Virtues/Spontaneous Conflict and Deliberate Restraint

Abstract: Conflict emerges spontaneously whenever three conditions are present: 1) contention, 2) first person viewpoint, and 3) sources of power.[1] Each of these conditions is a human universal. No wonder conflict is ubiquitous, and violence is such a prominent condition of human existence. However, humans also have the capacity for cognitive choice and deliberate restraint. The only alternative to conflict is choosing: 1) not to contend, or 2) to adopt alternative viewpoints, or 3) to exercise power only constructively.



Human conflict is spontaneous, ubiquitous, and often violent. Siblings squabble; co-workers and associates bicker, betray, and sabotage each other, bullies abuse their victims, lovers quarrel, couples fight and divorce bitterly. Gang violence, rape, and murder occur constantly. The violence of war and genocide are nearly constant somewhere on our planet.



We contend for a wide variety of scarce resources. Shortages of earth’s land, forests, sea, fresh water, clean air, vistas, coast line, inhabitable regions, food sources, minerals, and other natural resources make tragedies of the commons all too common. When there is a shortage of food or water, a few get what they need, and many others don’t. Even when we have adequate water, food, and shelter, humans contend over many other scarce resources. We contend for territory, social rank, and sexual access to the most desirable mates. Siblings rival for parent’s attention; workers contend for the best assignments, the boss’s attention, the biggest raise, and the next promotion. We want to be the first on our block to own an iPhone, take the best vacation, own the biggest house, have an ocean view, drive the newest car, tell the most interesting story, and send the kids to the best summer camp and college. Even when physiological needs are fully met, we contend for attention, respect, acceptance, status, and image. We contend to meet our psychological needs for autonomy, competency, and relatedness that are poorly understood and rarely met. Money has been called the root of all evil, but we fight just as viciously even when no money or material goods are at stake.



Each of us has our unique first-person viewpoint. No one else sees what we see, hears what we hear, knows what we know, and thinks what we think. Nothing anyone could say or do can become as vivid a reality as our own point of view. First person viewpoint is the fundamental asymmetry of humanity. Each of us sincerely believes our own perceptions, judgments, decisions, and opinions are the most reliable. We are intrinsically self-centered. We expect others to be reasonable; do it my way.



Power is an asymmetrical relationship; the more powerful experience each interaction differently than the less powerful do. The one-down envies the one-up. Power arises from any one of three fundamental stances: the ability to harm, the ability to help, and the ability to influence.

Dominance is the ability to harm, and humans use their creativity to unleash the primitive concept of fighting and extend their ability to harm others in a remarkable variety of ways. These include visual and vocal threats, ridicule, teasing, accusing, blaming, insulting, criticizing, and other forms of humiliation. Positional authority and hierarchical organization structures formalize dominance hierarchies in many organizations. Alliances may form to balance formal power structures. Deceit, cheating, sabotage, and snares damage our colleagues and associates. Shouting, hitting, bullying, and fist fights routinely inflict their harm. Road rage is almost fashionable. Control and use of weapons and other technologies escalates violence on a massive scale.

Dominance triggers fear and leads quickly to insult, anger, humiliation, hate, and vengeance—the passionate desire for revenge. These powerful forces perpetuate destructive cycles.

Stature is the ability to help others, and it is a more difficult form of power to attain. But the rich, famous, talented, or dedicated can have an enormous impact. Philanthropists contribute money to help millions, dedicated scientists and doctors work to cure disease, social workers and activists help the less fortunate, and musicians give charity concerts, as others who could help only squander their wealth, fame, fortune, and talent.

The emotions of pride, shame, envy, gloating, and contempt fuel our quest for stature.

Influence is the ability to alter the belief of others. It is a subtle and insidious source of power. Billions of dollars depend on choosing Coke over Pepsi, and choosing to drink soda instead of water. More billions depend on the decision to smoke, drink, gamble, abuse drugs, buy the latest fashions, indulge our temptations, or succumb to the latest fad. Retail prescription drug marketing has increased sales by billions. Religions gain converts by influencing parishioners; political candidates gain office by influencing voters. Lobbyists get favorable legislation by influencing politicians. Public opinion determines winners and losers and even starts and sustains wars.

Conflict results whenever the asymmetry of power combines with the first-person viewpoint to contend for resources. Because these simple conditions are ever-present, conflict is spontaneous.



Yet somehow civilization emerges from this barbarism. Humans have remarkable capacities for comprehension, planning, imagination, foresight, and compassion. We can choose to avoid conflict by how we decide to allocate resources, understanding other viewpoints, and restraining power.

Stewardship of earth’s scarce natural resources can conserve what we have and preserve adequate fresh air, fresh water, and food sources. Allocation agreements that ensure everyone has enough before anyone gets too much can meet the physiological needs of every person. Focusing on authentic stature rather than image and status symbols can reduce much of the contention for the first, biggest, and best. Choose to value peace of mind, integrity, giving and gaining the respect of others, tranquility, clean air, clean water, the beauty of nature, a healthy environment to enjoy now and sustain for the future, family, friendships, community, safety, stability, trust, leisure time, meaningful work, authentic experiences, reciprocity, respect, good health, reduced stress, ongoing education, fun, enjoyment of the arts, transcendence, and making significant contributions that help others. Know that there is enough to go around. Do your best; others do not have to lose so that you can win.

Engage in dialogue to fully understand others' viewpoints. Listen with empathy, suspend judgment, act with respect, form your own carefully considered opinions, and only then speak your voice and act. Employ the fundamental principles of reciprocity and symmetry to attain a viewpoint that can be replicated and sustained. Constantly challenge your own first-person viewpoint by recognizing it is fundamentally self-centered. Challenge others' self-centered viewpoints. Find an integrating point of view that accommodates all other fragmented viewpoints. Attain a viewpoint that sustains and advances all humanity.

Choose to exercise power only constructively; to help others, never to destroy and hurt.

Only through relentless restraint can we overcome spontaneous conflict and escape the prisons of fear, hate, violence, and humiliation.


  1. This essay first appeared as a blog post on emotionalcompetency.blogspot. It has been adapted here with permission of the author. See: