The Deadly Oath
The ancient Irish tale Aided Óenfhir Aífe, “The Death of Aífe’s Only Son,” tells how the great warrior Cú Chulainn killed his son, Connla. Cú Chulainn had been training for battle in a distant land with the warrior princess Aífe, and the two became lovers. But not long after Aífe became pregnant, Cú Chulainn had to return home. “Send him to me when he is grown,” he told Aífe. “But make sure he grows to be a mighty warrior. Let him never turn back from a journey, once begun. Let him never refuse a challenge to combat. And let him tell no one his name.”
When Connla grew old enough, Aífe swore him to the oaths as his father had asked, and sent him to Ireland. Connla met many troubles on his travels, but defeated many enemies, for he never turned back, never refused a challenge, and never revealed his name. At last he came to Ireland and the home of Cú Chulainn in Ulster, but did not realize it. He was challenged, of course, and asked his name, but he did not back down and refused to identify himself; so he found himself in battle against the men of the household.
Connla was a mighty warrior, and he defeated many of Ulster’s best; so to defend the honor of Ulster, Cú Chulainn himself met the boy in combat. Though Connla recognized his father during the fight, he still could not break his oaths; and he could not defeat Cú Chulainn, who was the greatest warrior of Irish legend. At last, when Connla was defeated and lay dying, he told Cú Chulainn his name. Cú Chulainn, grieving, took the boy in his arms, and said, “Here is my son for you, men of Ulster!”
Without knowing it, Cú Chulainn made his son’s death inevitable with the oath he asked Aífe to swear him to. An oath such as that — which forces you to never give up, never back down, and never establish friendship or trust — is a recipe for death. Either you will hide away in a cave and starve, or you will go out and fight until you find someone who can defeat you. Your fate will be poverty or violence. This, I think, is one of the main lessons of this ancient story: the paradoxical fact that, in many situations, strength and prosperity arise from a certain amount of vulnerability.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
The famous modern fable of the Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates the situation well. From wikipedia:
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?
It seems clear that the only sane course of action is defection. If you defect, the best outcome is freedom, and the worst is 5 years; if you cooperate, the best outcome is 6 months, and the worst is 10 years. Since you can’t communicate with the other prisoner, there is no reason to assume that he will remain silent. Like Connla, you can’t run away or back down, and you can’t establish relationship or trust with the other prisoner. You have to defect.
It should be clear, however, that the situation changes drastically if the prisoners can communicate with each other, and work out a deal to coordinate their responses. The situation changes even more if these prisoners have a previous working relationship, have established some trust between them, and have reason to think that they won’t betray each other.
What Tribes Are For
This basic dilemma is the underpinning of the human notion of the tribe. Among most tribes, exchange of wealth is not handled with money, but through acts of mutual charity, based on an expectation of trust. A brother gives a gift to a sister not because she’s paid him, but because they know each other, trust each other, and love each other. Between tribes, however, exchange of goods is usually handled with barter or money. After all, you can’t necessarily trust those foreigners to be as nice as you are; you can’t just give them gifts without any strings attached. That would make you too vulnerable.
Despite this, many ancient tribes had a strong tradition of hospitality. Being hospitable, in the simplest case, just meant taking a stranger — someone not of your tribe — into your home, and offering them food and shelter for at least one night. The wisdom of this is easy to see from the Prisoner’s Dilemma: start with trust. Offer vulnerability first. If the stranger betrays your trust, you could get seriously hurt. But the potential benefits of a new relationship — of finding a new member of your “tribe” — are so great that it’s worth the risk.
As people have become more populous and resources become more scarce, it has become more important and valuable to start breaking down the us-vs.-them distinction. The tribes of upper New York, for example, set aside their differences for mutual protection, and created a new, larger “us” called the Haudenosaunee. The member tribes were made more vulnerable to each other, since an attack on one was an attack on all; and it would have been easy for one tribe to betray the others and gain a quick victory by surprise. But in exchange for this mutual vulnerability, as long as they held their trust, they gained mutual protection. Another example: around the same time, the landowners and barons of England, dissatisfied with the rule of King John, forced him to sign a charter that explicitly limited his power (they would have preferred him to be replaced with a king under their own control, but no suitable heir was available). The Magna Carta established in writing that the king needed the barons, and the barons needed the king, and turned their mutual vulnerability to mutual advantage. These examples inspired many others, such as the US Constitution, the United Nations and the European Union.
Today the world is far more interconnected than ever before, and with profound interconnection comes profound vulnerability. We are vulnerable not only to physical attack, but to economic hardship. Great Britain could decide to turn their nuclear weapons on the US tomorrow. Canada could decide to stop trading with the US, which would cost us $600 billion (the cost of the Iraq War) in one year. But they won’t, because they are just as vulnerable to us. We could end our partnerships, and shore up our defenses and economic self-sufficiency, but then we would be even weaker and poorer. Again, we are strong because of our mutual vulnerability.
But usually people don’t think in these terms. We tend to imagine that defeating enemies means making them weaker and us stronger, instead of focusing on changing enemies into friends. And when we think of helping the poor, we often imagine giving up something of our own for someone we don’t know, instead of imagining the mutual benefits that come from creating a new relationship. Thus these habits of thought — these instincts that make us distrust strangers, divide the world into us-vs.-them, and reject mutual vulnerability — give rise to two of the world’s biggest problems: war and poverty.
But it’s hard to give up security, real or imagined, for a chance of mutual gain. Just how much vulnerability is required to turn poverty and violence around? Surprisingly, it turns out, not much. Just a tiny bit will be enough to start things going. In the next post I’ll show why that is.