Scarcity vs. Mutual Benefit

A core thesis of Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg) is that there is no such thing as right and wrong or good and evil. Rather, everyone simply has needs which may be met or unmet. “Moralistic thinking” judges an action or person that meets your needs as “good” and one that does not meet your needs as “bad”. Rosenberg argues that all violence is caused by such judgements and offers techniques for interpreting the world more compassionately.

Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero, chronicles the history of the world as the progress of biological and then social organisms to unleash new ways of collaborating in order to achieve mutual gains. This includes everything from the mutual advantage of organelles joining together inside a cell to the mutual advantages of paying taxes for shared services like roads and armies. It helps to explain the evolutionary development of human brains able to cooperate with ever larger social groups, as well as the emergence of human traits such as kindness and altruism.

Wright also makes it clear that there have always been plenty of situations where collaboration does not lead to mutual gains. When there is a fixed scarcity of food, water, control, or some other resource, violence and war have been the logical strategy to claim the limited spoils. (And the two situations are intertwined: competition for limited resources created the evolutionary pressure that favored human groups that were better at cooperating internally.)

I believe these authors offer two perspectives on a single phenomenon. Namely, we humans are flexibly equipped to deal with two distinct types of situations: those where collaboration results in mutual gain; and those where it does not.

When we act out of fear (including its variants, guilt and shame), we are using the part of our psyche that is adapted to scarcity and competition for limited resources. Scarcity calls for violence, and so our action will necessarily be violent. Nonviolent Communication describes a wide range of violent actions — not just physical but also relational and emotional violence, as well as violence to our own internal sense of worthiness.

When we act from a feeling of compassion (i.e. caring and love), we are using an altogether different part of our psyche that is adapted to the possibility of mutual gain. Such situations call for empathy — an understanding of others’ needs as well as our own — so that we can work together to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Our action is likely to be creative, searching out opportunities for new forms of mutual gain.

Among other things, this helps to explain why people meet the expectations of their environment. If you approach someone with violence or by wielding power, they are likely to assume they are in a scarcity situation and will probably respond using their fear pathway. If you approach someone with compassion, they are likely to assume they are in a mutual gain situation and will probably respond using their cooperation pathway.

Mindfulness meditation and other spiritual traditions (with their practices covering gratitude, compassion, patience, etc.) can be seen as a way to train the mind to react to as many situations as possible with the cooperation pathway rather than the scarcity pathway. This goal follows from the understanding that cooperation creates abundance, whereas violence only leads to more scarcity.

It may be that when we talk about “angels and demons of our nature”, we are really referring to our compassion and fear pathways. However, calling one of these pathways “good” and the other “bad” is itself a judgement that inevitably leads to more violence. The Zen of Fear is to nurture compassion for that part of us that is designed to face scarcity.

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