Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 7: "Nonzero: Moral Progress?"


A few years ago I shared Wright's idea that humans have been making moral progress over time with a few friends of mine in the College of Biblical Studies at ACU. And I got the strangest reactions (or so it seemed to me).

If you read Wright's book, NONZERO: THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY, he makes a very strong case that human societies have tended to harness, via cultural innovation, greater and greater nonzero outcomes. In this, I think Wright is on pretty strong ground. I outlined some of those innovations last post. But Wright goes further to claim that by increasingly harnessing the nonzero dynamic, humans are becoming more cooperative. Thus, humans appear to be making, via the nonzero mechanism, moral progress.

Like I said, I shared this idea with a few theologian friends and quickly got laughed at. They found the idea that humanity was making moral progress completely ludicrous. Now let me say that I don't completely buy Wright's argument. But I am intrigued enough to sit, for a time, to consider it. What struck me about the some of my theological friends was that they wouldn't even consider the idea. Their reaction was instantaneous and unequivocal: There was NO WAY humans have made moral progress. Honestly, I was a little disappointed by their unwillingness to explore the idea in that on a college campus one of the things we do is kick around ideas. Even crazy ideas. (To be fair, there was one exception.)

When pressed, my friends typically argued like this: "How can you say we have made moral progress? In modern memory we have the Holocaust. Further, genocides have continued up to the present day. Humans have not changed."

That seems like a pretty strong argument. I mean, look around. Humans are still killing each other. Doesn't look like anything has changed.

But let's think about this. If we bracket the violence ongoing right now (and that, I know, seems obscene, but bear with me a bit), how many human beings are currently living worldwide in large, fairly anonymous communities? Billions and billions of humans are living peaceably alongside complete strangers. If you pause and take that fact in, it really is quite an (moral?) accomplishment. If you ponder at how humans are wired, it is astounding how the very fabric of modern life does not completely degenerate into mass riots and anarchy. I think Wright just might have a point: As a species, we just might have been accomplishing something of a moral nature.

But, someone is likely to shout, let's take away those brackets and look at all the violence in the world today. What about THAT!

No doubt, humans are still pretty depraved. I'm not suggesting we are saints. Any progress we have made is very modest and very tenuous. And we see regressions and regional setbacks all around us. And perhaps there will be a massive global setback in our future. Maybe we all, eventually, go up in smoke. But let me make this point about how things stand as of today. We all know horrible things are going on in Africa right now (to name one place). And many people worldwide are upset with how world governments are sitting passively while death tolls go up. But here is my observation: There is a significant worldwide community that IS outraged by those atrocities. And that, if you pause to consider it, is a remarkable thing. A true (moral?) achievement. When in human history has a significant proportion of the people on the planet cared about what happens to people over "there" whom they have never met? I think it is a pretty modern phenomena. True, not enough people are in this group. But the fact that this group does exist and is fairly substantial is remarkable. Further, although governments react too slowly, we should note that they often do react. Again, this is a fairly remarkable achievement. When in human history would a nation actually be moved to care about some other nation on the other side of the world? When in human history have MANY nations even remotely CARED about human rights violations in Nation _____? It seems to be a fairly recent occurrence.

You might counter that one nation's interest in the stability of some other nation is really motivated out of self-interest rather than altruism. True. But Wright's point is that what we are witnessing is the slow convergence of interests. Where it is in my self-interest to HELP. And that, although not true altruism, is a form of moral progress. It is the fingerprint of the nonzero dynamic at work.

Finally, some might be thinking that any talk about moral progress suggests that we don't have to improve, that I'm taking us off the hook. That a nation like America is "good" or "good enough." Well that's just silly. America is a deeply flawed nation. There is no way we've arrived as a species or a nation. Too many atrocities occurred today. And too many people have died today. This discussion is not intended to take humanity or America off the hook.

All I want to do is to simply consider Wright's evidence for moral progress. To think about it. Is that too much to ask?

More on this tomorrow.

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4 thoughts on “Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 7: "Nonzero: Moral Progress?"”

  1. It seems peoples' perspectives are often warped by our collective tendency to take ourselves, and our problems and failings, too seriously -- to see ourselves as too large a presence on the stage of history.

    I agree with you that in general humanity has made moral progress, and that collective outrage is indicative of this. But people also fail to realize that we are so much more **aware** of conflict in all corners of the world than ever before that they **assume** this means there must be more of it.

    In absolute terms, there is more conflict. In relative terms, as you point out, given the overwhelming growth of the human population, there probably is less. This is doubly astonishing when you consider that we have at our command the ability to decimate if not exterminate all human life.

    Wonderful blog.

  2. I was doing some learning about history in response to a show I watched on the History Channel, and I came across this article about the crusades:(http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/118/52.0.html)
    It is really interesting morally, because it has the viewpoint that the crusades were began to stop the expanding muslims from taking over the world. After doing some more research on the subject, I did find that as soon as the religion of Islam was founded, that the muslims began taking over cultures, especially the byzantine empire, which was made of mostly Christian peoples.

    It seems like this may have been the first time that a culture took up arms on a large scale to protect the opression of another culture, something that was to take place on many larger scales later in history.

    It is really interesting to me that this takes place because of religious ties. It could also be considered moral progress that many nations from the western world who may have previously fought against each other were united in a common foe because of their mutual religious faith.

    Furthermore, it is applicable to the nonzero argument because this occured in a time that predates the global economy. Subsequent actions in the middle east (e.g.the English during WWII, Desert Storm) occured in a context in which there was economic gains to be made by the agressor.

    Therefore, I think we have made some moral progress, but I think that most of it has to do with the global economy. Increasing cooperation is economically advantageous, whether we are talking about a corporation acquiring numerous parts of a business, or a nation negotiating trade with different nations. It even reaches to the level of not being advantageous encroach on one's neigbors.

  3. David,
    I think the absolute vs. relative distinction is key. Lawrence H. Keeley's book "War before Civilization" (which I'm mentioning in the next post) makes this point regarding murder/war statistics.

    Daniel,
    I think you pick up on a good point that may be a weak part of Wright's argument. That is, it may be true that our global economic interests are gradually overlapping. If so, I'm cooperative with other nations out of economic self-interest. But does economic self-interest really equate with moral progress?

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