Why national honour trumps rationality

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Peter Turchin explains why national honour trumps rationality — because it works:

Imagine a livestock herder – a traditional Kazakh nomad or an American cattleman on the Western frontier – who lives in a stateless, anarchic society. His wealth is movable and therefore vulnerable to theft. Since there are no police and no courts, he must rely on his own efforts to protect himself, just as states must rely on themselves to ensure continued survival. In such a situation, one strategy is to maintain a reputation for extreme toughness: ‘If you mess with me, you’ll regret it.’ Potential rustlers are deterred because they know that the owner will go all-out to punish them for any transgression.

Now, on a realist view such as Mearsheimer’s, such retribution would seem irrational. It yields no immediate gain and entails significant costs. If one does it oneself, there is the risk of injury or death. If one outsources the work, a bounty must be paid. But in spite of these liabilities, the punishment strategy turns out to be the one that wins in the long run. Herdsmen who do not cultivate a tough reputation become ‘men without honour’. Eventually they lose all their herds and become extinct (indeed, that possibility is what makes this genuinely an evolutionary process, although the relevant adaptation is probably more cultural than genetic). ‘Honour’ means that your commitment to punish a thief is credible. You cannot be dissuaded by danger and you cannot be bought off. If you succumb to either temptation, you lose your credibility, and with it, the capacity to deter robbers.

The problem is that rustlers are also under pressure to cultivate tough reputations: they have to intimidate the herders and deter punishment. So we end up in a coevolutionary arms race in which everybody becomes increasingly tough. The end result is a spiral of violence in which all parties run a high risk of extermination. An apparently sensible strategy leads, in short order, to suicidal madness. This is hard to understand within the rationalist framework of offensive realism. From an evolutionary point of view, on the other hand, it seems inevitable.


  1. “The end result is a spiral of violence in which all parties run a high risk of extermination.”

    Except where do we see this actually occur? In reality, when the rustlers become sufficiently violent and competent, the herdsmen form a militia to defend their livestock. At the end of the day, it’s they who usually have the long term advantage by virtue of the ability to organize more easily. I also wonder about the more basic predator-prey dynamics of the situation that will tend to keep it from going to catastrophe.

  2. Philip Ngai says:

    The alternative is that the rustlers decide to become herdsmen. And this could be a self-feeding cycle: as the number of rustlers dwindles, it’s safer to be a herdsman. However, it’s important for the herdsmen to maintain a reputation for toughness or rustlers will come back.

  3. Alrenous says:

    This shit drives me nuts.

    So we end up in a coevolutionary arms race in which everybody becomes increasingly tough. The end result is a spiral of violence in which all parties run a high risk of extermination.

    That’s an epic leap of faith right there. As per Scipio, evidence is for chumps.

    “Man incompetent at rationality condemns rationality. Full story at 11.”

    See also: evolution != rational. Err, what?

    See also: honour, which we can work as necessary through game theory, is irrational. Err, what?

    Question: in Turchin’s mind, is rationality the incompetent mess he thinks it is, or is he portraying it as incompetent so he can condemn the self-identified rationalists for tribal warfare purposes?

  4. You see this kind of confusion about “rationality” a lot. On the one hand there’s rationality-rationality, which is just a combination of logical self-consistency and applying the best known means to reach your given ends (which could be anything). Then there’s what I like to call “Spock rationality” which seems to be what a lot of people actually think of when they hear the word, and makes lots of assumptions about certain core axioms being “rational” or not.

    Of course, that’s nonsense on stilts. It’s mostly just assuming a certain ethical framework and then calling everyone outside it “irrational.” In this case, because honor is outside the assumed moral framework it is contrasted with “rationality.”

    Now I’ve gone and used up my whole yearly allotment of scare quotes…

  5. Alex J. says:

    Perhaps, “narrow rationality” or maybe “first order analysis”.

  6. Alrenous says:

    TV Tropes’ Straw Vulcan seems close enough.

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