Human interactions can be located on an axis running between two polar ideas, persuasion and aggression. I am not contending that this is the only way we can evaluate human action, only that it is a useful way. What do I mean by persuasion? Basically, this: When engaging in persuasion, I attempt to convince you that your situation will be better, in your own eyes, if we do interact than if we do not. (Now, just to clearly differentiate what I am talking about from fraud, I will note that I am using the word “persuasion” here to mean honest persuasion.) For example, suppose that you and I each live on our own isolated island, with the other person’s island the only land within sight. Further, we will imagine that neither of us can get to the other’s island due to the shark-infested waters in the area. It is quite possible that each of us might go about his business undisturbed by the existence of the other person. However, we happen to meet one day when each of us is at the shore. While we chat across the waves, I mention to you that there are many coconut trees on my island, but that I’m getting sick of eating coconuts. You respond that on your island there are many mango trees, and that you are fed up with eating mangoes. After further discussion, we agree that every day, around the same time, we will meet at the same place. I’ll bring a few coconuts and you will bring some mangoes. We will trade by tossing them to each other across the water. It seems obvious that each of us prefers interacting with the other to not doing so, since it is trivially easy for either of us completely to avoid the other. I am perfectly willing to leave you alone if you are uninterested in what I can offer you, and vice versa. By contrast, if I am engaged in aggression, I will attempt to force interaction on you without your consent. Often, I will try to convince you that I have the power and will to make your life worse if you refuse to interact with me on the terms I propose. Again, imagine our island meeting. But now, when I discover you have mangoes on your island, I demand that you throw me five per day. If
you do not, I tell you, I will lay in wait and kill you the next time I see you, perhaps by running you through with a spear. There certainly is an element of persuasion in such a threat: I must persuade you that I really intend to kill you if you don’t acquiesce, and that I have the ability to act on that intention. Yet the difference between our two examples is immense. In the case of the mango-coconut exchange, I am quite willing to leave you alone to go about your business as if we had never met, should my argument for exchange fail to persuade you. In the mangoes or death case, I am demanding that we interact. If you will not do so on the terms I set, I intend to interact with you by making your situation significantly worse than if you had never laid eyes on me. I don’t try to convince you that you would be better off than you are now if you give me mangoes, but rather that if you don’t give me mangoes, I can make you much worse off than you are now. More relevant to the world in which most of us actually live, where we are not isolated on our own island, consider two approaches I might take when trying to get my neighbor to come hear my next talk. On the one hand, I may attempt to persuade her that she would like it. I can try to convince her that I have her interests at heart, that the talk will be scintillating, or that she will learn to understand economics better if she comes. (Of course, if I tell her these things but I know they are false, I am engaged in fraud.) As long as I am willing to leave her alone when she says, “buzz off, loser,” I am engaged in persuasion. I don’t intend to make her life worse if she ignores me, but to make it better if she goes along with my suggestion. On the other hand, I could tell her that if she doesn’t come, I will have her killed. Then I am not suggesting to her that her life will be better if she interacts with me; I am saying that she has no choice but to interact with me, and that coming to the talk will be the least unpleasant interaction she can choose. What could be clearer than the enormous difference between these two ways of relating to others? Persuasion and aggression imply fundamentally different conceptions of other people: When I engage in persuasion I regard the other person as a free, intelligent actor, much as I regard myself. When employing aggression I regard the other as merely a means I might manipulate in order to achieve my ends, much as I would regard a stick or a rock. I conceive of three basic forms of aggression, although I admit that, as aggressive as I am, I may not have thought of them all: aggression by stealth, aggression by fraud, and aggression by committing or threatening violence. I could aggress against you using stealth, for example, by sneaking into your house while you were sleeping and stealing your food. Rather than persuading you to interact with me, I rely on hiding the fact that we did interact in planning my escapade. You will not be able to employ your intelligence in deciding whether or not to interact with me, because if I have my way you never will know that we did interact. This is different from the case where we interact in some sense, but so slightly that you don’t notice it. For example, if I barbecue in my yard, a few molecules of smoke might blow into your yard and be inhaled by you, without your ever being aware of it happening. In the case of theft, you certainly will notice, and
object to, what I’ve done: you will find that your food is missing! You just won’t know whom to “thank.” I fraudulently aggress against you if I hide my real intention while persuading you to interact with me. This type of aggression is why I qualified my use of “persuasion” as meaning “honest persuasion.” Fraud certainly does involve persuasion! But rather than persuading you that A will be to your benefit, then delivering A, I persuade you that you’d like A while secretly planning to deliver B. For example, in the island scenario we have been examining, I might propose that we exchange coconuts and mangoes. However, rather than tossing whole coconuts across to you, I tie back together the shells of coconuts from which I already have eaten the meat and drunk the milk. I persuade you to exchange coconuts for mangoes, but what we actually exchange is coconut shells for mangoes. The problem here is that I don’t allow you to employ your intelligence in choosing how to relate to me, because I have deceived you about my plans. Finally, I might aggress against you by employing violence or the threat of violence. We already have seen examples of that form of aggression, such as my threatening to skewer you if you don’t bring me mangoes.