Adam Smith once commented that people, “though naturally sympathetic, feel little for another, with whom they have no particular connection, in comparison of what they feel for themselves.” He was onto something there. No doubt, as Wright suggests, it is much more difficult to think sympathetically about scholar A, whose theories and ambitions recklessly threaten my own and, than scholar B, the charming protégé.
So I agree entirely that it is easier to put up with even bad behavior from those who seem to offer more in benefits than in costs. More significantly–for Wright and for myself–I also agree that relationships of mutual exchange (of ideas, of values, even of currency) can expand the compass of the moral imagination.
Events in Iran these past few days have, I think, accomplished something like this for Americans. Fears of a nuclear Middle East have been overshadowed, in our minds (or in mine anyway), by the incredible bravery of Iranian men and women confronting the brutality of a police state. I can imagine myself in their shoes, and even things that might have seemed alien before–the nightly chants of “God is great” from the rooftops–are suddenly made sympathetic and moving.
My concerns are not, then, about these dynamics of sympathy and antipathy. Rather, like Timur Kuran, I am concerned about how we extrapolate beyond psychological mechanisms, either to the social world (in Kuran’s response) or to the political one (in my own).
For it seems to me that compassion easily becomes absorption. It becomes a way to frame one’s pragmatic interests as if they were the interests of another. Few histories testify more clearly to this than the histories of religion, where extension of the “we” has, more often than not, played a powerfully aggressive role.
Christians have been trying to compassionately absorb the Jews for millennia, for example, and they are still doing it today. The Jew cannot simply ask the Christian to give up on conversion, however, as if this would be an easy thing. Conversion is something essential to the Christian project, and giving it up would be a major sacrifice, a major blow the self-interest of the Christian.
Instead Jews have endlessly struggled against this deadly compassion. And this struggle–this insistence that what the Christian sees as a good (conversion), the Jew sees as an affliction–is more than psychological. It is political, and importantly so.
I’d like, then, to put this question to Wright: how does the game theory model accommodate politics, and especially the politics that attend real divergences in worldview and even existential needs? When something important must be sacrificed to reach agreement with another, in other words, what does the gaming model have to offer? Does it teach us how we should make difficult moral and political choices, or does it rather (as I confess that I suspect) tend to hide these choices behind appealing but thin façades of mutual interest?