A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Resolving conflicts where they arise

I believe that many of us feel that the climate of human conversation is getting colder, that it is becoming harder for us to talk and get along with each other. Humanity feels colder than in a long time. At the same time, the global challenges are escalating. The meteorological signs speak for a warmer planet, while people speak a colder language. It should be the other way around. To cool the planet down, humanity should first get warmer.

How can humanity get warmer? How can we deal with the conflicts that make our human climate resemble a cold war on several fronts: between nations, between rich and poor, between women and men, and so on?

Observe what happens within ourselves when the question is asked and demands its answer. We immediately turn our attention to the world and to the actions we think could solve the problem there. A world government? Globally binding legislation? A common human language in a worldwide classless society that does not distinguish between woman and man, between skin colors, between friend and stranger?

Notice again what happens within ourselves when we analyze the question, either in this universalist way or in some other way. We create new conflicts between ourselves as analysts and the world where the problems are assumed to arise. The question itself is a conflict. It incriminates a world that must necessarily change. This creates new areas of conflict between people who argue for conflicting analyses and measures. One peace movement will fight another peace movement, and those who do not take the necessary stand on these enormous issues… well, how should we handle them?

Observe for the third time what happens within ourselves when we have now twice in a row directed our attention towards ourselves. First, we noted our inner tendency to react outwardly. Then we noted how this extroverted tendency created new conflicts not only between ourselves and an incriminated world that must change, but also between ourselves and other people with other analyses of an incriminated world that must change. What do we see, then, when we observe ourselves for the third time?

We see how we look for the source of all conflict everywhere but within ourselves. Even when we incriminate ourselves, we speak as if we were someone other than the one analyzing the problem and demanding action (“I should learn to shut up”). Do you see the extroverted pattern within you? It is like a mental elbow that pushes away a problematic world. Do you see how the conflicts arise within ourselves, through this constant outward reactivity? We think we take responsibility for the world around us, but we are only projecting our mental reflexes.

There was once a philosopher named Socrates. He was likened to an electric ray as he seemed to numb those he was talking to with his unexpected questions, so that they could no longer react with worldly analyses and sharp-witted arguments. He was careful to point out that he himself was equally numbed. He saw the extroverted tendency within himself. Every time he saw it, he became silent and motionless. Sometimes he could stand for hours on a street corner. He saw the source of all conflict in the human mind that always thinks it knows, that always thinks it has the analysis and all the arguments. He called this inner numbness his wisdom and he described it like this: “what I do not know, I do not think I know either.”

Naturally, a philosopher thus numbed could not harbor any conflict, because the moment it began to take shape, he would note the tendency within himself and be numbed. He mastered the art of resolving conflicts where they arise: within ourselves. Free from the will to change an incriminated world, he would thereby have revolutionized everything.

Socrates’ wisdom may seem too simple for the complex problems of our time. But given our three observations of how all conflict arises in the human mind, you see how we ourselves are the origin of all complexity. This simple wisdom can warm a humanity that has forgotten to examine itself.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

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  1. Ernst Mecke

    Considering that we NEED solutions (if we do not want to ruin our environment the same way as the ancient Greeks and Romans did by overuse), the article does (at least) not offer sufficiently clear advise how to do in practice. Should one (IN PRACTICE) then begin any relevant discussion in the somewhat Socratic way of asking “Well, what to do then?” and asking further about the details of the replies which will easily come? Considering how many claims and suggestions there tend to be around already, this way might VERY easily result not in a solution but just in a waste of time. Or would it be better to begin by asking the one who brought up the problem whether s/he had some suggestion what to do and serve one’s criticism (if one has one) in the form of Socratic questions instead of counter-claims? This MIGHT reduce the probability of open clashes, but might demand from the Socratic questioner that s/he come up with sufficiently INTELLIGENT questions if s/he does not want to ruin her/his social reputation.

    • Pär Segerdahl

      Thank you for commenting! I did not intend to offer a practical solution, but to focus our attention on ourselves and on how our tendency to take responsibility by seeking practical solutions in an unexpected way fails to acknowledge our own responsibility. I do not say that it is wrong to seek practical solutions, of course, but if we do not see how the problems originate in our own way of functioning, so close to us that we normally do not notice it, we will probably recreate the problems in our focus on practical solutions. Here is a Chinese saying that indicates what I mean: “When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns around and seeks the cause of his failure within himself.”

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