NOTE: While looking through my old essays, I found another 15 that struck me as particularly interesting. Some may seem a bit dated, as they discuss current events during the period 2008 to 2010, but the principles they discuss are still relevant.
I think I have found of the most certain measures of civilization, perhaps not the definitive measure, certainly not the only measure, but one measure, and one of the measure's whose absence is a sure sign of the collapse of society. And that is the dread with which we view death.
Allow me to explain. As I have mentioned, I have recently started writing fiction again. In the process I jotted down some notes, and brief passages, of many potential short stories and novels. It is how I always work, coming up with dozens of ideas, working on them fitfully, and eventually finding one which appeals more, which seems more vibrant and more genuine, which I eventualy write to the exclusion of the others. Well, in this process, I came up with two novel ideas. One is the life story of a foundling raised among neolithic proto-Etruscan hunter-farmers in Rhaetia. The second is the tale of a teen which a charity has brought from a war torn third world nation to the United States in the mid 1980's and the culture shock he experiences, as well as his failure to comprehend many of the attitudes he sees. In both tales, one of the most striking elements, as both are narrated in the first person, is a casual attitude toward death, almost incomprehensible to modern westerners.
And that was what made me realize how important that modern western attitude is.
Of course there are many elements which are needed for a functioning civilization. As I have argued repeatedly ("The Problem With Evolving Standards", "In Praise of Slow Changes", "Predictability", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism", "Empathy" Threatens not "Justice" but Predictability", "Sotomayor and Empathy", "Interpretation and Activism", "Why Judicial Activism Hurts", "The Problem With Tort Reform", "Red Herring", "A True Conservative Platform", "A Perfect Example", "Analogies For Political Consistency") stable, predictable laws, as well as a consistent culture ("In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Bad Economics Part 9", "Hoist By Your Own Petard"), are crucial, as without them the culture will eventually decline. In addition, a concept of continuity, of cultural timelines going beyond one's lifetime are also essential, as a culture which cares only about immediate gratification, which does not provide for the future, will also collapse. A sense of shame is also important, though a culture can survive a long time without it, but for cultures which have it, shame an be a very potent tool for shaping behavior ("Shame and Behavior", "Our Rude Behavior", "Social Controls"), especially in terms of criminal behavior and maintaining behavioral norms*.
However, the fear of death is both a civilizing influence and a great barometer of our cultural stability.
The second is easier to explain than the first. You see, the fear of death comes from two main sources**, our anticipation of a positive future, and our expectation that we will not suffer harm or death at the hands of another. And the reasons are obvious. First, if your society is relatively stable, with the future generally looking either the same or better than the present, then you are likely to want to stay around as long as possible. If your future is expected to decline, or things are so chaotic you are unsure what to expect, then risking death seems less of a negative. Second, if you face death or injury daily, if it is a normal occurrence in your life, you tend to become inured to it. If you have numerous friends and family who were killed, you tend to come to see it as a natural outcome and expect to die violently, which makes the threat of violent death less of a concern. If you expect to be killed, then the risk of being killed is not a deterrent, as it is simply an expected outcome. That is, if you're going to be killed anyway, does it matter where? So why not risk death if there is some benefit to be gained?
The societal costs of an absent fear of death are a little harder to explain, though not much. The most obvious is the easiest to explain. Those who do not fear death are also the most likely to engage in dangerous political agitation. If you have a considerable number willing to risk death for any cause, then it is not hard for anyone to raise an army and attempt to influence the course of politics. In societies with little fear of death, the peaceful change of administrations is unheard of, politics almost always degenerates into a series of coups, or into outright choas and civil war.
Which points us toward the second problem with those lacking fear of death, as it is basically the same problem writ small. Just a spolitics degenerates into warfare, so too personal conflict becomes open violent conflict again. For those without fear of death, the peaceful solution of the courts only work if they produce the answer he wants. If he is unhappy with public justice, as he fears no injury, why not take up arms to resolve the conflict again, in a more pleasing way? In fact, as no one expects the courts to produce a final resolution, they soon become useless, with only a handful even bothering.The gun becomes the resolution of choice.
