Friday, April 13, 2012

Causal Models and the Causes of the Civil War

Thinking About Causality

When we think about causality, we divide causes into those which involve choice and those which do not. That is, some causes can be attributed to a conscious being making a choice, while others are attributed to things controlled by natural law.

Many, perhaps most events have multiple causes. The Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred when a earthquake caused a tsunami that struck the nuclear plant. The earthquake and tsunami we see as natural. The plant was located by people, designed by people, and operated by people, their conscious choices also contributed to the disaster. The disaster would not have happened had the tsunami not happened, but it would also not have happened had the power plant been located on high ground or designed to better resist the tsunami.

Knowledge plays a part. The destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius could not have been predicted by the Romans with the information available to them at the time, while the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear disaster might have been predicted had scientific findings been mobilized by those responsible for the plant. Thus it seems there is more responsibility for the people making decisions with respect to the location of Fukushima in our time than for the people making decisions on the location of Pompeii in Roman times.

Some knowledge is seen a probabilistic. Thus we may not know the high water mark for the Mississippi river next year, but we can say than only one year out of 100 the water level will exceed such and such a value, that one year out of ten it will exceed another, lower value, etc.

We can also attach a credibility to knowledge. Thus, knowledge claims from authoritative sources backed by theory and data are more credible than knowledge claims from members of the general public or from marginal sources.

Consider climate change. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow and major global warming  takes place with the accompanying damage to human welfare, then more responsibility will be attributed to those who failed to credit the opinion and evidence now being adduced by the scientific community -- those refusing to act to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Intention also plays a part. We strongly distinguish between someone who made decisions resulting in risk to others if the decisions are made for reasons which we find acceptable versus for reasons which we do not find to be ethically acceptable.

As humans, we tend to want to infer agency and intentionality. An earthquake or a tsunami is termed "an act of God". We seek to reify the result of an institutional process as if it were the result of a single intelligent persons intentions. Indeed, we tend to assume accidental results of a persons actions are intentional.

We can structure causes of an event. Some causes are proximate, some are more distant. Some causes are necessary, some are sufficient, some are both necessary and sufficient, some are neither.

More Recent Models

"Chaos Theory" is a title given to recognition that arises from mathematics that seemingly chaotic behavior of some dynamic systems can be explained. Perhaps the prototypical example comes from meteorology. The weather is notoriously unpredictable. Yet the physics of weather seem rather simple. In fact, as data collection on the atmosphere and as computers have become more powerful, models used to predict the weather have become more accurate. Still weather forecasts are still termed in probabilities and we are still sometimes surprised. One cause is the so called "butterfly effect": very small variations in initial conditions can be amplified over time to produce large changes in the predicted weather at later times. Thus is some dynamic systems, while causality is clear, prediction of outcomes can be very challenging. In these systems even though ultimate causes of ourcomes exist, backtracking to identify those ultimate causes can be effectively impossible.

Homeostasis is a phenomenon in which a system maintains a stable state in the face of external changes. Thus a modern home is maintained at constant temperature whatever the outdoors temperature; we set the desired temperature on the thermostat and it turns on air conditioner or furnace as needed to maintain the current temperature. If suddenly the house gets hot in the summer or gets cold in the winter, we attribute the proximate cause to the failure of the air conditioner, furnace or thermostat.

Emergence has been recognized as a process by which a relatively unpredictable outcome can result from  very simple causes. A prototypical example is the construction of very large ant hills by ant, which obviously do not plan the construction; very simple behaviors by individual ant when replicated by all the ants in a large colony can build a very large anthill (and control the temperature within very effectively). In some areas, one can see "cities" of ant "skyscrapers".

Ant hills in Australia

The Causes of the Civil War

It is a century and a half since the Civil War was fought and there is even more interest in the causes of the war than usual.

Clearly the proximate cause was the secession of southern states and their creation of the Confederacy, the decision by South Carolinian leaders to attack Fort Sumter, and the decision by the remaining states of the Union to go to war rather than allow the secession.

The Big Determinants

In our time it seems clear not only that slavery was an evil institution, but that it was on its way out globally by the time of the Civil War. European imperial powers were clearly in the process of abolishing slavery, serfdom, and peonage by the middle of the 19th century. Not only had slavery been abolished by northern states of the United States, but also by Hispanic America. Brazil began a gradual process of abolition of slavery in 1871. Indeed, we are convinced that free labor is a more productive economic system than any based on involuntary servitude, and that slavery is economically unwise as well as a denial of human rights. By 1860, the United States was left with more slaves than any other country. Southern leadership felt that the institution could be saved and continued.

It seems clear that the southern secession was intended to preserve a way of life dependent on the institution of slavery. It seems equally clear that the north was strongly in favor of free labor.

