The essay below is an adapted excerpt from my new book The Evolution of God. It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum.
This excerpt is a chapter that comes near the end of the book, after I’ve made an argument that, at the risk of oversimplification, boils down to this: In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process.
For most of the book I make this argument by reference to the past. I tell the story of the Abrahamic God as he passes through three thresholds: the emergence of monotheism in ancient Israel, the emergence of Christianity, and the emergence of Islam. I argue that, during all these phases, fluctuations between tolerant and belligerent scriptures—in both the Judeo-Christian Bible and in the Koran—largely reflect fluctuations between zero-sum and non-zero-sum situations (or, strictly speaking, between the perception of zero-sumness and the perception of non-zero-sumness).
With the chapter excerpted below, the book becomes forward looking. It addresses such questions as (a) whether dynamics in the modern world are sufficiently non-zero-sum to in principle foster greater tolerance among the Abrahamic faiths; (b) whether, if so, this principle will indeed be translated into practice. In the process the chapter raises questions about whether human psychology naturally impedes comprehending the true motivations of enemies, even when this comprehension would be in our interest; and (c) whether such comprehension would entail absolving enemies of blame for their actions.
Our Misfiring Mental Machinery
You might not guess it to read the headlines, but by and large the relationship between “the West” and “the Muslim World” is non-zero-sum. To be sure, the relationship between some Muslims and the West is zero-sum. Terrorist leaders have aims that are at odds with the welfare of Westerners. The West’s goal is to hurt their cause, to deprive them of new recruits and of political support. But if we take a broader view—look not at terrorists and their supporters but at Muslims in general, look not at radical Islam but at Islam—the “Muslim world” and the “West” are playing a non-zero-sum game; their fortunes are positively correlated. And the reason is that what’s good for Muslims broadly is bad for radical Muslims. If Muslims get less happy with their place in the world, more resentful of their treatment by the West, support for radical Islam will grow, so things will get worse for the West. If, on the other hand, more and more Muslims feel respected by the West and feel they benefit from involvement with it, that will cut support for radical Islam, and Westerners will be more secure from terrorism.
This isn’t an especially arcane piece of logic. The basic idea is that terrorist leaders are the enemy and they thrive on the discontent of Muslims—and if what makes your enemy happy is the discontent of Muslims broadly, then you should favor their contentment. Obviously. Indeed this view has become conventional wisdom: if the West can win the “hearts and minds” of Muslims, it will have “drained the swamp” in which terrorists thrive. In that sense, there is widespread recognition in the West of the non-zero-sum dynamic.
But this recognition hasn’t always led to sympathetic overtures from Westerners toward Muslims. The influential evangelist Franklin Graham declared that Muslims don’t worship the same god as Christians and Jews and that Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion.” That’s no way to treat people you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with! And Graham is not alone. Lots of evangelical Christians and other Westerners view Muslims with suspicion, and view relations between the West and the Muslim world as a “clash of civilizations.” And many Muslims view the West in similarly win-lose terms.
So what’s going on here? Where’s the part of human nature that was on display in ancient times—the part that senses whether you’re in the same boat as another group of people and, if you are, fosters sympathy for or at least tolerance of them?
It’s in there somewhere, but it’s misfiring. And one big reason is that our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was designed for a hunter-gatherer environment, not for the modern world. That’s why dealing with current events wisely requires strenuous mental effort—effort that ultimately, as it happens, could bring moral progress.
Processing the Clash of Civilizations
If you are a Christian or Jew in, say, the United States, and you’re trying to come to terms with the “Muslim world,” much if not most of your input is electronic. You may not encounter many Muslims in real life, but you see them on TV. So your feelings toward Muslims in general depend largely on which Muslims wind up on TV.
For starters, there’s Osama bin Laden. His interests are sharply opposed to America’s interests, so if American minds are working as designed, they should sense this zero-sumness and react with antipathy and moral revulsion. And that is indeed the standard reaction.
And what about bin Laden’s foot soldiers—the people who actually commit the acts of terrorism? If anything, the Western relationship with them is even more unalterably zero-sum than with bin Laden. Bin Laden, after all, is at some level a rational actor. He seems to want to stay alive and hold on to prominence, and sometimes goals like that lead people toward compromise. Some terrorist foot soldiers don’t even seem to want to stay alive. So certainly when Westerners look at terrorists and view them with antipathy and intolerance, the mental equipment is working as designed: Westerners are sensing a stubborn zero-sum dynamic and reacting aptly.
Of course, terrorists and their leaders are a pretty small subset of Muslims. If you’re going to develop an attitude toward the “Muslim world,” it would be nice to have more data points. What other Muslims show up on TV? Well, there were the thousands of Muslims protesting in sometimes violent fashion the publication of cartoons of Muhammad. And every once in a while you see a clip of Iranian Muslims burning the American flag.
Here, too, the images evoke reactions of antipathy, and here, too, this reaction would seem to make sense. Surely burning a country’s flag suggests that you see your relationship to it as antagonistic, as zero-sum—and that you’re unlikely to warm up to it anytime soon. And people so fervent as to get riled up over a cartoon don’t look like plausible negotiating partners, either. In mustering antipathy toward these seemingly confirmed foes, the mind is working as designed.
