Varieties of Conflict
Tibor R. Machan
Much of human history has involved conflict among various people of
different convictions on innumerable topics. One topic, of course, has
been religion?to wit, which of it is the true one. In our day such
conflicts continue and there is no reason to think they will ever end.
That?s one of the difficulties about belief systems based on faith?even
the hope for resolution is misplaced since faith is not grounded on
publicly accessible evidence or the methods of rational reflection that
all human beings are capable of. Even in the more mundane areas the means
of seeking resolutions to conflicting ideas success are often very
difficult to achieve?consider child-raising or economics, as examples.
Despite the evident hopelessness of finding solutions to conflicts,
especially where the source is faith, but also where more mundane
approaches are deployed, some relief may be found in the way human beings
can go about dealing with conflicts. One example will illustrate the
source of such possible relief.
In the USA there are roughly 4200 different religious groups, some nearly
indistinguishable from others, some drastically different in what they
believe. Yet America hasn?t been host to massive religious
strife?substantial peace reins among these numerous religious groups. How
I suggest that one answer lies in the institution of private property
rights. Unlike in many other regions around the globe, religious groups in
the USA do not fight violently about who is to rule the public square.
Each group has its own sphere where it conducts worship and other
religious activities and so there are few occasions when they would get
physically in one another?s way. The remaining areas of conflict have to
do mainly with attempts to win over converts, not by force of arms but by
means of persuasion, advocacy, proselytizing, and similar measures. (The
exception is in the schools, where there is plenty of political power
wielding so as to get to rule that primarily public sphere.)
But the property rights factor is one of a cluster contributing to the
relative peaceful co-existence in America and elsewhere in the Western
world?which goes far beyond the West, to New Zealand, Australia and the
like?of different religious and other groups. Another one is the influence
of the classical liberal tradition of tolerance and mutual respect, not so
much for all the varieties of viewpoints but for the principle of
individual decision and choice. Yes, in America and all those societies
influenced by this liberal legacy both custom and law have guided us not
to impose our outlook on others but to try to handle our conflicts in a
civilized fashion. In fact, this liberal legacy has moderated many
religions that had been quite ruthless about trying to get everyone to
follow their ways. It has trumped the fervor, tamed the zealotry, and
restrained the enthusiasm.
Of course, members of different religious and other groups still consider
their position superior to those of others. Jews, Roman Catholics,
Baptists, Moonies, atheists, Darwinists, and the rest haven?t caved in on
that point?they all take it that they are right and the rest are wrong.
What has made the big difference, though, is that thinking oneself right
does not imply that one has any authority to coerce others to one?s ways.
The liberal tradition of individual sovereignty simply moderates the way
one ought to go about bringing others into one?s own flock. They must do
it of their own free will, as a matter of personal choice. Otherwise any
conversion is worthless. What good does it do if people follow even the
truest of viewpoints, religions, or ethical codes because they are made to
do so? What good does it do for their conscience? They are then mere
sheep, following orders. The idea that this is a sound approach to getting
them all to join the flock is, indeed, the hallmark of barbarism.
Sadly in many places around the globe this liberal legacy hasn?t taken
root, nor has the institution of private property rights. When it does,
the ruthless and violent conflict among different sects will change from
the barbaric to the civilized. That is the most, I think, that can be
expected. Consensus on matters of belief, however, is a naïve dream.