Many in the United States had been disturbed by the conservative backlash that had suppressed the democratic movements in Europe in 1848. European imperialism was triumphant in much of the world, and most of the population of the United States was east of the Mississippi. When Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address that the great war was to determine whether this nation or any nation conceived in liberty and justice for all could long survive, he expressed a widely shared perception. The North was fighting a war to assure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

More Distant Causes of the antebellum American institutions

So why were southern institutions built on slavery? Clearly there are long causal chains that include the southern suitability for growing cotton, the industrial revolution that made cotton cheap and in heavy demand by the cloth industry, racism, colonialism, etc.

Why were northern institutions built on free labor and why were they democratic. There two there are long causal chains, that include the northern climate, the wealth of natural resources in the American continent, enlightenment thought, and the dynamics of British colonization of distant America.

Decision Making

If the proximate cause of the Civil War were the action by some states to secede and by others to contest the secession by arms, then one is faced by the need to explain why those actions occurred.

I have argued that the decision by the government of South Carolina to secede from the Union and the later decision  of the government of Virginia to secede were very bad decisions if only considered from the point of view that following those decisions those states not only failed to achieve the objectives but began a process that led to the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding over their lands. This was not a decision like that of the Spartans at Thermopylae to fight a rear guard action to the death for a larger purpose; one must assume that the decision was taken in the belief that it would in fact save a way of life. South Carolinian and Virginian many, perhaps most, influential leaders simply failed to accurately predict the consequences of secession.

The way a path of action emerges from a political process is complex and I would suggest that it is not properly understood. We tend to simplify the process in our explanations. We say a legislative body voted, or we say that Lincoln as Commander in Chief decided. However, the selection of a course leading to the Civil War involves decision making by individuals, the election processes that chose those individuals, the actual processes within the branches of government and among them, as well as the pressures that were brought to bear, and indeed the reasons behind those pressures.

Virtually everyone had opinions about the situation in 1860 and 1861 and opinions were declared in newspapers, political meetings, marches, and all sorts of other ways. Ministers thundered from the pulpit. Ambassadors presented their governments' positions. Politicians attended to the press and their constituents. The ambitious calculated their chances under different options; those fearing for their loved ones, calculated different chances. The actions of the various states were predicted, observed and debated.

All of this took place within a cultural matrix. Which path would  be honorable, which shameful? Did one's loyalties lie with the city (New York's mayor proposed that the city secede), with the state or with the Federated or Confederated states? Did the family decide as one, or as individuals? Did the community act as one or did it divide? What did religion have to say on the right behavior in the situation? And of course, the 800 pound gorilla in the room, slavery itself.

While the American population was relatively literate for the time, the average level of formal education would have been quite low. Few people perhaps would have had the breadth of historical knowledge and the experience in military analysis to fully understand the paths that lay before the country, nor to judge well which to prefer.

We might best understand the proximate cause of the Civil War as a failure of homeostasis. For generations the political system of the United States had been able to maintain the peace, effectively dealing with the challenges to domestic tranquility that arose from debates over slavery by compromise over compromise. In 1861, that process failed and civil war ensued. Alternatively we can see the Civil War as an emergent property of the the free press, freedom of religion and democratic process as they dealt with fundamentally irreconcilable institutions (slavery in the South and free labor in the North).

So What

I don't know what caused the societies of the South to choose to try to continue slavery over emancipation, nor to choose war rather than compromise. Still it makes sense to think about that in case we might learn something to avoid the next Iraq, the next Viet Nam, or some even more serious mistake.

Some of the causes of war can not be changed, other can only be somewhat changed and with difficulty, and so are relatively easily changed.

One way to look at the Civil War is that it occurred because the people of the South lived with an evil institution, accepting that slaves were not only a powerless underclass but were less than human, people who could not become citizens, who counted as 3/5ths of a person for the census but could not vote at all. Indeed, many of their "men of God" defended the evil institution as divinely inspired, and those preachers were not expelled from their churches. Maybe Google is right -- "Don't be evil".

It did not help that the South had allowed itself to be ruled by a plutocracy, people whose wealth came from the slaves that they owned, people who naturally  enough used their political power to preserve the institution that had made them wealthy and that preserved their wealth.

If Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is right, society is learning to avoid violence including war. Perhaps we are somewhat less likely to make mistakes like those that brought the Civil War. But in my lifetime the United States has fought major wars: World War II, the Korean War, the was in Viet Nam, the Afghan War, and the War in Iraq. And that list does not include the minor invasions, police actions, and governments that were overthrown by covert action. Perhaps we need to do a lot better.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

I quote from Wikipedia: "The origins of the American Civil War lay in the complex issues of slavery, competing understandings of federalism, party politics, expansionism, sectionalism, tariffs, and economics."