Compassion and Aggression

Adam Smith once commented that people, “though naturally sympathetic, feel little for another, with whom they have no particular connection, in comparison of what they feel for themselves.” He was onto something there.  No doubt, as Wright suggests, it is much more difficult to think sympathetically about scholar A, whose theories and ambitions recklessly threaten my own and, than scholar B, the charming protégé.

So I agree entirely that it is easier to put up with even bad behavior from those who seem to offer more in benefits than in costs. More significantly–for Wright and for myself–I also agree that relationships of mutual exchange (of ideas, of values, even of currency) can expand the compass of the moral imagination.

Events in Iran these past few days have, I think, accomplished something like this for Americans. Fears of a nuclear Middle East have been overshadowed, in our minds (or in mine anyway), by the incredible bravery of Iranian men and women confronting the brutality of a police state. I can imagine myself in their shoes, and even things that might have seemed alien before–the nightly chants of “God is great” from the rooftops–are suddenly made sympathetic and moving.

My concerns are not, then, about these dynamics of sympathy and antipathy. Rather, like Timur Kuran, I am concerned about how we extrapolate beyond psychological mechanisms, either to the social world (in Kuran’s response) or to the political one (in my own).

For it seems to me that compassion easily becomes absorption. It becomes a way to frame one’s pragmatic interests as if they were the interests of another. Few histories testify more clearly to this than the histories of religion, where extension of the “we” has, more often than not, played a powerfully aggressive role.

Christians have been trying to compassionately absorb the Jews for millennia, for example, and they are still doing it today. The Jew cannot simply ask the Christian to give up on conversion, however, as if this would be an easy thing. Conversion is something essential to the Christian project, and giving it up would be a major sacrifice, a major blow the self-interest of the Christian.

Instead Jews have endlessly struggled against this deadly compassion. And this struggle–this insistence that what the Christian sees as a good (conversion), the Jew sees as an affliction–is more than psychological. It is political, and importantly so.

I’d like, then, to put this question to Wright: how does the game theory model accommodate politics, and especially the politics that attend real divergences in worldview and even existential needs? When something important must be sacrificed to reach agreement with another, in other words, what does the gaming model have to offer? Does it teach us how we should make difficult moral and political choices, or does it rather (as I confess that I suspect) tend to hide these choices behind appealing but thin façades of mutual interest?

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.”