Some musings on human brutality and human evil

[epistemic status: semi-poetic musing]

I’m listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Supernova in the East this week. The biggest thing that’s struck me so far is the ubiquity of brutality and atrocity. In this series, Carlin describes the Rape of Nanjing in particular, but he points out that the “police reports” from that atrocity could just as well describe the Roman sack of Cremona, or the Turkish conquest of Byzantium, not to mention the constant brutality of the the Mongol hordes.

I’m left with an awareness that there’s an evil in human nature, an evolutionary darkness, inextricably bound up with us: in the right context, apparently decent, often god-fearing, young men will rape and plunder and murder en mass. There’s violence under the surface.

Luckily, I personally live in a democratic great power that maintains a monopoly on the use of force. At least for me (white and middle class), and at least for now (geopolitics shifts rapidly, and many of the Jews of 1940 Europe, felt that something like the Holocaust could never happen [in their country]), power, in the form of the largest, most technological advanced military ever, and in the form of nuclear weapons, is arrayed to protect me against that violence.

But that protection is bought with blood and brutality. Not just in the sense that America is founded on the destruction of the Native Americans that were here first, and civilization itself was built on the backs of forceful enslavement (though that is very much the case). In the sense that elsewhere in the world, today, that American military might is destroying someone else’s home. I recently learned about the Huế Massacre and other atrocities of the Vietnam war, and I’m sure similar things (perhaps not as bad), happen every year. Humans can’t be trusted not to abuse their power.

It’s almost like a law of nature: if someone has the power to hurt another, that provides opportunity for the darkness in the human soul to flower in violence. It’s like a conservation law of brutality.

No. That’s not right. Brutality is NOT conserved. It can be better or worse. (To say otherwise would be an unacceptable breach of epistemic and ethics). But brutality is inescapable.

So what to do? I the only way I can buy safety for myself and my friends is with violence towards others?

The only solution that I can think of is akin to Paretotopian ideas: could we make it so that there is a monopoly on the use of force, but no human has it?

I’m imagining something like an AGI whose source code was completely transparent: everyone could see and read the its decision theory. And all that it would do is prevent the use of violence, by anyone. Anytime someone attempts to commit violence the nano-machines literally stay their hand. (It might also have to produce immortality pills, and ensure that everyone could access them if they wanted too.) And other than that, it lets humans handle things for themselves. “A limited sovereign on the blockchain.”

I imagine that the great powers would be unwilling to give up their power, unless they felt so under threat (and loss averse), that this seemed like a good compromise. I imagine that “we” would have to bully the world into adopting something like this. The forces of good in human nature would have to have the underhand, for long enough to lock in the status quo, to banish violence forever.



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