A Plea for Introspection

Thanks to all three of you for your latest round of feedback.

So far we haven’t spent much time on what I view as the heart of my essay, and I’m wondering if I can lure you three into an introspective thought experiment that bears directly on it.

First, a recap: I argued that when we perceive people in zero-sum terms (e.g., as enemies), our mind naturally impedes clear comprehension of their motivations—especially the motivations behind behaviors we find particularly objectionable. Thus, we have trouble “putting ourselves in the shoes” of terrorists and so shedding light on the causes of terrorism, even though understanding those causes might be in our interest.

I haven’t yet won any of you over to this thesis, so, in a last-ditch effort, I’d like to see if a little introspection could make you more sympathetic to it. And, assuming this effort fails in that regard, maybe your reactions will help clarify exactly where most of the resistance lies.

OK, here’s the thought experiment:

Scenario 1: First, imagine yourself in the kind of zero-sum game that scholars sometimes find themselves in—a relationship with a scholar whose theories are fundamentally incompatible with your own. To the extent that his/her theories gain followers, your own stature within academia suffers. Imagine that the debate between you has gotten prominent and intense. And imagine that you both have your eyes on a single tenured position at a particularly prestigious university.

Scenario 2: Now imagine yourself in a highly non-zero-sum relationship—with, say, a junior scholar who shares your views and spends his/her time singing your praises and pointing to the flaws in the thinking of the rival described in Scenario 1.

Tell me if these seem like outlandish conjectures:

(1) In thinking about the rival, your mind fastens onto unflattering features more readily than flattering features, and in the case of your ally this pattern is reversed. Thus if you learn that, coincidentally, both your rival and your ally (a) last year donated $1,000 to help feed the poor and (b) once cheated on a final exam, you’re more likely to remember and repeat (a) in the case of your ally than in the case of your rival.

(2) In pondering the cheating incident, you’ll be more receptive to exonerating information (e.g. extenuating circumstances) in the case of the ally than in the case of the rival. In particular, you more readily relate your own experience to the ally’s experience—e.g., you compare the temptations that overwhelmed the ally to temptations that you yourself have succumbed to in the past.

I guess it doesn’t speak highly of me that my own introspection renders these conjectures plausible. And maybe the three of you are made of better stuff. Anyway, I’d appreciate it if you could look deep within your souls and tell me what you find.

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.”