The Game Is the Stake

Author’s Note: Wright’s piece published by Cato Unbound is valuably read with his companion essay in the Atlantic, especially by anyone interested in the powerful religious arguments that he advances. I’ve taken the liberty of reacting to both, in hopes of putting the specifically religious questions on the table.


The first explicitly game-theoretical argument ever written began like this: “God is, or He is not…. to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here…. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager?”

The French mathematician Blaise Pascal–for he was the author, of course, and the date, 1660—answered simply. “Wager without hesitation that He is,” for there is “an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain,” but only “a finite number of chances of loss.”

What was Pascal after? Simply put, conversion. He offered the wager as a gift of Christian charity to the unbeliever. This charity he modeled on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “for Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” The doubtful would trip over his wager, Pascal hoped, and tumble through conversion into belief.

Importantly, conversion was never a morally neutral project, neither for him nor Paul. Adding another Christian to the world doubtless served the Christian community. But at heart of the conversion impulse was (and is) the conviction that the moral profit belongs to the new believer. The moral game of Christian conversion, in other words, is non-zero sum: the evangelist benefits, and so does the evangelee.

Few saints were as clear (and ruthless) on this point as Augustine of Hippo. In a brief arguing for the Roman imperial suppression—he called it a “correction”—of the sect of heretic Christians known as Donatists, he compared them to raging madmen, who hate the physicians that would restore them to health. What they call violence and persecution, Augustine noted, is actually therapy for the sick soul. The “Church of Christ… persecutes in the spirit of love,” he wrote. What greater act of charity than recalling men from the path of destruction and turning them to God?

Here’s the point: zero sum and non-zero sum relationships depend on where you stand. The Donatists, ground under the imperial boot, found themselves playing a zero-sum game. Augustine’s gain was their loss, and catastrophically so, as things turned out. From Augustine’s perspective, however, this was not true at all. What they lost, according to him, was Hell. And what they got was Heaven.  No doubt Augustine did pretty well for himself, preserving a unified Christian church. But the Donatists came out ahead too, getting an infinitely valuable moral good—access to saving truths—plus the value of true Christian community.  Everybody benefits, right?


Augustine tells us, I think, something interesting about Wright’s gaming model of the moral imagination. The real stakes of the game do not matter. Or, more precisely, the nature of the game is the real stake. Augustine insisted he was playing a non-zero sum game. A Donatist could not possibly agree, and still remain a Donatist. For them, the difference between zero sum and non-zero sum games was the difference between life and death. The entire struggle turned on the question: what kind of game are we playing?

This was true for Pascal too. Given his argument, even his seventeenth-century peers saw, any promise of infinite goods, however microscopically plausible, would demand your assent. But this weakness in the model didn’t really matter. Pascal was not trying to persuade you of anything specific about God. Rather, his was an effort to persuade you to believe in the game in the first place. Once you commit to the idea of infinite goods—once you start playing Pascal’s game—the game is already over.

And this seems to be true now as well. In his essay, Wright insists that in fact Muslims and Americans have common interests, and for this reason, we should believe in our non-zero sum relationship. In his naturalist language, we would just let the mental “machinery work as designed” and extend moral imagination to people with whom, in fact, our relationship is non-zero sum.

But I don’t see how this “common interest” can be neutrally adjudicated. We may have common interests, indeed. Or maybe not. Or, most likely of all, some are common, and some not. Our vision of political stability, say, may not be their vision of political stability. Even this is too easy: “they” is no doubt a stoutly plural category, with as many different political interests as there are interested parties. The same would go for other interests—economic, social, moral, and religious goods—which themselves are competition with each other. No matter what, though, there is no neutral calculus for converting one interest into another, or weighing one against another. Only cash is fluidly convertible, not interests.

The crucial question, then, is whether we believe that we are playing a non-zero sum game.  And, even more crucially, whether we can persuade others to believe that they too are playing such a game. And Wright recognizes this, I think. His sense that “transactional trust” rested on faith, in ancient times, rather than accurate perception, broadly testifies to this. In modern times, in his view, this trust is fading, the machine is “misfiring,” because modern media are getting in the way, and persuading us to view (real) non-zero sum relations as zero sum relations. Hence the unnecessary conflict between America and the Muslims. Hence too the need for his book, to persuade us (and others) to believe in the non-zero sumness of things.

Persuasion comes in different forms, though. Like Wright, Pascal hoped that his written arguments would win the favor of a public, and change the world. Augustine had more efficient means at his disposal. After all, his letter of correction was addressed to a man named Boniface, the Roman military tribunal charged with the enforcement of anti-Donatist laws in north Africa. Augustine, as it turns out, was here not trying to persuade the Donatists at all. Rather, he wanted to persuade the most powerful empire on earth that the game was non-zero sum, and that it should start knocking some Donatist heads. For their own good, of course.

We might scoff at the transparency of Augustine’s self-interest, but force and politics often decide the nature of the game. Since the beginning, truth be told, modern toleration talk has always depended on authority to enforce the kinds of games at play. John Locke’s 1689 Letter on Toleration, for example, sounds a peaceful note. Anyone “may employ as many exhortations and arguments as he pleases, towards the promoting of another man’s salvation,” but “all force and compulsion are to be forborn.” Locke sought to demolish the Augustinian moral game, to transform the non-zero sum (persecution in the spirit of love) into a zero sum (persecution is just persecution).

But what had the means to do this? Only a powerful state with the monopoly on violence, among whose prerogatives it is to determine what kinds of games are being played with what kinds of interests. It is the state that steps in and determines which interests have trumping power, and which do not. I might firmly believe that forcing you to go to church is a non-zero-sum game (since you would accrue infinite benefits), but the state tells me that I may not, because that is not how the game can be played.

This may sound like a good thing, and certainly it was for some. But definitely not if you happened to be Catholic, exactly those people who “have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate,” in Locke’s world, because of their commitment to papal supremacy. For Catholics, the non-zero-sum game of toleration organized by the modern British state was entirely a zero-sum game. They lost and the Protestants won, and it would take another 150 years before they would be granted a semblance of civil and political equality. And this was not an aberration of the system, but a sign of its smooth operation.

We might go a number of directions here, but I want to conclude with this suggestion: modern conflicts between “the West” and “the Muslims” 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. Settling the nature of the game, I suspect, will take more than appeals to a naturalized moral imagination. It will take hard political choices, whose costs will be significant, both to “us” and to “them.” Admitting this up front seems the least we can do, speaking here from the center of our own most powerful of nations.

Jonathan Sheehan is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.”