The Many Games People Play

Let’s think a bit more about this game idea. If you assume, as Wright says he does, that “all players are free to define gain for themselves,” then you are making things too easy on yourself, I think.

In the first instance, Wright’s book is aimed at persuading us that in fact we do (or at least can) have a non-zero-sum relationship with Muslims, and vice versa. As such, it needs to affirm the objective reality of gain, right? If the merchant in his thought experiment were paid with counterfeit bills, for example, we would hardly call this a non-zero-sum game, even if the merchant were perfectly satisfied with the deal.

In an economic model, you can argue that this will work itself out: as soon as the merchant takes his gains to the bank, he’ll realize that the game was zero-sum. How? Because the bank will tell him that, in fact, the money was fake. But in the real political world, this last instant of evaluation never takes place. The values and interests that are being exchanged are not commensurable, and there is no bank to pass the judgment.

Take, for example, the loaded issue of Islam and women’s rights. Forgetting about the Taliban, let’s just look at contemporary France.

Over here, Americans are totally incredulous at the head scarf ban. For us, it makes religious difference into a zero-sum game, forcing women to choose between their religious beliefs and the benefits of state education. Why not just let them choose for themselves? Wouldn’t everyone benefit if the state just stayed out of the way?

The answer, if you are French (or a certain stripe of French), is “no.” They would argue (disingenuously or not, it does not matter) that women are not choosing, but are forced to conform by their husbands and fathers. Our non-zero-sum game, in other words, is really a zero-sum game.

Moreover, they would insist, French citizenship entails a strict secularism: public culture must be free of religious symbolism, since this latter always interferes with the free exercise of civic rights and responsibilities. Secularism is, in other words, a good to the French state whose value is diminished by head-scarves in schools.

The US, on the other hand, simply does not care if parents force their children to wear scarves, or sandals, or anything else. We don’t put any value on protecting people’s rights not to be religiously coerced in this way. Nor do we put any value on secularism—it simply does not weigh into the calculations we make about the nature of the game.

So, does the head-scarf ban violate Muslim women’s rights? Well, from where I stand, personally, yes. And certainly for many Muslim women in France, the answer is the same. But this is because I am committed to a certain concept of a “right,” and one that systematically excludes others. More than that, my notion of right destroys other notions, insisting that their value is, politically speaking, nothing, or so little as not to need addressing.

This is not a bad thing. This is just how it is.  Note, however, that two games are being played at the same time in France, a non-zero-sum game (for French secularists) and a zero-sum game (for their opponents). The game goes on, despite their fundamental disagreements about its rules. Luckily, this disagreement does not just disappear. Instead, it remains important, and it conducted through politics, the struggle over the nature of the game.

And politics has distinct winners and losers. Not always, of course, but usually, and especially when dealing with things that really matter. Secularists will have to sacrifice something precious—a certain concept of citizenship—to grant the right that I feel is due to Muslim women, and they will not get anything in exchange.

Like Wright, then, I don’t have any hope for some final authority to determine how games are played between us and them. But also I have little hope that strong differences of value can be magically transformed into non-zero-sum games without loss and political conflict. “Rights,” “markets,” and the “rule of law,” just to name three, are not universal currencies. Rather, they are systems of value that aggressively challenge other ones. Realizing this—realizing what exactly we are asking people to give up to play our game—is, it seems to me, the real act of moral imagination that we face.

In another post, I want to take up explicitly the evolutionary model of religion, but this will have to do for now.

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

  • Tolerance and the Limits of Non-Zero-Sum Thinking by Richard Joyce

    In his reply to Robert Wright’s lead essay, philosopher Richard Joyce, author of The Evolution of Morality, emphasizes the distinction between potentially and actually engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation. That “the West” could be in a non-zero-sum game with the “Muslim world” doesn’t imply it is actually in one. Moreover, Joyce argues, “non-zero-sum” and “good” do not mean the same thing from the perspective of an individual’s or group’s interest. If there is gain to be had from conflict, reason may recommend it. Tolerance and understanding are wonderful, Joyce agrees. But he finds something “unsettling” and “morally troubling” in what he takes to be Wright’s “[attempt] to justify these attitudes purely by an appeal to self-interest.” There are psychological limits to what appeals to self-interest can accomplish, and the congruence of self-interest and cooperation is far from certain in many cases. Additionally, Joyce suspects that Wright may be guilty of a weakly supported conjecture when he posits an evolved adaptation for distinguishing between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games.

  • 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