The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Imagine A World Where Violence Or Need Are Impossible

There are two main types of coercion in the world.

The first is violence. If you don’t do what someone else wants, they will do something physical to you.

So, imagine if that was impossible. Imagine that if you chose no physical object could affect you. Bullets don’t work, fists don’t work, no one can grab you or put you in handcuffs, and that’s true of everyone.

What would change about society if this were true? What would change about how individuals act?

The second is need. What if you didn’t need to eat or drink and you cold and heat didn’t bother you or harm you and you didn’t get sick? You might still want shelter or a home or objects like books or computers, and objects like cosmetics would exist, but not medicine. But you would need nothing.

(This is half the conception of a pagan God: they can be harmed, even killed, but they don’t need anything. Except they can also, usually, create what they need without other Gods or people.)

Banquet of the Gods by Jacques de Gheyn II

What would you be like, and what would the world be like if you; if people, didn’t need anything?

These are serious questions. Think about them.

Now, question 3 is what if both of these things were true?

These questions matter because they tell you what you put up with because of need and fear. They tell you what other people; what society does that it couldn’t do if people weren’t, in effect, vulnerable.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating. Alas, I’m neither God nor Beast.)

It’s also important to do them separately. The first is about violence, in effect, and that’s not the same as the human need for cooperation, which is much (but not all) of what the second question is about.

This is what what Donne was getting at with “no man is an island.” It is also what is related to Aristotle’s observation “But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god…”

There are things I want to say about these questions, but I’m not going to do so in this article. Instead I want you to think about them. Think about them in general and in particular: think about what you would and wouldn’t do in these three cases.



Interview on Climate Change, the New Cold War and the Rise of China


Open Thread


  1. Dan Lynch

    It is no secret that the hyper-capitalist U.S. culture creates social insecurity and social friction, and that’s one reason the U.S. has more violence than the Nordic countries.

    But if we could wave a magic wand and get rid of the economic competition and economic insecurity, similar to the scenario Ian proposes, would that eliminate all competition and violence? No because there would still be competition for mates, competition for social status, etc., and there would still be tribal conflicts. You saw this in Native American culture, where there was quite a bit of violence related to proving one’s manhood, and members of rival tribes were killed on sight. (admittedly much of the Native American inter-tribal violence was driven by competition for finite resources).

    And you see it in the animal world, i.e. wolves, elk, etc., where the males battle to the death for the alpha position so they can spread their DNA.

  2. Ian Welsh

    There’s some good insights there Dan, but you didn’t quite engage, but instead introduced your own question. Question 1 would make wolves fighting to the death impossible, for example. That said, competition for mates or material objects or whatever would still continue, but it would take different forms and so would society.

  3. Raad

    #1 I’d be happy knowing I can’t hurt other beings and they can’t hurt me OR other beings; I’d be free – pain and suffering are not there anymore so the thing I hope to gain from enlightenment has partially been accomplished

    #2 I don’t know – pursue something that interests me and explore the world more I suppose

    #3 I don’t know – things I wouldn’t do I already try hard not to (harm other beings, eat meat unless post chemo or something) and things I do try to do – meditate – I would maybe do more of although given no pain and suffering I can see why the temptation to not meditate and just burn karma till rebirth is a thing

  4. Willy

    I don’t understand the point of this. Everybody knows that when we mature, childhood puppy playtime turns into a continuous jostling for status and control of resources within whatever ‘wolfpack’ we’ve chosen to be a part of, sometimes with catastrophic results for the losers. It’s part of the mammalian survival impulse.

    As for the questions, I already live in a world where nothing affects me permanently, where all my needs are met at the end of the day, and where everybody’s vulnerabilities get respected. This world exists inside my head. In that world, everybody’s happy with their status and control over whatever resources they want, interpersonal conflicts always get resolved, folly becomes wiser, and I get to imagine otherwise good and decent people hot having to double down on the batshit crazy just so they can avoid some trivial emotional sense of loss.

    But I haven’t figured out yet how to not always need to be the star of my little fantasy show.

  5. Eric F

    Thanks Ian.

    This an excellent thought experiment.
    Especially the possibility of not needing anything.
    This is easy to imagine because there are times for all of us, however brief, when indeed we really don’t need anything more at the moment, on occasion, all our needs are fully satisfied.

    So all we need to do is imagine that condition extending into the future.
    What jumps first to my mind is that money would become much less valuable.
    Commerce would collapse to being only about luxuries. Which would be much more luxurious because they would only be produced by people who felt like it.
    Or perhaps, our species being like it is, there would be a terrible rat race competition for useless luxury goods that are used only for status display.
    Is social status a need?

