Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Latent Anarchy of Modern Society


Commentators are quick to cite the devastation and frightening anarchy of New Orleans as proof of the thin veneer of civilization that is liable to be reduced to a Hobbesian ‘state of nature.’ That with the removal of a few rungs from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the modern man can and will mutate or regress to a kill or be killed demeanor.

In my essay Evolution, Altruism and Ethics I discuss how reciprocal altruism forms a basis for a modern ethics that transcends the inherent selfishness of natural selection. Basically, if you want to enhance you chances for survival (or gene propagation) in a communal environment, it is advantageous to cooperate with other people even if it requires some self-sacrifice. This is a theory that debunks Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’.

The anarchy of New Orleans is often put in direct contrast to the cooperation amongst peoples who were ravaged by the tsunami that hit along the coastline of parts of South Asia. Now of course there are sorts of political and cultural suppositions that overlay what really happened in New Orleans and why but I propose that the amorality reflects the inherent limitations of reciprocal altruism.

The cooperation and self-sacrifice only makes rational sense if the people you are helping are in a position to help you. In tribal communities it makes sense for you to sacrifice some of your food to your neighbour who didn’t kill anything on the hunt, or whose farm hasn’t yielded food this season, because he is in a position to do the same for you should the tables be turned. It also makes sense to never sacrifice food to your other neighbour who refused you food when you were wanting.

Modern society has created a social contract not envisioned by the confines of these hunter-gatherer societies in which we evolved: anonymity. It is possible to live in a society with people you will never meet, and who will never be in a position to make sacrifices for you. It is possible to cheat people who you will never do business with again and consequently cannot reap retribution.

Our reciprocal altruism has been stretched to an abstraction which demands we obey the social order because we will otherwise loose it’s protection. I don’t kill this guy and steal all his money because otherwise I will be arrested and jailed. We put these institutions in place because the cooperation between self-sacrifices and punishment of cheaters can now only occur on a mass scale. Without them the cohesion and safety of the society would break down, and we would once again be forced into tribal relationships.

In New Orleans, the contract had already been broken. The protection of these institutions were lost, so heavily armed gangs formed to rob available stores. The notion of private property is a modern abstraction of older communal arrangements. Why not rob a person I’ll never meet, and whose retribution will never be had? If my life is at stake there is almost no sacrifice to the now non-existent social cohesion worth making.

It is not surprising that rapes have occurred, this is a mentality very common to the tribes who wished to propagate their genes, and so would rape the women of opposing tribes. In a city where everyone beyond your circle of friends is anonymous, a stranger, the only thing to rationally dissuade you from this kind of behaviour are the punishments our civic leaders have put in place to ensure our ability to co-exist peacefully.

The anarchy of New Orleans is a kind of regression. Not to a fierce individualism imagined by Hobbes but to a tribal cooperation of our ancestors. The Tsunami victims didn’t murder and rape each other because they were civilized but because they were living in low population density areas, small towns, with people who know your name.

Our animal nature combines with cold blooded rationality to be engaged in a constant war with the abstract ideals of the peaceful high-density city living. The anarchy of New Orleans is a sign of the modern sickness of anonymity and the emergence of an all too human nature when the social contract is broken.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9/08/2005 07:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9/08/2005 07:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Kayelene Murphy said...

You haven't correctly defined the New Orleans situation for what it is: anomie. Anarchy is something entirely different.

Secondly, Maslow's heirarchy of needs is not fully applicable to the possibilities faced.

Thirdly, I'd put comment moderation on if I were you, the other two comments are clearly spam and ruins the pretentious philosophy of this otherwise intelligent and well designed blog.

2/01/2006 06:56:00 AM  
Blogger Illusive Mind said...

I agree anomie was present in New Orleans, you're right. However, the possibility of anarchy exists in modern society for the reasons I've detailed.

If you'd like to make a point of Maslow, you are welcome to make one.

Thanks for the tip about comment moderation, Blogger didn't have it last time I logged into this thing; and anyway the spam has been keeping my company!

2/03/2006 06:37:00 PM  

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