of giving up options, then there's no effective limit to the process.  We can leap all the way to "you can't do anything at all" just like we can use the word "infinity," but we can't really get there by striking individual options off the list one at a time.  There are just too many of them[1].

This leads to the third note, which should be obvious, but which is worth spelling out explicitly: as defined in this sequence, more civility is not obviously better.

This is important to underline, because the connotation of "civilization" in ordinary usage is pretty strongly positive; most people will generically expect that "becoming more civilized" is unambiguously good.

But civility is always costly; making a sacrifice of one's freedom of movement and freedom of choice can be worthwhile on net but is still, in itself, a loss.  The next essay in this sequence will attempt to model why people willingly choose to relinquish autonomy, and what they expect to get in return, but for now, here are a few simple examples in which being "more civilized" (as I'm using the term) is clearly at least locally worse than being less so:

  • You are trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage, but your civilization forbids the options "get a divorce," "run away," "have an affair," and "kill your spouse."
  • You are engaged in a debate with a conversational partner who is using fallacious reasoning and all sorts of dirty tricks and tactics to make you look bad, but your civilization rules out things like "interrupting," "being rude," "losing your temper," or "cutting off the conversation," at least for people in your class.
  • Your sibling stole your toy and hit you just before your parent walked into the room, but your family's civilization prohibits both "hitting" and "tattling."

In each of these situations, it's clear that violating the prohibition would at least be locally valuable, in that it would solve the immediate problem (setting aside questions of punishment, or damage to the broader social fabric).

It's also clear that the parties involved "could" take those options, in a strictly physical sense.  There's no physical barrier to running away, being rude, or shouting that your sibling stole your toy.  Instead, there's something like an expectation of greater cost that leads to preemptive self-restraint.  The individual is, in a way, "choosing" not to take a technically-available option, but that choice is heavily informed by a sense of realism about whether the option will actually pay off in the long run.


Next post in sequence: Lopsided Trees

  1. ^

    Especially when one takes into account the fact that, seemingly paradoxically, the relinquishment of a given option often results in a plethora of new options, such that the list grows longer as you strike things from it.  More on this in the next essay.

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I realize there's more pieces coming, and don't mind just having this essay as a "here's Duncan's worldview laid out" without (yet) concretely arguing for a thing. But a thing I think would have helped me with this essay is "okay, why is it better to think of civility as a set of things-given-up rather than positive-things-to-do (or, other random ways I might have thought of civility?)"

I tried to address that within the essay a little bit with the last section, but the more true answer is "I think that's just what's actually going on."

Like, sort of the thesis of the sequence is "this is what civilization is, in fact—it's the voluntary relinquishment of technically available options."

As I squinted at all sorts of instances of civilization, and people being what-felt-like more civilized versus more savage or lawless or whatever, it seemed to me that it was always the case that what was going on was people eschewing various weapons.  As with any model, if you simplify things all the way down to one axis/one property, you're going to be abstracting away some pretty important detail.  But it feels much less false to me than it usually does, to say "this is what's actually going on; this is the sole and sufficient explanation."

Or, to look at it another way: every escalation of civility comes, concretely, from the shelving of some particular weapon.  Future essays will talk a lot about that, but when two people or two groups or whatever go from relatively-less-civilized to relatively-more-civilized, it is via the relinquishment of an option they were previously exercising (or at least retaining the right to exercise).

What about something like having a tax whose revenue is used for supporting people with a serious enough disability that they need someone help take care of them?

"People voluntarily relinquishing their option to keep all of their money" is certainly a part of it, but "people actively doing a very specific thing" does also seem like an important part of it. (And it's also something that seems to increase the available options for the people who do have a serious enough disability.)

The more I think about it, the more the "for supporting people with a serious enough disability" doesn't feel like "civilization" to me. It does feel good, and I like the use of an abundance of resources being spent that way, but it feels to me like "everyone relinquishes power so that it can be used in a coordinated way" is civilization and "the coordinated use of power is for good things rather than for bad things" is moral progress. Not sure if I'm just trying to fit things into the OP frame but it doesn't feel like it.

It feels like American people are more civilized when they create a military, but nations are less civilized when they all have militaries which are doing things to each other?

I don't remember the exact quote or source, but I believe Frank Knight wrote somewhere about how part of what allows any game to continue is some willingness on the part of players to accept a losing outcome without flipping over the game board. So when a businessman is outcompeted, capitalism depends in part on their willingness to quietly go out of business rather than escalate in some other direction. Similarly, democracy seems to require some willingness on the part of the losing party to accept defeat.  And Knight, as I recall, argued that while you could increase or decrease the socially desired tendencies with incentives, you could not make the probabilities 1 and 0 for the good and bad options respectively. So it would always be necessary for people to have some sense of the importance of the game itself and of fair play within the game, even if they lose—and even, I think I remember him saying, if the other players cheat to some degree.

Interested to see where this goes.

What about the ways in which removing some options increases the amount of others? 

To use your example,

In a state of total autonomy, there is nothing to stop me from hitting you on the head with a rock whenever I feel like it.  

Once people around me give up the option of hitting me on the head with a rock whenever they feel like it, in practical terms that opens up new options for me. Maybe before I needed to wear a helmet to protect my head, now I can go without. More generally, because people aren't randomly assaulting me, I don't need to spend time and energy that I otherwise needed to guard against that, and I am free to do things that I wouldn't realistically have the options for.

I'd guess that you might answer with something like "we're talking about the technically available options, and you could technically have gone without a helmet or without guarding yourself even before, it just wouldn't have been a good idea". But I'm not sure if that's actually true? E.g. trying to set up a space that people are generally free to enter and where they'll feel safe from being assaulted wouldn't necessarily be possible even in the "allowed by the laws of physics" sense, since it'd require the laws of physics themselves to eject anyone who was about to assault someone else. Whereas once people are willing to restrain their behavior, setting up this kind of a space does become compatible with the laws of physics as they are.

That's the topic of the next essay, yeah; see footnote.

I get that it's coming up, but I'll reiterate the confusion so that (at "worst") you have the ability to make sure you answer any parts of it that you want in the next essay.

You say that autonomy is the ability to do anything allowed by physical laws, and then say later that you may add things to this list. It might help to give an example in the footnote if what you mean is something like "Alex cannot choose to take a shuttle to the moon now, but he may if he builds a shuttle first, which has a cost in resources, time, energy, etc", because it's otherwise an apparent contradiction.

I'm excited about this sequence, and look forward to the rest of it.

Having just read this introduction, it almost feels to me like the tail is wagging the dog. I completely agree that relinquishing options is a critically important part of civility. But my instinct is that the relinquishment is in service of a greater (and defining) goal, not the goal itself. So, something like "civility is prioritizing cooperation over autonomy, which in many cases requires relinquishing physically possible options". But I assume it will all become clear as the sequence proceeds.

You might be interested in the concept of "license", which was widely used until about the 18th century. License was like liberty, but license was bad, liberty was good, and the difference was that liberty presupposed self-restraint. So, liberty would be in the middle of your line, license on one end of it, and on the other maybe "tyranny".

As a child (not raised within a church but surrounded by friends who were), I was always struck by the phrase thou shalt not covet in the last two Old Testament commandments.

This doesn't affect the rest of the essay, but (internal) coveting leads to (internal) unhappiness, and that seems like something a god might want to avoid.

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