    As for violence, I’m pretty sure that can’t be solved while we inhabit physical bodies.
    It will always be possible to kill us. Though so far, I personally have had no problem avoiding getting murdered.

    But short of murder, there is pain. If pain is possible, physical violence is possible. I don’t want to give up pain. The parts of our nervous system that make pain possible are the same parts that make pleasure possible.
    But not only pleasure – every type of sensation of living in the world can range from pleasure to pain, and if I were deprived of all sensation from the physical world, I would very quickly start looking for a way to get dead.
    Or maybe I wouldn’t know the difference between life and death.
    Or should I say that if I lose my senses, I want to lose my mind too?

    Long a go I noticed that the parts of life that made me want to keep living were all deeply rooted in the physical world. Thinking and emoting are fun hobbies, but not enough to keep me here.

  6. Ché Pasa

    I’ve never been much inclined to nostalgia for The Good Old Days, because in truth they weren’t all that Good. Nor am I much of a Pangloss going on about how we live in The Best of All Possible Worlds.

    Nope, we’ve got a long way to go. If we’re lucky, we’ll get at least part way there.

    Ian’s thought experiment/ideal of a relatively violence-free and largely need-free future is much like the Post WWII ideal of a United Nations, wide spread prosperity, science, progress, kindness and generosity toward all.

    Didn’t work out so well. Blame-casting isn’t gonna fix it.

    Where did it go wrong? Why did it go wrong?

    We look back and say that the last 40-50 years of Neo-liberalism is the problem, the definitive factor that has made it impossible to realize the Post War ideals of my youth and perhaps the youths of some of the others who comment and post here.

    In my view, the problem has been both the ideologies and practices of Neo-liberalism and Neo-conservatism. The one proposes an economic free-for-all on behalf of a tiny and shrinking Elite, while the other proposes perpetual warfare for resources and for territorial/ideological control over a stable and ultimately shrinking global population.

    But those ideologies and practices wouldn’t have been able to take control of so much of the government apparatus and popular imagination if it weren’t for deep-seated weaknesses within the ideals we once held dear. Those weaknesses were identified and exploited long ago by various academics and thought leaders who in turn were almost magically able to turn Power against our better natures, better natures which for a brief time held sway over the darker forces of (among other things) ideas of violence and want.

    We can point to Reaganism/Thatcherism as main factors that turned us against our better natures, and I watched it happen in real time. It began in California in 1967 with the accession of Ronald Reagan to the Governor’s chair in the Corner Office. It is reasonable to say that his victory then and later was due to a reaction against student and urban unrest — and violence — and over what was seen as too tight governmental control over economic action. It wasn’t yet an ideology but it was getting there.

    Just being opposed to whatever the current reality/perception might be was enough.

    But imagine a world that might have been if that opposition was countered by the Better Nature that was supposed to have been unleashed after the War. If the selfish and destructive ideals we all know too well had never gained traction.

    Yes, think about it.

  7. Trinity

    I’ve started and abandoned several replies to this post. Maybe this one will stick.

    I think I know where you are going, Ian, but it’s a big maybe. The problem is your audience (pretty much everyone in the world) are dealing with coercion every day, whether they are aware of it as such or not. It’s kind of like asking a fish, “How’s the water?” and the fish replies, “What is water?”

    There isn’t anything we can do about the threat of violence, and the violence budget in the US is now bigger than ever. The DHS here in the US appear to be morphing into a private national police force, probably why it was stood up in the first place, part of the long term plan.

    We also can’t do anything about physical needs: air, water, food, sleep, and some kind of social interaction. The only thing we can do right now is change our values, what matters most to us, and then try to disentangle those wants from their agenda without incurring the threat of violence becoming actual violence. This is becoming harder and harder given they are dictating almost everything related to our basic needs, coercion isn’t even necessary.

