Tolerance and the Limits of Non-Zero-Sum Thinking

Suppose you are walking along a deserted path in the mountains and meet a stranger traveling in the opposite direction. You are running low on food, but he has plenty. He is running low on water, but you have plenty. Thus, you are in a position to help each other out, to swap some water for some food, to play a non-zero-sum game. However, while you approach each other, you and the stranger are not playing any game at all—the game is mere potential. If you were so inclined, you could instead choose to play a zero-sum game with him: bopping him on the head, stealing everything he has, and leaving him for dead. Or he might choose to try that out on you. Or you could walk past each other with a polite nod and play no game at all.

From this little scenario there are a couple of simple but important lessons to draw. First, there is a huge difference between being in a position to potentially play a non-zero-sum game with someone and actually playing such a game. A phrase that Wright likes to use—”being in a non-zero-sum relation”—fudges this distinction; it is ambiguous between (A) two parties being in a position to exchange costs and benefits in a mutually beneficial manner, and (B) two parties actually engaged in doing so. It may be granted that the Western world and the Muslim world are well-positioned to engage in a fruitful non-zero-sum game; it doesn’t follow that they are so engaged.

The second point to draw attention to is that although it is easy to get transfixed by the idea that non-zero-sumness is a wonderful thing, we should not forget that it is not always superior to zero-sumness. From a purely material selfish point of view, you really might be better off bopping the stranger on the head and stealing all he owns (assuming he is no threat, assuming you can escape punishment, etc.). Of course, that would be a cruel and immoral way to behave, and I’m not seriously recommending such practices. All I’m saying is that, in terms of self-gain, when an individual has the option of choosing to play either a non-zero-sum game or a zero-sum game with someone, sometimes the former will be the optimal choice and sometimes the latter will be; it depends on many variables in the environment of interaction.

For all the importance that non-zero-sum games have had in the process of evolution and the rise of civilization, it is vital that we don’t apotheosize or sentimentalize the relation to the extent that we think “non-zero-sum = good” and “zero-sum = bad.” Exploiting the heck out of the other guy has also played a huge role in the process of evolution and the rise of civilization. Thus, even if it is granted for the sake of argument that the western world and the Muslim world are presently engaged in a grand non-zero-sum game, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is in the best interests of either party to continue in this manner. Should one party get the opportunity to crush the other and take the whole cake, it is entirely logically possible that this is what that party should do.

If that seems like a chilling conclusion, let me first stress that I am speaking wholly in the abstract; I am certainly not recommending any actual practice or policy. The chilling conclusion arises only if one is assessing game strategies purely in terms of self-gain—which is not an attitude I recommend. And yet it seems to be Wright’s attitude. He advocates tolerance towards the Muslim world on the grounds that tolerance begets understanding, and through understanding we can better prevent the ranks of terrorists from swelling, which will be “in the interests of westerners.” Now, let me emphasize first that I’m all for keeping the ranks of terrorists from swelling, and I’m all for tolerance and understanding of other cultures, even hostile ones. (For the record, my attitude towards the relations between the Western and Muslim worlds is that of a typical liberal, globalized, tolerant, Obama-voter—so much so that even using phrases like “the West” and “the Muslim world” makes me uneasy.) There is, however, something unsettling about attempting to justify these attitudes purely by an appeal to self-interest.

First of all, there are psychological limitations to what can be achieved by an appeal to self-interest. If I offer you a million dollars to utter the sentence “1+1=3″ I’m sure you’ll comply; but my money is likely to remain safely mine if I ask you to believe that 1+1=3. Similarly, we can be moved by self-interest to implement more tolerant behavior and policies; it is less obvious that an appeal to self-interest can get us to have a more tolerant attitudes and beliefs. If part of having a tolerant attitude is caring about the other party’s welfare in its own right, then attempting to foster that attitude by reference to our own potential gains will require a psychologically complex process, to say the least. (“It is in your best interests to adopt an attitude of not always privileging your own interests.”)

Secondly, justifying tolerance by appeal to self-interest is also morally troubling. If my sole ground for entering into a non-zero-sum game with someone is that doing so promises to reap rewards for me, then it has to be admitted that if I could reap a greater reward by crushing the other player then that is what I should do. Wright will object that the West’s interests are not served by “crushing the other player”—and I do not doubt that this is correct. My point is that we should be disturbed by the contingency of the answer: were the social environment to alter (a little? a lot?), an uncompromising pursuit of the zero-sum policy would, by the same prudential logic, be called for. One should be worried about a justificatory principle that could legitimize the carpet bombing of innocents even if, as a matter of fact, at the moment that principle is calling for group hugs all round. Call me a romantic if you will, but I would be more comfortable to see tolerance of others recommended on the grounds that they are human beings as deserving of dignity and consideration as anyone. Any temptation to add “…and we should grant them this dignity and consideration because ultimately it is in our own interests to do so” to my mind actually undermines the authority of the case.

