The Six Roots Of Conflict

A difficult question that has been debated by the greatest thinkers of history is: what is the root of conflict?

For background, see:

Sigmund Freud thought that all human goals are manifestations of two opposing drives: Eros and Thanatos. He did not think these drives had a progressive character that tended to further the development of the individual or species. He did not think that the power of the will was responsible. Eros and Thanatos have a conservative aim, they seek to establish prior conditions. Eros seeks to create higher unities, Thanatos seeks to abolish unities. He suggested a dual classification of the instincts: Eros (all libidinal instincts) and Thanatos (the death instinct), but he thought that the death instinct was more fundamental.

Like Schopenhauer, Freud thought the “goal of life is death,” and the preservation instinct is itself an aspect of the death instinct, because it protects against accidental, externally caused death, so that the individual may die from internal causes.

Eros is more than a sexual instinct, it exists in every living cell and drives the living substance to constitute larger beings, it postpones death in this way. The death instinct is the tendency for the living substance to return to a state of inanimate matter. The two instincts are inseparable, and life is a compromise between Eros and Thanatos until the latter prevails. Freud hoped the biology would confirm these speculations in scientific terms.

For years, Freud proclaimed the primacy of the libido, and rejected Adler’s idea of an autonomous aggressive drive. But with his new theories, he had to admit that there was a primary masochism that was not merely sadism turned inward, and in his later writings would give more importance to the role of aggressive and destructive instincts.

So, what is the root of conflict? According to Freud, human nature itself. Humans are, by nature, motivated to annihilate themselves, so it should not be surprising at all to witness wars between tribes and nations, and endless cases of self-sabotage and self-destruction.

More recent books build on the Freudian theory. Matt Ridley’s thesis in The Red Queen, which builds on the ideas of Darwin as well, is that all human characteristics are the result of sexual selection, including artistic talent, intelligence, and wittiness. Comedians are not witty because there is anything unique about their personality, but because it enhances their chances of standing out, and of being sexually selected.

Simply put, anything that increases reproductive success will spread at the expense of anything that does not — even if it threatens survival.

The Red Queen, Matt Ridley

What root of conflict according to Ridley? Sexual reproduction, primarily.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker argues that there are two causes of conflict. One, competition, as described by Hobbes. two, fear, which is a direct result of competition.

The reason why men compete for “wives”, for example, is because the female invests more in offspring than the male (especially true for mammals). A male can multiply the number of his offspring by mating with many females in quick succession, but a female cannot do the same by mating with several males in quick succession. That is why female reproductive capacity is a scarce resource that is an object of competition.

But Pinker does not think this means that…

“men are robots controlled by their genes, and are excused for rape and fighting, that women are passive sexual prizes, that people try to have as many babies as possible, or that people are impervious to influences from their culture, to take some of the common misunderstandings of the theory of sexual selection.”

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Pinker is saying that culture can change one’s biological imperatives, and they have. We do see variations of these kinds of behavior over time and in different cultures — that alone is proof that biologically driven violence is not inevitable.

The second cause of conflict is diffidence, a word that meant “fear” in Hobbes’ time, and this cause is a consequence of the first. Competition breeds fear. If you think your neighbor desires to eliminate you from the competition, you will want to protect yourself by eliminating them first in a preemptive strike.

Competition, Diffidence (fear), Thanatos (death drive), and Sexual reproduction — all can be held responsible for the root of conflict. These, in addition to Mimesis and Recognition, constitute six causes of conflict in the world. But all of these ideas explain how conflict emerges between individuals, but what about nations that go to war? Do nations embody the same psychological characteristics as individual human beings do?

Originally published at




I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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Sud Alogu

Sud Alogu

I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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