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.