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Three Levels of Conflict Resolution

The Three Levels of Conflict Resolution: Morality, Politics and Direct Action

Life is full of conflicts. A conflict occurs whenever individuals or groups have competing goals. This article is mainly concerned with conflicts between human beings, but it does make comparisons with other animals.

Most conflicts between humans appear in the context of a human society. An exception would be when two individuals are stranded together on a desert island. Methods of conflict resolution can be classified according to the degree to which the outcome is determined by the context of the surrounding society.


Morality is a set of rules used for resolving conflicts which almost everyone in society agrees with. It is therefore the highest level of conflict resolution.


Politics is the process of getting as many people as possible on your side. The general idea is that the more people you can get to agree with you, the more chance you have of being the winner.

Direct Action

Direct action refers to methods of conflict resolution that either ignore or positively avoid interaction with society external to the parties in the conflict (of course a large scale conflict may involve everyone in a society, in which case there is no one external to the conflict). It is therefore the lowest level of conflict resolution.

Some Examples

I have a nice television set. You would like to have my television set. At the level of morality we say that is wrong to steal. At the level of politics we vote for laws which make it illegal to steal. At the level of direct action, you break into my house when I'm not at home and you steal my television set.

I have some food, you are starving. You want some of my food. At the level of morality we realise that it is wrong to let a starving man die. At the level of politics we vote for progressive taxation and social welfare. At the level of direct action you just take my food.

Interaction Between Levels

Each level depends on the levels below it. Morality resolves conflicts because it implies that there is an overwhelming consensus in favour of the moral rules. A moral consensus implies that the outcome of a political battle is predetermined. Politics resolves conflicts because it is assumed that a larger group will win a fight with a smaller group. When the assumption is tested in practice, then you may have some type of war or revolution on your hands.

Understanding this dependence can help us to avoid unpleasant surprises. Moral rules do not exist by themselves. They only exist if most people believe in them, and if a large number of people are prepared to go to some trouble to enforce those rules. Politics only works if it can ultimately be translated into direct action.

Circumstances can change for a number of reasons. People change their minds about what is important. New technology can increase or decrease the effectiveness of different types of direct action. A moral rule can disappear just because it is unenforceable. Those who think that morality is a fixed set of rules are constantly under the impression that morality is "breaking down". They are a bit like those people who think language is meant to be fixed, in which case English, or whatever language they speak, appears to be constantly "breaking down".

In western societies we tend to think of politics in the context of western democracy. But politics is relevant even in undemocratic societies, as long as gaining the support of a group has some relevance to resolving a conflict. In some cases political action in a democracy can result in the destruction of that same democracy. For example someone may convince a substantial minority that it is worth going to considerable trouble to wrest power from the majority that support the existing system. For this reason, even citizens of a democracy have to be constantly on their toes. They must also be careful to avoid the "tyranny of the majority", just in case a beleaguered minority feels that it is forced to fight back outside the ballot box.

Most of what people call "moral issues" are actually conflicts whose resolution is not quite based on morality because the overwhelming consensus required does not exist.

War is often regarded as being immoral, because it involves whole societies performing actions against each other which would be regarded as obviously immoral if carried out between individuals within a society. But if we define morality in terms of overwhelming consensus, then we can see that it does not make sense to say that war is immoral. Because if there was an overwhelming consensus against it, you would not have a war in the first place. It may make sense for a large community of nations to define a war as immoral if it only involves a very small proportion of the total number of nations. So civil war is "bad", but world war is OK.

World war can seem like an immoral idea when we are not having a world war, but if we are not having a world war then that is quite consistent with the hypothesis that an overwhelming majority of people in the world are currently against the idea of a world war. A world war can also be defined as immoral if it is somehow instigated by a very small minority of individuals in the world, i.e. by those at the "top" without any consultation from those "below". But if we are having a world war, and a large number of people in the countries involved in the war are in favour of continuing to fight, then in that circumstance it does not make any sense to say that the war is immoral.

Animal Comparisons

Morality as we know it is largely restricted to humans, because moral rules must be stated in human language. Politics is also largely a human phenomenon, as it also generally involves individuals communicating to large numbers of other individuals via human language. The book "Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes", by Frans de Waal, does describe strong evidence that a certain proportion of chimpanzee social activity carried out by males jockeying for the position of "alpha" male can be regarded as politics.

On the other hand, conflict resolution at the level of direct action, or the immediate threat of direct action, occurs all the time in the animal world, and does not depend at all on a language capability. In the human world language is still relevant when members of a group cooperate with each other to take direct action against an individual or individuals outside the group.

A Better Understanding of Conflict Resolution

When we realise that morality, politics and more direct means of conflict resolution do not exist completely independently of each other, we can develop a better understanding of what happens in actual conflicts. These may be conflicts that happen to us personally, or ones that we hear about in the news. We can look for all three levels of conflict resolution, and we can also look for the interactions between the different levels. With a better analysis we may be better able to predict the final outcome of the ongoing conflicts that we observe, and even influence the outcomes to be more in our own favour than would otherwise be the case.