Response to the Responses

Thanks to all three scholars for taking the time to read and critique the excerpt from my book The Evolution of God. A few thoughts in response:

Richard Joyce’s critique has convinced me that I should have been clearer about a few things. In particular: I’m not, as he asserts, “[morally] justifying tolerance by appeal to self-interest.” I’m trying to sell the idea of tolerance to, e.g., Americans on grounds that it would be in their self-interest. To the extent that I would morally justify tolerance, it would be on the utilitarian grounds that symmetrical tolerance will increase overall welfare. (And I might locate a slightly different kind of justification for tolerance in my view that tolerance can entail a literally truer view of the other—truer in a sense that space doesn’t permit me to spell out.) This clarification renders some of Joyce’s critique moot—at least as a critique of my views, though his analysis is valuable in clarifying various issues (and in convincing me that I haven’t been clear enough).

Joyce also complains that I’m telling a “just-so story” in suggesting that, as he accurately paraphrases me, it “was adaptive for our ancestors to be able to distinguish non-zero-sum from zero-sum games and respond accordingly.” He says that “someone who claims that there is such a mechanism needs to do much more than tell a plausible story about why such a skill would have been adaptive.” I beg to differ. I think I should be free to toss out a hypothesis on the basis of little evidence and then let people argue about it. That’s how a lot of progress in science has started. As it happens, in this case there is evidence that I could have invoked but didn’t–e.g., a large empirical literature on reciprocal altruism (i.e. on psychological mechanisms conducive to playing non-zero-sums) and on the derogation of rivals (i.e. on opinions we express and/or believe regarding people we perceive ourselves to be playing a zero-sum game with). There is also a large literature suggesting that our close relatives, chimpanzees, quite naturally distinguish between zero-sum (rivalrous) and non-zero-sum (coalitional) relationships and seem to have a suite of tactically appropriate behavioral responses. Though it’s not impossible that these behaviors result from conscious calculation, it seems much more likely that they are governed fundamentally by emotions; and it’s not very easy for me to imagine a plausible scenario in which these emotions, in so functioning, aren’t biological adaptations (i.e., aren’t “designed” by natural selection to facilitate the successful playing of non-zero-sum and zero-sum games).

Jonathan Sheehan is definitely right that the various players in a game may differ on the question of what constitutes a gain for each. My essay implicitly assumes that all players are free to define gain for themselves. Thus when I buy something the exchange is non-zero-sum because I would rather have the merchandise than the money and the merchant would rather have the money than the merchandise; our respective opinions about our own welfare are all that matters, and any objective “truth” about the value of the merchandise is irrelevant.

Sheehan concludes that “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.” Well, I can certainly imagine a recognized authority with enough influence to settle these conflicts—but in most cases I can’t imagine such an authority showing up in the real world anytime soon. And, in the absence of such an authority, it seems to me that the mental machinery of the players is almost by definition central to solving the conflict (though whether I’m right that the machinery is misfiring is of course another question altogether).

Timur Kuran seems right to say that the terrorism-fomenting zero-sum perceptions I focus on are neither necessary nor sufficient to foment terrorism (though, obviously, I think they’re often very important). I find particularly valuable his emphasis on the social dynamics within Muslim societies, something he knows more about than I do. I’d be interested in his reaction to the speculation that sometimes the problem can be framed this way: The object of the game is to (a) get Muslim elites to view relations with the West as non-zero-sum (a task that in many cases has already been accomplished) and (b) get non-elites in that society to view their relations with these elites as non-zero-sum.

If that sounds too abstract, let me try to concretize it by reference to the fairly common phenomenon of populist nationalism. Populist nationalists gain traction by convincing lower-income people that they stand in a zero-sum relationship with some upper-income people who are gaining from non-zero-sum relations on the international front. The accusation, in other words, is that the upper class is doing business with foreigners at the expense of their lower-income compatriots. When attending international gatherings designed to soothe tensions between “the West” and the “Muslim world,” I’ve often noticed that the Muslim elites in attendance have abundantly cosmopolitan values, but I’ve wondered if they are resented by many non-elites in their societies, a resentment that then translates into anti-cosmopolitanism and anti-Westernism.

Thanks again to everyone.

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.”