13 April 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Conflict Resolution

Dear friends,

Hope you had a good holiday last week.

This Sunday we are talking about Conflict Resolution. I look forward to
hearing what you have to say on the subject. A modern source of conflict is
of course technology, for example how does one make a computer see things
one's way? Unfortunately, this might be outside the scope of our subject; at
least what we traditionally mean by conflict resolution. So I guess we'll
have to limit ourselves to old technology; human beings.

Take care and see you Sunday,


**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);


Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);


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Conflict resolution

Ideally, Conflict Resolution should help parties with a dispute to solve
their problems before they become aggressive or show aggressive like
behaviour. For example, before actual fighting starts or court proceedings
are initiated. However, the main concern for most people is that differences
do not manifest themselves into aggression, especially physical aggression.

I shall limit my comments to conflicts between human beings, and by
implication between human characteristics. This means that for our purposes
a conflict can be between two parties, groups and even countries; we are
after all concerned about people. The term Conflict Resolution is very much
associated with nations and businesses, but most states also provide
conflict resolution services for married people.

Companies can use conflict resolution services, such as conciliation,
mediation, arbitration to settle disputes before taking their case to the
courts. (Wikipedia:conflict resolution) Some of the advantages of these
services is that they are probably cheaper, quicker and can be dealt with by
experts who are familiar with the industry or business involved. These
conflict resolution services can also make it easier for the parties to talk
to each, which might be difficult in a court of law; especially a court of
law based on common law. Where the parties have to prove their case which
means that they must promote their case at the detriment of their opponent.
It is not the best place to settle a dispute and restore relationships.

Ideally the resolution should also be to the benefit of both parties or at
least a resolution both parties can live with. The necessary condition for
there to be a resolution is of course a willingness by both parties to find
a resolution. A resolution does not mean that both parties get what they set
out to achieve, but maybe a party is not worse off than the other. An
element of comprise will always be expected in conflict resolution.
Compromise means that both parties are prepared to give up some of their
demands in exchange to settling the dispute. In a business context this is
much easier achieve than in the political context of a dispute between
countries. Especially a dispute that invokes a sense of nationalism. It is
much easier to settle a dispute about how much oranges should be exported in
exchange for shoes, but it is not that easy to settle for example
territorial boundaries.

Willingness to settle a dispute does not come easy as we all know from
experience, especially when we feel sure that we have been aggrieved. But
there is an equally important condition for conflict resolution to succeed.
In the event that one party is stronger than the other this party ought not
to exert undue influence or pressure on the proceedings. At face value this
means that the parties should be treated equally, which at face value is a
desirable condition. But is it? This situation can easily lead to a
paradoxical state of affairs because the stronger party not only has to give
up more of their natural advantage but that this will directly benefit to
weaker party. Hence, the weaker party seems to be put at an advantage at the
cost of the stronger party. But before I try to explain this paradox, there
is third requirement for conflict resolution.

In a way this third condition comes in two parts. The parties and the
referee. The role of the referee is first and foremost to establish a
channel of communication between the two parties. This does not have to be
face to face negations, but it does mean that there is an open channel of
communication for the parties. Compare this with what modern media have
termed Megaphone Diplomacy when two countries use their national media, and
most often the international media, to create sensational and headline news
to further their position.

However, we can easily see problems with communication whether done within
the confines of the offices of the referee or even the media. These problems
concern both the mathematical theory of information (Shannon; Theory of
Information) and the Semantic theory of Information (Philosophy of
Information.) Hence, not only are the parties faced with having to decide
what the other party really means, and the subsequent implications (Semantic
Theory), but also whether the message (and meaning) is somehow distorted
(Noise; Theory of Information). And to compound the problem we want to
include all the people as individuals involved in the dispute including, of
course, the referee. Distortion in communication can easily arise from a
genuine mistake, for example the use of language terms especially if the
parties do not speak the same language. Or a personal dislike to one of the
parties or simply bias or prejudice by the referee. Hence, at the very
least, the referee should be seen to be fair and able (to communicate.)
Maybe, technical professionalism might go a long way to establish this
trust. But it is not sufficient.

The process itself must be accepted as fair. A process that does not take
into account the arguments of the parties is of course flawed by nature, in
the same way that a process that favours one type of party is unfair.

