Concluding Remarks

Thanks yet again to all three respondents for a stimulating discussion. I’m sure my closing comments won’t do justice to your closing contributions, but I’ll try to respond to the most salient points.

I’m delighted to hear Richard Joyce agree that we all tend to form a negative image of threatening people and a positive image of people who might benefit us. I’d of course put a finer point on it: The “negative” or “positive” image formation involves subtle value judgments that (a) we’re often not aware of; and (b) may be unrelated to the nature of the threat or the benefit. Thus, we may negatively judge the clothing style or taste in music of someone who competes with us for a job—and may be unaware that these judgments are a function of the perceived threat.

And please note that the related argument I make in The Evolution of God goes well beyond this simple and (as Joyce suggests) fairly obvious fact about human psychology. That argument is twofold:

(1) These simple biases of judgment account for many of the belligerent and tolerant passages in the scripture of all three Abrahamic religions. And this in turn tells us something about how we might bring out the best and worst in religions today.

(2) These simple biases of judgment may impede comprehension of the forces that motivate our enemies.

And here I’d like to correct Joyce’s interpretation of me: “If I understand Wright correctly, he is not advocating that we extend our moral imagination to our real enemies; he is not arguing in his essay that we should overturn our unflattering and understanding-hindering antipathy towards terrorists.”  Actually, I’m arguing exactly that (among other things). I think it’s in our interest to understand what circumstances created these terrorists—not so that we can then change circumstances to moderate their behavior (unlikely) but so that we can change circumstances in a way that reduces the chances that others who are now moderate will follow in their footsteps and become terrorists.

Joyce raises the interesting question of why I depict our unflattering view of enemies as more of a distortion than our flattering view of allies: “When we form a flattering image of an ally—when we choose to overlook his past misdemeanors, for example—why is this not equally a kind of distortion, a kind of inaccuracy in our thinking?” The answer is that I’m not talking about the moral judgment we render (e.g., whether we deem a given behavior a transgression) but rather about the cognitive process that biases us toward a given moral judgment. Our favorable moral judgments tend to be facilitated by successfully “putting ourselves in the shoes” of a given person-recalling feelings we’ve had (e.g., a sense of grievance at being disrespected) that are in fact comparable to the feelings that in this person motivated acts that might otherwise be deemed inexcusable. Our unfavorable moral judgments tend to be facilitated by denying such comparisons even when they exist. This isn’t an absolute pattern, but I maintain that it applies often enough so that we can say that on balance our views of the motivations of allies are literally truer than our views of the motivations of enemies. (Note that I’m confining the analysis to “misdeeds”—cases where the behavior to be explained is one that, in the absence of an exculpating motivation, would be deemed bad.)

As for what Joyce thought I was saying-that our favorable moral judgments of allies tend to be less distorted than our unfavorable moral judgments of enemies: I can see how this might seem implicit in the asymmetry I see in the cognitive processes leading to moral judgment. But in fact I have a somewhat different view, as suggested in an elaborative footnote to my chapter on the moral imagination. This quote from the footnote captures my sense that when it comes to moral judgments our skepticism should fall symmetrically on our views of enemies and allies:

Our moral judgments feel as if they’re evaluating the past in light of moral truth, but they were actually designed by natural selection to serve our future in light of strategic calculation. We unconsciously assess our zero-sum and non-zero-sum relationships, unconsciously decide whether payment will serve self-interest, and then our inner accountant generates the moral judgments that will justify the payment, or not… In this view, the moral imagination subordinates the truth about the actual moral facts to the larger goal of navigating the landscape of zero-sum and non-zero-sum relationships. It shrinks or expands in response to judgments about whether a relationship is auspicious and, if so, on what terms. Our ensuing convictions about who is to blame and who isn’t to blame are self-serving illusions.

Now for some quick and, perhaps, concise-to-the-point-of-cryptic reactions:

(1) I agree with Jonathan Sheehan that compassion can be carried too far (though, strictly speaking, I’m less interested in abetting compassion than in abetting its frequent corollary, a kind of empathetic illumination of the motivations behind acts).

(2) I agree with Timur Kuran that social factors outside of the core cognitive tendency I focus on can reinforce the bias I describe. (And, more broadly, I concur with all three respondents that things are invariably very complicated in the real world and that any game theoretical rendering-certainly including mine-will be an oversimplification. But there is such a thing as fruitful oversimplification.)

(3) Richard Joyce emphasizes the importance of intentionality, as distinct from the zero-sum vs. non-zero-sum distinction, saying that the former may have “nothing to do” with the latter. He writes: “If X is out to harm me intentionally then I’ll likely form a negative image of X; but if X hurts me by accident then I’ll be much more forgiving.” Yes, but I submit that the (Darwinian) reason we make this distinction is because intentional harm is an indicator of likely future zero-sum interaction with the person, whereas accidental harm is not. So the “negative image” and the forgiveness are appropriate responses to proxies for, respectively, zero-sum and non-zero-sum (or perhaps not-zero-sum) interaction.

I can hear Professor Joyce demanding that I corroborate this rank conjecture about the Darwinian logic underlying this reaction. Maybe another time. Right now all I have time to do is thank all three of you again.

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.”