  8. Purple Library Guy

    I find the first question trickier. It seems like it would make a huge difference, and I suppose it would up to a point. But some harm is still possible. People have been driven to suicide by purely social bullying, for example. Also, depends how much you can game it. For instance, you could have some people stand around someone and grab the food every time they tried to have a meal, until they starve. Let’s rule that kind of stuff out.
    But thinking of food, consider that in capitalism, much of the implicit violence comes down to the threat of being deprived of food and shelter. On the other hand, dig down below that and the reason you can’t just TAKE food, or squat empty property, boils down to the threat of violence. And while most individual Canadians, say, don’t think a lot about the potential for violence in their day to day lives, they are affected indirectly, for instance by the way governments through the police exercise social control to limit protests.
    Imagine for a moment that we had the trucker convoy thing in this environment. So, the police wouldn’t have been able to do much about them. But they would not have been able to intimidate local people since the implicit threat of violence would not exist. Local people, or the police if such existed, would however have been able to simply go break their air horns or even dismantle their trucks if they were in the way–whadda they gonna do about it? There would be no reason to hesitate for fear of an outbreak of violence–what violence?
    Thinking down to violence at an individual level . . . women would be a hell of a lot more equal, that’s for sure. Physical bullying, gangs, pimps . . . all gone. Might still be gangs of some sort, but they’d be a lot fluffier; they could sell drugs and do property crimes, but they couldn’t be menacing.
    Ultimately I think, without violence things would be better, but there would still be ways to do social/economic coercion; society would be recognizable. Probably a bit more chaotic, for both better and worse, because social control would be trying to exist but missing some key tools.
    Sports and games would sure be different . . .

    The second question is quite a bit simpler. If there is no such thing as want, then economic systems, and co-operation and social organization in general, are purely voluntary. Well, in the second scenario you DO have violence, but I don’t think that would be enough to stick an exploitative social order together all by itself. Consider, anyone a would-be boss would need to recruit to do the violence, have no real reason to do that work–they too have no “need”. And it would be very easy to opt out of any social organization. If it doesn’t do a lot more for most people than it costs, they’re gonna leave and do their own thing. The cost of dissent is also low, so it’s hard to stop disaffected ideas from spreading. So probably, social organization would be loose and generally positive; it would probably include policing of some sort because there would still be some violence (although less because a lot of violence is committed because of need), but we would be talking about pretty low-key cops. There would be little or no war, because it would be hard to convince anybody of the need to control resources and so forth. People would probably still do some work, to arrange some luxuries, but nobody would work very hard.
    It’d be great!

  9. Ian Welsh

    Thank you PLG. Yeah, gaming it wasn’t meant and I’m glad you ruled it out, you also showed how under that particular rule some coercion is still possible (by being a jerk, basically) and thus the silver lining of violence.

    I think in question 2 you got to something I wanted people to think about: what would they and wouldn’t they do that they do or don’t do now.

    Then extend that.

  10. Purple Library Guy

    As a side note, I’ve never bought the fish and water metaphor. Fish know what water is. They know it’s sometimes clear and sometimes murky, they know it sometimes has currents (and they could be warm, or cold), they know how to push against it to get places, they know if they go deeper in it there’s less light from above. Water does not become unthinkable just because it is always there, and the same is usually true of the things people try to extend that metaphor to.

  11. Willy

    Where did it go wrong? Why did it go wrong?

    There’s that bit where too many people think human relations is rocket science. Or probably more accurately, are far too easily led to believe in such.

    Everything I ever needed to know about life, I should’ve learned way back when I was a paper route kid. Time for another story.

    To be a successful paper route kid, you needed a reliable sub for those inevitable sick days and vacations. Brian was that guy for me. I’d do his route and he’d pay me in full, and he’d do my route and pay me in full. With no complaints from any customers, ever.

    But then there was Dave. Dave coerced me into subbing during his own 2 week family vacation by implying he’d kick my ass if I didn’t. And so I did, dutifully. When the time came to pay up he stalled. I kept at it and wound up in his basement bedroom demanding payment hoping that his mother upstairs had some kind of sway over his behavior. We finally settled on 75%. It probably goes without saying that every other paper route kid avoided dealing with Dave because they already knew that he was an incorrigible asshole.

    It’s been over 40 years. I just looked up Brian. He works for a charity organization helping central Americans, inside of central America. I also looked up Dave. He’s the VP of a regional bank in Arizona.

    As for Reagan, we should’ve figured him out when that former FDR fanboy proclaimed that “I didn’t leave the Democrats, they left me” way back in 1962. That’s 1962 folks. Had I been wiser back in paper route days, I would’ve pegged Reagan as a self-important idiot. I’ve learned since that basic temperaments don’t really change all that much with time, or with whatever the current politics may be.

  12. StewartM

    Criteria 1: If we can’t be hurt, and if no one can use the threat of physical coercion to intimidate others into compliance, my first reaction would be that we’d revert to decision-making by consensus. However, the removal of any physical need (criteria 2) means that there is no driver for a compromise (which is why consensus happens, when everyone NEEDS something, but also when no one can take it by force–so you negotiate).