I should like, also, to advise extreme caution in accepting Wright’s quick evolutionary account of why it was adaptive for our ancestors to be able to distinguish non-zero-sum from zero-sum games and respond accordingly. It’s easy to tell a Just So story about why having such a trait would have been reproductively useful; it is quite another thing to conclude that we really have some psychological machinery in place dedicated to this activity. By parody, it is easy to tell a story about why being able to weave baskets would have been extremely useful to our ancestors—no doubt it was incredibly useful—but we don’t on these grounds conclude that the human mind contains a dedicated psychological adaptation devoted to basket-weaving. Rather, the skill of basket-weaving arose from the happy confluence of other adaptive mechanisms—nimble fingers, hand-eye coordination, a planning mind, etc.—just as our ability to drive cars is made possible by a bunch of innate mechanisms but is not itself an innate adaptation. Indeed, the very fact that our ancestors’ extant traits sufficed to make possible basket-weaving means that there was no further selective pressure in favor of a dedicated basket-weaving psychological mechanism.

I would suggest that the same thing goes with respect to our ability to distinguish non-zero-sum interactions from zero-sum interactions and respond accordingly. After a certain point, our ancestors were already adept at publicly discussing matters, negotiating, resolving conflicts (or prosecuting them, as the case may be), spotting threats and opportunities, and so on. The fact that the suite of adaptations underlying these traits was sufficient to produce the skills of distinguishing non-zero-sum games from zero-sum games and responding accordingly shows that there existed no independent selective pressure in favor of the emergence of a psychological mechanism specifically devoted to the task. Someone who claims that there is such a mechanism needs to do much more than tell a plausible story about why such a skill would have been adaptive. He must provide empirical evidence—or at least indicate where we might look for empirical evidence in favor of the hypothesis. (For example, are there certain kinds of brain damage that selectively impair a person’s ability to distinguish non-zero-sum games from zero-sum games? Does this ability emerge suddenly in childhood, in a manner disproportionate to the child’s learning environment?)

Once more for the record: I am all in favor of tolerance among nations and religions, and I particularly despise the way that the western media portrays Muslim stereotypes. However, no matter how heartily I endorse the ends that Wright hopes to effect, as a philosopher my task is to critically examine the arguments he offers in support of those laudable ends–and here I have my doubts.

Richard Joyce is an International Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney and the author of The Evolution of Morality.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace by Robert Wright

    This month’s Cato Unbound features an essay drawn from The Evolution of God, the ambitious new book by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal. In this essay, Wright explores the relationship between “moral imagination” and the possibility of religious tolerance and social cooperation. Wright argues that moral imagination is part of our evolved mental machinery. When we see others as potentially cooperative, moral imagination is awakened to better grasp the needs and interests of partners and allies. But when we see ourselves caught in a zero-sum game with others, moral imagination, and thus sympathy and the spirit of toleration, shrinks as we prepare for a fight. Wright argues that the widespread perception that “the West” and “the Muslim world” are playing a zero-sum game is an illusion created by a misfire of moral imagination. The media’s relentless focus on the truculent acts of a small minority of Muslim extremists encourages the sense that the larger, more moderate Muslim world is much more hostile than it really is. But this sense narrows moral imagination, making it harder still to grap the possibility of cooperation and the point of toleration.

Response Essays

  • More than Imagination: Collective Processes and Individual Opportunities by Timur Kuran

    Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science and Gorter Family Chair in Islamic Studies at Duke University, finds insight in Wright’s account, but argues that it is insufficient to really explain the sense of conflict between many Muslims and the West. Kuran argues that displays of hostility in conformance with local expectations and social pressures can pay off handsomely. An expansive sense of possible of positive-sum relations with distant others does nothing to change the incentives that arise from collective processes at the local level. Not even suicide bombers require a false picture of zero-sum conflict. They may martyr themselves simply to bring status to their families. Wright’s neglect of the such alternative causes of cultural conflict, Kuran argues, leads him to offer advice of limited value.

  • The Game Is the Stake by Jonathan Sheehan

    Jonathan Sheehan, associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, touches base with Blaise Pascal and reminds us that explicit game theory was first deployed as a religious argument aimed at conversion. In secular terms, a convert is a gain for one sect but a loss for another. But in religious terms, as Augustine noted, even the harsh coercion of heretics can be viewed as non-zero-sum—the heretic, whether he thinks so or not, has Heaven to gain. So, Sheehan argues, “the real stakes of the game do not matter. Or, more precisely, the nature of the game is the real stake.” To characterize the game as in fact non-zero-sum, as Wright does, is to miss the real moral and political issue about how the stakes of the game will be determined in the face of deep disagreement about what the game is. “Modern conflicts between ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslims,’” Sheehan concludes, “have less to do with misfiring mental machinery, and more to do with the absence of any recognized authority for determining the kinds of games we are playing, and which interests should count in them.”

The Conversation