The Evolution of God by Robert Wright


Blame Turned Upside Down

The following is the online appendix mentioned on p. 419 of the book. It is meant to elaborate on an arcane but important question raised by the text on that page and preceding pages. For the sake of comprehension, some sentences that are in the book on and around p. 419 are replicated in the exposition below. Even so, understanding the passage below will be virtually impossible without first reading the relevant section of the book.


Why is moral imagination so picky? Why do we find it easy to put ourselves in the shoes of people with whom we’re in a fruitful non-zero-sum relationship—good friends, relatives—and hard to do the same for rivals and enemies? Why the close connection between antipathy and incomprehension?

It’s easy to explain this in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would any tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

Even when the grievances of our rivals aren’t directed at us, we naturally resist them. After all, if they’re rivals or out and out enemies, then the less power they have, the better for us. So when they want to convert grievances into recompense, impeding the conversion is in our interest. More generally, it’s in our interest for them to have reputations for being cry babies, grievance mongers—for them to have trouble attracting support for their future claims, claims that, after all, might work against our interests. At least, that would have been the case in a hunter-gatherer village, where the entire social universe consisted of a few dozen people, interacting over and over again.

With friends and allies, the story is different. It’s good for us if our allies amass power in this small social universe, so we champion their claims about how much they’re due. Besides, championing claims is something friends do for each other as part of the reciprocity that undergirds their friendship. So we easily see our friends’ side of moral arguments. We are good at putting ourselves in their shoes.

Of course, we do have disputes with friends and allies, occasions when we are on the other side of the argument from them, and suddenly seeing their point of view gets hard. But that just goes to show how exquisitely the pattern holds: zero-sum dynamics tend to shrink the moral imagination, and auspicious non-zero-sum situations tend to expand it.

Indeed, it is the auspiciousness of the overarching non-zero-sum dynamic with a friend that keeps the bursts of zero-sumness short lived. The relationship holds so much long-term potential that casually tossing it aside would be ill-advised. So a dispute with a friend may end with your grudging concession that, yes, you may have been inconsiderate, or, yes, you were asking for too much. Having seen things from your friend’s point of view, you feel a bit guilty; you accept some blame.

And here lies the radical inversion—the inversion in the meaning of things like guilt and blame and right and wrong. We ordinarily think of guilt feelings as signifying that we are in the wrong; they are our conscience’s judgment that blame can justly be placed on us. But in Darwinian terms, a guilt feeling can just mean that the future benefits to be derived from a relationship justify my making a “payment”—saying I deserve blame and agreeing to avoid the behavior that occasioned the blame.

This may seem like a crass way to describe something that feels like the apprehension of moral truth itself. But it has the virtue of explaining things that don’t make sense if feelings of guilt really are contact with moral truth itself. For example: We tend to feel guiltier over minor slights we’ve committed against a high-status acquaintance than against a low-status acquaintance. This pattern doesn’t make much sense as an expression of moral truth but it makes perfect sense as an expression of Darwinian logic: the good will of a high-status person can bring you more future benefits than the good will of a low-status person, and your comptroller—your conscience—grasps this fact; it will pay more for the former than for the latter.

In other words: Feelings such as blame and guilt and just recompense constitute a kind of Darwinian currency—a medium through which accounts can be kept by two people or groups who are in a non-zero-sum relationship. Accepting blame is a kind of payment for having violated the terms of the relationship, and a pledge to abide by them in the future. Yet even this last sentence is misleading, because the sense of blame may well up even if the actual violation of the terms is far from clear so long as the benefits of sustaining the relationship are high—as with, for example, a high-status acquaintance. 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.

And a big part of the disbursal mechanism is the “moral imagination.” If payment is due, the moral imagination opens our consciousness to the other person’s point of view, which leads us to accept some blame. And since disbursal only makes sense if there is potential for future collaboration, the moral imagination tends to open up to people with whom non-zero-sum interaction is plausible—acquaintances, friends, relatives. There is no point in making a payment to implacable enemies, so there is no point in extending moral imagination to them. Our inability to see validity in their grievances has nothing to do with the validity of the grievances themselves. The reason we don’t see is because it’s not in our interest to look.