But the main issue about conflict resolution is why should there be
conflicts in the first place? Which leads to the next question, why should
there be aggression? However, are conflict and aggression the same as
disagreement? Can there be a disagreement between two parties but that does
not imply conflict? Or are all disagreements conflictive if not aggressive?
I would tend to think that difference-of-opinion is at one end of the
spectrum and aggression (physical) at the other extreme end of the spectrum.
I want to argue that the source of this disposition in human beings (for
want of a better word) is the same source; much like the source of bad
feelings and acute physical pain have the same source, the brain.

The concept of aggression is discussed in detail by Dawkins in The Selfish
Gene. But what we need from chapter five is the following. "Survival
machines of the same species tend to impinge on each others' live more
directly. ....... members of the same species...are particularly direct
competitors for all the resources necessary for life."

This explains aggressions, scarce resources and competing for the same
resources means that we have to enter into a completive strategy. QED. But
it does not explain why a stronger party should give up some of their
advantage. "Why is it that animals do not go all out to kill rival members
of their species at every possible opportunity?" Even humans do not go all
out to destroy their enemies who must less restrained than animals in the
wild. One simple answer which Dawkins gives is that by eliminating one's
rival one can be giving someone else a bigger advantage, not to forget that
one can easily be fatally wounded in the process. Thus giving one's enemies
an ever greater advantage. For example, the demise of imperial Japan after
the second world war benefitted China as much as to bring peace to the
Americans in the Pacific region.

Although competition is a survival strategy, we can also say that
cooperation is a survival strategy. How else can we interpret "not killing
your enemy at the first opportunity?" But if competition gives rise to
aggression I want consider the possibility that there is an another source
of aggression apart from competition.

The idea of conflict is very repugnant to most people especially if there
had been a natural selection away from conflict and aggression but towards
cooperation. Cooperation has its powerful advantages, for example we do not
kill each other at every opportunity, which in turn leads to stability. The
idea of stability is very important and we find it under such theories as
the Nash equilibrium (google: John Nash) and the Evolutionary Stable
Strategy (ESS, Dawkins and Maynard Smith (Evolutionary Game Theory:Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy)). Taking Dawkins quick definition an
Evolutionary stable strategy is one which, if most members of a population
adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy. Or simply do what
everyone else is doing. The Nash equilibrium is, "a game involving two or
more players where no player has anything to gain by changing only his or
her own strategy unilaterally." (Wikipedia:Nash equilibrium.) Like all these
things, the devil is in the detail which is beyond the scope of this short

What is important for us is that stability based on cooperation and
consensus is a very powerful strategy as much as competition. Of course when
all these technical theories speak of cooperation and stability they are not
saying that they are also ethical or morally acceptable theories. In fact
the idea of morality does not come into; it is all about the survival
machine principle and not the moral principles. Of course, this does not
mean that we cannot couch cooperation and stability is moral language but
that's a different issue.

Going back to our theme, on chapter six of The Prince, Machiavelli warns us
that, "..there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of
success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of
things;..." Those who benefited under the old regime become enemies and the
supporters of the new changes can at best be lukewarm; for example due to
fear of the unknown. This might not be word for word the Nash equilibrium or
ESS, but I suggest that Machiavelli anticipated ESS and the Nash
equilibrium; he also understood the thinking behind them.

So how can stability lead to aggression. The above stable strategies, nor
Evolutionary Game theory, exclude the possibility that some might take
advantage of the stability created by these strategies and cheat. When we
read these theories one thing becomes clear, cheating pays in the short
term. For example, sending a few defective goods in a big consignment might
add a few extra bucks to the bottom line, but in the long run this might
lead to a dispute and maybe loss of contract. It is all a question of
whether in the long run we-re around to pay the consequences. In a way
stability makes it easier for a small minority to cheat. And this is how
stability can lead to aggression; people usually react negatively when they
discover they have been cheated. Is this state of affairs something we are
prepared to tolerate? And furthermore, it is something that we want to allow
given that it might lead to escalating aggression if cooperation is not a
stable strategy?

I have already referred to the importance of communication and the abilities
of the referee, but see what Machiavelli has to say that might impinge on
these two factors. Chapter six, "...people are fickle by nature; and it is
simple to convince them of something but difficult to hold them in that
conviction; and therefore, affairs should be managed in such a way that when
they no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force."

I think that Machiavelli understood the principle of a survival machine very
well. The question is, do we still understand it today?

Take care



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