Perceiving Gain Is Itself a Social Process

In his reaction to Robert Wright’s thoughtful response, Jonathan Sheehan takes issue with Wright’s assumption that “all players are free to define gain for themselves.” I, too, will critique that assumption, though from a different angle.

The processes that prevent us from trying to achieve particular gains may also distort perceptions about available opportunities. This is because the very social pressures that keep us from acting in our perceived self-interest also discourage us from articulating accurate knowledge about our opportunities. Hence, the body of information that determines whether we recognize or overlook any particular opportunity emerges through interconnected individual decisions concerning what to say, write, share, and intimate. In relaxed environments the publicly available information about opportunities corresponds to the perceptions in our heads. In emotionally charged and politically repressive environments, much useful information remains private and, hence, inaccessible to others. This makes it difficult to think straight and to identify potential gains accurately.

Once again, the final years of the Soviet Bloc offer a striking illustration. Prior to Gorbachev’s reforms of 1985 informed citizens of the Soviet Bloc refrained from criticizing official economic policies, for fear of reprisals. They also refrained from publicizing the gains achievable through privatization and liberalization. Under the circumstances, the majority of the population believed that communism offered a better future than capitalism. Once Gorbachev’s restructuring (perestroika) and openness (glasnost) campaigns got under way, people already conscious of the prevailing inefficiencies took to speaking their minds in increasing numbers. In the process, awareness of the advantages of reforms started to spread. Thus, two dramatic transformations unfolded in tandem: a meteoric rise in awareness of the potential gains from reforms and a vast expansion of public discourses pointing to those gains. Each transformation reinforced the other.

Why is this history relevant to the present challenge of improving Muslim-Western relations? Like Soviet Bloc players of the past, those engaged in present struggles over Muslim-Western relations “define gain” through interactions with others.  A Pakistani growing up in a Taliban-dominated region does not form his opinions about the costs and benefits of local policy options freely, or by himself. Likewise, the Christian who believes that a “zero-sum” religious war is under way does not learn about Islam in isolation from others. What these adversaries read, hear, investigate, and discuss is constrained by their respective social environments. Each is bombarded with information selected to support a particular perception of what is right and beneficial. And each is surrounded by people who are reluctant to question dominant opinions. Thus, where ignorance about the potential gains from Muslim-Western cooperation is widespread, a major reason is that information consistent with those gains is getting filtered out of critical public discourses.

Ignorance and misperception are hardly the preserves of the pious or the poorly educated. In rich countries many secular and well-educated people believe earnestly that agricultural subsidies protect the family farm; in fact, the benefits go overwhelmingly to huge corporations whose shareholders live mostly in cities. Many Western misperceptions about Islam and Islamic history, like Muslim misperceptions about the West, are shared by privileged elites.

These observations do not diminish the importance of publicizing the commonness of mutually beneficial interactions, in other words, of interactions with a positive-sum outcome. They do reinforce my earlier point that to reduce global tensions we must weaken the political coalitions that benefit from those tensions. Policies that split and weaken groups promoting a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, such as the Taliban and Christian churches hostile to Islam, make it easier for individuals to pursue potential gains that they already know about. They also facilitate learning about the enormous advantages of peaceful coexistence, trade, and cooperation.

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