And on the side of criminal justice, the same problems exist, or at least similar. Not that justice turns to vigilante action, though that likely happens, but instead punishment ceases to deter. After all, if you don't fear death or other penalties, then what would deter you from crime? As has been pointed out about suicide bombers, when you don't fear death punishment is pointless and ineffective. Similarly, as we have seen in our inner cities, if you don't fear punishment, laws don't do any good. And so, without a fear of death, criminal justice breaks down.
And that leads to the final outcome, the hardest to describe with specificity. That is the environment created by these circumstances. The result of living in an environment where one expects to die violently, where crimes go unpunished, where might wins over justice, where the future is unknown but likely to be worse, where all strangers are potential threats, and where one can rely on nothing but himself. That environment, creating conditions opposed to planning, to cooperation, to saving, to all the things that help society to progress, tends to reinforce the same attitudes, and produce a society where one expects nothing but the worst of others, and where one offers nothing but violence to them.
It is not hard to find proof of this argument. One need only look at the worst of our inner cities, or at war torn nations. The people show all the signs I mention above. Even those not given to violence, those who try to rise above such things, are still plagued by the pessimism and reluctance to plan I mentioned. Even when they refuse to degenerate into aggression, the lessons learned still act to discourage the many behaviors which help keep society functioning.
And that is why I made the argument I did. Fear of death may not be the most important influence keeping society stable, but it certainly is important, and, more significantly, it is one of the earliest barometers showing the collapse of a society. If we knew only that many growing up in the inner city were comfortable with the number of friends and family they saw murdered, we would know enough to say the society was collapsing.
And so I say it needs to be taken into account whenever we look at society, or subcultures within society, as it provides much more insight than others think.
* VonMises, among others, mentioned, writing in the mid 20th century, that criminal penalties could be gradually reduces because the shame attendant to arrest was such a strong influence that punishment was almost irrelevant. However, our culture changed radically about 3 decades later, without a combination of worship of the "outsider", as well as "non-judgmental ethics", and a few other factors, combining to make arrest much less of a stigma, and so we have seen the opposite trend, the necessity of increasing punishment, as shame has little impact on offenders. (It is irrelevant here, but one often unnoticed reason is that the large number of otherwise law abiding drug violators have made a considerable minority into potential criminals, making it seem less of a stigma. It does not have to be drugs, though it is in our case, any law violated by a considerable minority, or majority, serves to erode respect for law. Just think of our attitude toward traffic police. We may love cops otherwise, but as drivers we are almost all law breakers, and thus have adversarial attitudes toward traffic cops.)
** There are other influences, such as religion, but I think they are overstated. Many religions claim they welcome death and reunion with the divine, but, to take two of the best known examples, Christians and Moslems seem to follow the same pattern. While there are plenty of fanatics willing to die in poor, unstable or outright barbaric states, when they live in wealthier, more stable states (eg. in Islam, Qatar, UAE, Turkey), they are as reluctant to die as their less religious brethren. There are exceptions, and within an society there are strata more or less open to death, but still, as a general principle, I have seen much less influence from religion (or political philosophy, or any other conceptual world view) than from the simple measure of the stability of one's culture.
Please do not read too much into my statement. When I say stable, developed cultures have more fear of death that does not mean, for example, that they will be unwilling to fight to defend their culture. As such societies are also aware of what they can lose to an aggressor, they have never had a lack of soldiers when needed. On the other hand, they do have trouble finding volunteers for military adventures in which they see no defensive value, as the risk of death without any obvious purpose does not appeal the way it does in more debased societies, where death is common, making the possibility of profit a stronger draw that the fear of death is a deterrent.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/04/11.
This essay was accidentally posted twice, once on January 23, 2014 and once on March 2, 2016.