The Moral Imagination
Things may look bad, but salvation is possible so long as you understand what it requires. This is the message of the Abrahamic prophets. Muhammad said it, Jesus said it, and both Isaiahs—among other Israelite prophets—said it.
They didn’t all mean the same thing by “salvation.” Muhammad was talking about the salvation of your soul in the hereafter. Both Isaiahs were talking about the salvation of the social system—Israel (or, in some passages, the whole world). As for Jesus: the Jesus Christians remember was, like Muhammad, focused on personal salvation, though the real Jesus may have been, like the Isaiahs, more concerned with social salvation.
But even religions that emphasize personal salvation are ultimately concerned with social salvation. For Muslims and Christians the path to personal salvation involves adherence to a moral code that keeps their social systems robust. As we’ve seen, successful religions have always tended to salvation at the social level, encouraging behaviors that bring order.
As we’ve also seen, pre-Abrahamic religions of the Middle East were especially explicit about this goal. Civilization was constantly threatened by the forces of chaos, and obeying the gods, or at least the good gods, was the way to keep chaos at bay.
Today the social system, an incipiently global social system, is again threatened by chaos. But now religion seems to be the problem, not the solution. Tensions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims—or at least among some Jews, Christians, and Muslims—imperil the world’s order. And the tensions are heightened by the scriptures of these religions—or at least by the scriptures as they’re being interpreted by the people who are heightening the tensions. Three great religions of salvation have helped put the world in need of salvation.
Can we now say what the Abrahamic prophets said—that, though things look bad, salvation is possible so long as we understand what it requires? And if so, what does it require?
Conveniently, clues are provided by the three Abrahamic religions. (It’s the least they can do, given their role in creating the question.) Their scriptures are, beneath the surface, maps of the landscape of religious tolerance and intolerance, maps that amount to a kind of code for the salvation of the world. The core of the code should by now be clear. When people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with other people—see their fortunes as inversely correlated with the fortunes of other people, see the dynamic as win-lose—they tend to find a scriptural basis for intolerance or belligerence (though, as we’ve seen, if they feel hopelessly outgunned, sure to wind up on the losing side of any conflict, they may keep their hostility suppressed for the time being). When they see the relationship as non-zero-sum—see their fortunes as positively correlated, see the potential for a win-win outcome—they’re more likely to find the tolerant and understanding side of their scriptures.
So the salvation of the world would seem straightforward: heed the lessons embedded in the Abrahamic scriptures; arrange things, wherever possible, so that people of different Abrahamic faiths find themselves in non-zero-sum relationships.
The good news is that some of these arrangements have already been made. The world is full of non-zero-sum relationships, many of which cross the chasms that supposedly separate humankind. The bad news is that the mere existence of non-zero-sumness isn’t enough. After all, I’ve never said people summon tolerance in response to non-zero-sum dynamics. I’ve said people summon tolerance in response to seeing the dynamics as non-zero-sum. And even this is putting it too simply. Depending on the exact circumstances, responding wisely to non-zero-sum opportunities can call for more than just seeing the non-zero-sumness. Sometimes it calls for a kind of “sight” that goes deeper. It can call for an apprehension not just of the pragmatic truth about human interaction, but of a kind of moral truth. And moral truth is sometimes elusive.
But first, back to the good news. Globalization, for all its dislocations, entails lots of non-zero-sumness. You buy a new car, and you’re playing one of the most complex non-zero-sum games in the history of humanity: you pay a tiny fraction of the wages of thousands of workers on various continents, and they, in turn, make you a car. A popular term for this is interdependence—they depend on you for money, you depend on them for a car—and interdependence is just another name for non-zero-sumness. Because the fortunes of two players in a non-zero-sum game are correlated, the welfare of each of them depends partly on the situation of the other.
You could look at other parts of the economy—consumer electronics, clothing, food—and find similarly far-flung chains of interdependence. And they all add up to a larger kind of interdependence. Economic downturn, or upturn, in one part of the world can be contagious. So nations broadly have a shared interest in keeping the global economy humming; they’re playing a non-zero-sum game. This is just the natural culmination of the expansion of social organization. Villages merged to form chiefdoms, tribes merged to form states, states merged into empires. These mergers created vaster webs of non-zero-sumness, and often, as we’ve seen, religion reacted adaptively, helping to keep the webs intact.
Encouragingly, in the modern world this non-zero-sumness often does translate into an expansion of concord and tolerance, in keeping with the pattern seen in Abrahamic scripture. France and Germany, which spent much of the modern era in enmity, today have a high degree of economic entanglement, and the chances of their going to war are commensurately low.…