    Criteria 2 (no needs) is the real problem in this thought experiment, because now you’ve removed a whole host of fundamental constraints on human behavior. We might form fragile consensus-based communities (or cultures) that would agree to operate within certain bounds (dissenters would simply leave) but the absence of any “carrots” and “sticks” to motivate people to cooperate would mean these would be always in a state of flux.

    In short, what the results of the lack of physical threat, and physical need, to drive behaviors would be to atomize humankind even further. We’d have no reason to “give” on anything remotely important to us. We have a set of people today who, because of their resources, approach the situation of not having fear and not needing anyone else to meet what they need. And that is our rich. So would everyone become as selfish and self-centered as they are now, or even more so?

    I differ on the above commentators on sexuality being a source of competition. I think the current situation in human cultures is not the result of biology, but of culture. Making sex hard to get and something that must be ‘competed for’ is a restraint that cultures, particularly warlike cultures, do to drive behaviors they seek (particularly bravery and indifference to suffering in males, and adulation of those values in females). Lacking that, we’re more like bonobos, we would wait our turn and share. 😛 I have a rather jaundiced view of romantic love, the situation where you can’t live without person X in your life, only find out Y years later you can’t live with them. Even when it comes to stable pair-bondings, people in long-term ‘good marriages’ I respect tell me that romantic love may be what gets the thing going, but it’s not what you need to keep it lasting. You need an attachment less fickle.

  13. anon y'mouse

    this seems like a game i played with myself along about the time i was trying to decide what was worthwhile for me in this life. coming from a long line of poor people who had endless money trouble and being in the same boat, i played the “what if i never had to worry about money again?” game.

    it was decided that my time would be spent travelling and looking at art and buildings and learning about cultures and being in the countrysides all over the “civilized” world (and eating great food!). because my thought exercise did not include freedom from physical harm, and me being a loner and also a gender under attack even in the “civilized” world, i wouldn’t be able to safely travel to 70% of it. but the condition of having endless imaginary money solved almost all other problems that I have ever had in my life, so i think it qualifies as “freedom from want”.

    if including the freedom from harm, i would be able to go anywhere and see anything i wanted to see before death.

    the only problem then remains to find a tribe do it all with. i’m not such a loner that other people aren’t valuable. but money trouble drives personal problems, which drive social problems and all of this interacts in many loops. in my own family, nearly all of the marriages and long term relationships were driven apart by money or by the social dysfunction that lack of money forces on everyone. i class most “drug addiction” as medicating from this antisocial, anti-life society. families arguing about spending priorities and lack of sufficient work and income spread that over into their personal dealings with each other. if people can come and go without those worries, they would only have to interact with people they find spending time with as a rewarding endeavor.

    but then relationships might also become much more shallow. some of the “rewards” of difficult relationships are hard to see. my alcoholic abusive grandfather that terrorized his children and gave them PTSD that shattered their lives also taught them the value of doing a job fully and well to completion, or not bothering at all and that there was a lot of maintenance in life that was worth doing correctly even if the thing wasn’t enjoyable in itself necessarily. of course, no one appreciated the process he took to teach them this. it earned it me a black eye at 11 y.o., but was later appreciated as a lesson that needed learning (maybe without the black eye) at an early age. i think other people call this “work ethic” but he just called it simple pride in doing something “right”.

    maybe people being absolutely free from all desires would make them shy away from difficult perosnal lessons. aren’t most of the problems of modern society caused by those who believe themselves to be gods, or who think they deserve god-like powers or are convinced that they have them already (or by virtue of great wealth, are the only true people with “agency” in our society)? a whole planet of Musks and Bezos and Jobs and Gates would be an utter nightmare, even if they couldn’t harm me personally. they would burn up the natural treasures of this entire planet to fulfill their masturbatory fantasies of living on Mars or whatever.

    my superpowers would be used to see Bruegel and Bosch. i guess i don’t think bigly enough.

  14. Frank Shannon

    I know I’m late to the party. I’ve been thinking about this one for days. I feel like this particular thought experiment is so overwhelming in its implications that I can’t make too much sense of it.

    I do think that the people above who note that this eliminates the need for people to cooperate in many cases and might further tend to separate people.

    One particular area that caught my attention was sex work. I think women do most of the sex work in the world today and for most of them coercion either of a real physical nature or the coercion of economic necessity is the driving motive for most of them. Sex work goes well beyond literal prostitution and includes some hard to know fraction of marriages as well.

    Given the large demand for it we see in the real world, I’d guess the coercion-free world if it had any sort of economy at all, would see sex workers receiving pretty incredible pay rates.

    Women would most likely be treated much better in both courtship and relationships as well.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén