Thanks yet again to all three respondents for a stimulating discussion. I’m sure my closing comments won’t do justice to your closing contributions, but I’ll try to respond to the most salient points.
I’m delighted to hear Richard Joyce agree that we all tend to form a negative image of threatening people and a positive image of people who might benefit us. I’d of course put a finer point on it: The “negative” or “positive” image formation involves subtle value judgments that (a) we’re often not aware of; and (b) may be unrelated to the nature of the threat or the benefit. Thus, we may negatively judge the clothing style or taste in music of someone who competes with us for a job—and may be unaware that these judgments are a function of the perceived threat.
And please note that the related argument I make in The Evolution of God goes well beyond this simple and (as Joyce suggests) fairly obvious fact about human psychology. That argument is twofold:
(1) These simple biases of judgment account for many of the belligerent and tolerant passages in the scripture of all three Abrahamic religions. And this in turn tells us something about how we might bring out the best and worst in religions today.
(2) These simple biases of judgment may impede comprehension of the forces that motivate our enemies.
And here I’d like to correct Joyce’s interpretation of me: “If I understand Wright correctly, he is not advocating that we extend our moral imagination to our real enemies; he is not arguing in his essay that we should overturn our unflattering and understanding-hindering antipathy towards terrorists.” Actually, I’m arguing exactly that (among other things). I think it’s in our interest to understand what circumstances created these terrorists—not so that we can then change circumstances to moderate their behavior (unlikely) but so that we can change circumstances in a way that reduces the chances that others who are now moderate will follow in their footsteps and become terrorists.
Joyce raises the interesting question of why I depict our unflattering view of enemies as more of a distortion than our flattering view of allies: “When we form a flattering image of an ally—when we choose to overlook his past misdemeanors, for example—why is this not equally a kind of distortion, a kind of inaccuracy in our thinking?” The answer is that I’m not talking about the moral judgment we render (e.g., whether we deem a given behavior a transgression) but rather about the cognitive process that biases us toward a given moral judgment. Our favorable moral judgments tend to be facilitated by successfully “putting ourselves in the shoes” of a given person-recalling feelings we’ve had (e.g., a sense of grievance at being disrespected) that are in fact comparable to the feelings that in this person motivated acts that might otherwise be deemed inexcusable. Our unfavorable moral judgments tend to be facilitated by denying such comparisons even when they exist. This isn’t an absolute pattern, but I maintain that it applies often enough so that we can say that on balance our views of the motivations of allies are literally truer than our views of the motivations of enemies. (Note that I’m confining the analysis to “misdeeds”—cases where the behavior to be explained is one that, in the absence of an exculpating motivation, would be deemed bad.)
As for what Joyce thought I was saying-that our favorable moral judgments of allies tend to be less distorted than our unfavorable moral judgments of enemies: I can see how this might seem implicit in the asymmetry I see in the cognitive processes leading to moral judgment. But in fact I have a somewhat different view, as suggested in an elaborative footnote to my chapter on the moral imagination. This quote from the footnote captures my sense that when it comes to moral judgments our skepticism should fall symmetrically on our views of enemies and allies:
Our moral judgments feel as if they’re evaluating the past in light of moral truth, but they were actually designed by natural selection to serve our future in light of strategic calculation. We unconsciously assess our zero-sum and non-zero-sum relationships, unconsciously decide whether payment will serve self-interest, and then our inner accountant generates the moral judgments that will justify the payment, or not… In this view, the moral imagination subordinates the truth about the actual moral facts to the larger goal of navigating the landscape of zero-sum and non-zero-sum relationships. It shrinks or expands in response to judgments about whether a relationship is auspicious and, if so, on what terms. Our ensuing convictions about who is to blame and who isn’t to blame are self-serving illusions.
Now for some quick and, perhaps, concise-to-the-point-of-cryptic reactions:
(1) I agree with Jonathan Sheehan that compassion can be carried too far (though, strictly speaking, I’m less interested in abetting compassion than in abetting its frequent corollary, a kind of empathetic illumination of the motivations behind acts).
(2) I agree with Timur Kuran that social factors outside of the core cognitive tendency I focus on can reinforce the bias I describe. (And, more broadly, I concur with all three respondents that things are invariably very complicated in the real world and that any game theoretical rendering-certainly including mine-will be an oversimplification. But there is such a thing as fruitful oversimplification.)
(3) Richard Joyce emphasizes the importance of intentionality, as distinct from the zero-sum vs. non-zero-sum distinction, saying that the former may have “nothing to do” with the latter. He writes: “If X is out to harm me intentionally then I’ll likely form a negative image of X; but if X hurts me by accident then I’ll be much more forgiving.” Yes, but I submit that the (Darwinian) reason we make this distinction is because intentional harm is an indicator of likely future zero-sum interaction with the person, whereas accidental harm is not. So the “negative image” and the forgiveness are appropriate responses to proxies for, respectively, zero-sum and non-zero-sum (or perhaps not-zero-sum) interaction.
I can hear Professor Joyce demanding that I corroborate this rank conjecture about the Darwinian logic underlying this reaction. Maybe another time. Right now all I have time to do is thank all three of you again.