Brutal Systems

I wrote this a year ago. Rereading it today made me realize that I still think this is a useful way of reasoning about people, one that doesn’t characterize them as evil. That helps me. I hope it helps you.

When humans come together to work together in collaborative systems, there comes a time when values have to be encoded into those systems. This usually comes down to a retreat to commitment if the process has no battle over power, or system for choosing who decides. One of the ways human societies have overcome this of late is to eschew directly encoding morality into the system in favor of foregrounding the system itself, whose knock-on consequences down the road, in the future, are left unknown, but whose consequences remain hypothetical or unexplored. Rather than say something like, “We want to make sure wealth does not tend toward concentrating in the hands of the few rather than the many,” we encoded a system by which wealth would concentrate in the hands of the few.

But it is entirely possible that the outcome of that process was not what was championed by its most ardent believers. It is entirely possible that most participants of 20th century neoliberalism were not seeking to recapitulate past class structure or enshrine the concentration of wealth in the few, but rather that the system they were designing and building was the means by which they could reach some consensus about what to do about regulating economies and monies without retreating to specific moral commitments (which would lead to an impasse). Instead, they focused on building a system whose rules were mutually intelligible. This way the argument was not over intent, or will, or morality, or duty, or virtue, or grace, or any of the things that are unique to human beings, but to the systematic properties they sought to enshrine.

In the realm of multiple perspectives it is easier to focus on and work on building things that all the parties involved can see their facets of, and their neighbors’ facets. If there is some retreat to commitment that does not get resolved through force or the brute application of power, then the losers of those arguments and battles won’t support the system. So if we want a unified system by which all countries can trade, then we look to the system, not the things the system encodes.

In other words, it is much easier for disparate human morality to decide on a complex system with rules that are hard to derive the consequences of than it is to start, from first principles, with enshrining the morality we want in the system. So we focused on the system, did not heed (or when rarely noticed, acquiesced to) the brutish and elitist consequences of that system, and plodded along. This is an account of how we got to now that doesn’t rely on people being monsters, or actively seeking to maintain class hierarchy, or any other narrative involving a specific and evil person or group of people on which we can rest the mantle of the brutality of the past.

It’s just less awkward and easier to narrow focus onto systems rather than start with the moral questions of what we want to do, then derive systems to enshrine those. It was easier, that’s all.