But is it working well? Is antipathy toward Muslims who seem opposed to Western values, if not the West itself, really in the interest of Westerners? Maybe not, for two reasons.
The first is fairly obvious. You could call it the Franklin Graham reason. Antipathy toward radical Muslims you see on TV could lead you to retaliate rhetorically in a broad-brush way and say things offensive to all Muslims. You might, for example, call Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.” This may alienate Muslims who aren’t yet cartoon protesters or flag burners but would be more likely to burn a flag post-alienation.
There’s a second reason why antipathy toward flag burners and cartoon protesters may make for bad strategy, and it’s less obvious.
If one of The Evolution of God’s main premises is correct—if scriptural interpretation is obedient to facts on the ground—then flag burners and cartoon protesters who are acting under the influence of radical religious ideas came under that influence for a reason. Somewhere in the past are facts that account for their interpretation of their faith. And even if that interpretation has become basically unshakable—even if every flag burner and cartoon protester is beyond changing—there would still be virtue in finding out what those facts are. After all, keeping more moderate Muslims from joining the ranks of the exercised would be nice, and knowing what circumstances made the exercised Muslims exercised might aid that task. By the same token, it would be nice to understand why suicide bombers become suicide bombers—not so we could help them become moderates (good luck!), but so we could keep moderates from becoming them.
And here is the problem with feeling antipathy toward those cartoon protesters, flag burners, and even suicide bombers. It isn’t that pouring lots of sympathy on them would help things. (In some ways it could hurt.) It’s that, because of the way the human mind is built, antipathy can impede comprehension. Hating protesters, flag burners, and even terrorists makes it harder to understand them well enough to keep others from joining their ranks.
The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside.
So what do things look like from the inside? Consider a case where an interior view is available—the case of a good friend. Your friend tells you about an arrogant prima donna at work who drives her nuts, and you are reminded of an arrogant prima donna in high school—the football star, the valedictorian—who drove you nuts. With a friend this process can be automatic: you scour your memory for shared points of reference and so vicariously feel her grievance. It’s part of the deal that sustains your symbiotic relationship: you validate her gripes, she validates yours. You work toward a common perspective.
This is the work you aren’t inclined to do with rivals and enemies. They complain about some arrogant prima donna, and you just can’t relate. (Why are they such whiners?) And that’s of course especially true when they say—as a rival or enemy might—that you are an arrogant prima donna. Then you certainly aren’t struck by the parallels with that prima donna in your high school.
So too on the geopolitical stage: if you are a patriotic American, and people who are burning an American flag say America is arrogant, that prima donna probably won’t spring to mind.
This doesn’t mean you’re at a loss to explain their behavior, or totally blind to their interior lives. When you see people burning flags and they look enraged, you can, even while hating them, correctly surmise that somewhere within them lies rage. You may also grant that flag burners perceive America as arrogant. But you don’t relate to this perception, so you can still characterize them in unflattering terms. You say they are driven by “resentment” of American power and “envy” of American success. And, since envy and resentment aren’t noble motivations, the moral coloration of the situation suggests it’s the flag burners who are to blame. And because America isn’t to blame, you resist the idea that it should change its behavior.
At this point in the discussion, if not sooner, an ominous question is often asked: Wait a minute—are you saying America is an arrogant prima donna? Are you saying that America, not the flag burner, is to blame for the burning of the flags? The question has even more bite if you’re talking about terrorists: Are you saying America was to blame for 9/11? After all, that’s what it would seem like if you really got inside the mind of a terrorist.
The short answer is no. But it’s a “no” with an asterisk, a “no” in need of elaboration–and, since the elaboration is a bit arcane, I’ve relegated it to an online appendix. It’s recommended reading, because if you buy the argument it may radically alter your view of the world. But for now the point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.
In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.
It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.
In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.
In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.
And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.
It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.
Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.
And this is what often fails to happen. The bulk of Westerners and the bulk of Muslims are in a deeply non-zero-sum relationship, yet by and large aren’t very good at extending moral imagination to one another.
So a machine that was designed to serve our interests is misfiring. The moral imagination was built to help us discriminate between people we can do business with and people we can’t do business with—to expand or contract, respectively. When Americans fail to extend moral imagination to Muslims, this is their unconscious mind’s way of saying, “We judge these people to be not worth dealing with.” Yet most of them are worth dealing with.
We’ve already seen one reason for this malfunction. Technology is warping our perception of the other player in this non-zero-sum game. The other player is a vast population of Muslims who, though perhaps not enamored of the West, don’t spend their time burning flags and killing Westerners. But what we see on TV—and what we may conflate with this other player—is a subset of Muslims who truly, and perhaps irreversibly, hate the West. We accurately perceive the stubborn hostility of the latter and our moral imagination contracts accordingly, but in the process it excludes the former.
Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God (from which this essay is drawn), a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, and editor-in-chief of Bloggingheads TV.