It’s almost enough to take the “moral” out of “moral imagination”! 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.

This may sound dispiriting. It may sound like enough to call into question the whole idea of moral truth. But before addressing this weighty question—and as a way of getting closer to it—let’s go back to the question that triggered this excursion into the Darwinian underpinnings of moral imagination: If you recommend that Americans put themselves in the shoes of a flag burner, and the flag burner is incensed by his perception that America is arrogant, are you saying that America is arrogant, and that America’s past arrogance is to blame for the burning of its flag?

Earlier [in the text of the book] we said the answer to this question was no, but with an asterisk. Now we’re in a position to spell out the asterisk:

While we’re not saying America is to blame, we’re not saying America isn’t to blame. We’re trying to skip the question of blame altogether. After all, in the Darwinian view, blame is a kind of epiphenomenon, a byproduct of core strategic calculations. It would be easier, and more efficient, to just stick with the underlying calculations. Namely: Is it the case that, after considering all the pluses and minuses, America could serve its interests by doing fewer things that are perceived as arrogant? If so, then America should do that. End of calculation.

The trouble is that human nature makes it hard to do the calculation so austerely. Our minds insist on bringing moral coloration into the picture. In this case we are offered two basic choices of coloration, depending on which of two mental templates we adopt.

Option one is the moral imagination template. Here you manage to relate to the perspective of flag burners who deem America arrogant, come to appreciate what a natural and thus powerful grievance this is from their point of view, and conclude that America would be wise to change its behavior. It’s as if you had done the aforementioned strategic calculation, except that now, almost inevitably, there’s a tinge of moral coloration; there’s the lingering suggestion that America is to blame—or, at least, that there is valid perspective from which America’s behavior seems blameworthy.

Option two is the external-perspective template—the template you’re using when you observe someone, and try to figure out what’s going on inside their head, but can’t quite get inside their head, can’t relate to their feelings. Here the psychological facts of the case may look remarkably similar to the way they look via the moral imagination template. You may grant that flag burners perceive America as arrogant. But you don’t relate to this perception, so you can still characterize that motivation in unflattering terms. You say they are driven by “resentment” of American power and “envy” of American success. And, since envy and resentment aren’t noble motivations, the moral coloration of the situation suggests it’s the Muslims who are to blame. And because America isn’t to blame, you resist the idea that it should change its behavior.

Indeed, you may resist this idea even if you’re convinced that, as a practical matter, changing America’s behavior could serve American interests. You may grant, at an intellectual level, that most of the world’s Muslims aren’t implacably opposed to America. You may grant that giving them a more favorable image of America would keep terrorists from developing a powerful political base. You may grant that one way to do this would be to change America’s behavior so that America appeared less arrogant, less opposed to Muslim interests. Still, you’re troubled by the sense that if you really step into the minds of agitated Muslims and appreciate their perspective, and respond accordingly, you’ll wind up assigning America a blame that it doesn’t deserve. Yes, you’ll say, it would be expedient for America to change its ways, but it’s wrong to make amends when you’re not the one to blame.

Yet to say this is to sink into a paradox. In Darwinian terms, the idea of these changes being strategically effective yet morally wrong is a kind of contradiction. The reason natural selection created this category of intuitions about right and wrong in the first place was to serve our strategic interests. (Strictly speaking, it is the “interests” of our genes that were being served—but in most situations, the interests of a person’s genes were tantamount to the interests of the person harboring the genes.) By the lights of natural selection, we are “supposed” to accept blame when it is in our strategic interest to amend our behavior accordingly. In fact, in a situation like this, our acceptance of blame is just a proxy for the unconscious assessment that our interests would be served by changing our behavior.

So a machine that was designed to serve our interests is misfiring. The moral imagination was built to help us discriminate between people we can do business with and people we can’t do business with—to expand or contract, respectively. When Americans fail to extend moral imagination to Muslims writ large, this is their unconscious mind’s way of saying, “We judge these people to be not worth dealing with.” Yet most of them are worth dealing with.






“One World, Under God”
(The Atlantic article)