Sacredness, protection and taboos: how values can (not) be traded and shape our thoughts and behaviour

A Stockholm Resilience Centre Cognition reading group guest post from Tim Daw, Jamila Haider, Britt Stikvoort

Imagine the scenario: one day a government official walks into the Stockholm Resilience Centre lobby and proclaims that the biosphere has now become redundant, humans can live completely independently from ecological systems, and therefore, our research institute has become unnecessary. Imagine the nightmare for economists if that same official barges in telling him proof has been given that economic growth is not necessary. Or what if the official started telling people, about a millennium ago, that the earth was round? Such (unrealistic) stories make one thing clear: we do not like challenging our most ‘sacred’ and protected values. But sometimes we have to. In fact, sometimes it can be very useful to! Yet still, challenging such values feels bad, and that is perfectly natural. You are supposed to feel bad if someone asks you about eating babies (such as Jonathan Swift’s satirical Modest Proposal). But as researchers, we are also supposed to be able to step back from such feelings, and observe and reflect. This is what we have tried to do for this cognition meeting.

SUMMARY OF READINGS

We read three papers to understand from a psychological perspective how values develop, are held and traded-off.

  • Tetlock, P.E., Kristel, O.V., Beth, S., Green, M.C., and Lerner, J.S. (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, 853–870.
  • Baron, J., and Leshner, S. (2000). How serious are expressions of protected values?  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6, 183–194.
  • Waldmann, M.R., Nagel, J., and Wiegmann, A. (2012). Moral judgment. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning 364–389.

Below we provide a brief summary of each of the readings:

Waldeman et al. was a useful introduction to the interdisciplinary field of Moral Judgement, including introducing the ‘Trolley dilemma’, the ‘Drosophila’ of moral reasoning experiments. Most relevant for this reading group discussion was the section which introduced sacred values (SV) and protected values (PV). Both refer to values which are held as infinite in that people are unwilling to put a price on them or trade them off against secular values, in particular money. However Tetlock and colleagues work on SV conceptualise them as serving a group cohesion function, “The motivation of people to hold SVs is to preserve their identity as full-fledged moral being (p. 293)” while Baron and colleagues see PV as a mental short-cut to efficiently make decisions. An important distinction is that the SV work suggests two parallel sets of motivations (the sacred and the profane), while PV scholars adhere to a model of a single metric of utility. Both theories point to a surprising degree of flexibility in the supposedly infinite SV or PV, which is influenced firstly by context and also by framing.

Tetlock and colleagues (2000) see a sacred value as “possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs or other mingling with secular values”. These untouchable principles cannot be traded off for monetary ones in an economical market (taboo trade-offs), nor can we use cold statistics and hard facts on them (forbidden base-rates), nor can we make ‘what-if’ assumptions about past events and alternative happenings (heretic counterfactuals). Tetlock bases his idea on the Sacred Value Protection Model, which resembles the more well-known dissonance theory but which explains motivations to thoughts and behaviour both as an ego-improving as well as a social reputation-supporting tool. Harm done to sacred values (e.g. by making taboo trade-offs) is compensated for by exhibiting moral outrage towards the offender or if the offender is oneself – moral cleansing (overly moral behaviour to compensate for the transgression).

Baron and Threshner (2000) define protected values in a utilitarian sense: the marginal rate at which one good can substitute another is infinite. The purpose of their study is to test whether protected values are as absolute as they seem when they are first expressed. They test a number of hypotheses (with regards to when trade-offs are made) through experimental design. Important to note here is that they measure digression from a protected value through an expression of guilt, rather than behaviour. For example, if reducing emission of CO2 is my protected values, but I still fly, the action of flying does not discredit my protected values but whether or not I feel guilty about flying.  Baron and Threshner conclude that protected values are often unreflective overgeneralisation, that people are reluctant to believe that protected values can conflict and that it is immoral to make compromises, but will in the end make the trade-off when confronted with it. People also seem to give up values when the probability of harm is low: for example, people may have anti-GMO as a protected value, but if the risk is calculated to be low they are more likely to give up their protected values. They conclude “our results suggest that protected values are strong opinions, weakly held.”

 

GROUP DISCUSSION

HOW CAN THE CONCEPT OF PROTECTED OR SACRED VALUES BY USED IN SOCIAL ECOLOGICAL SYSTEM RESEARCH?

1.    Differences between Baron and Tetlock and how this can be used in our own work

Generally we found Tetlock’s approach to be more valuable to social ecological system (SES) research. Particularly, we found Tetlock’s notion of trade-offs to be helpful, since SES governance and management often involves difficult trade-offs. Sometimes, when a sacred value is pitted against a secular one, we encounter what Tetlock calls a taboo trade-off, which makes most people feel bad. Think about trading off the life of a baby against, say, a thousand euros or a nice car. Most people would find this trade-off immoral, and if someone else is making that decision, you would respond to that person choosing the car over a baby’s life with outrage. Moral outrage is just that, a behavioural expression of anger against those who go against sacred values by choosing a secular one over a sacred one (or even thinking about such a choice!). ‘Moral cleansing’ is when you yourself are making this tough decision (say, protecting nature or selling the piece of land for real estate development). In fact, even thinking about a taboo trade-off makes you feel bad, even if you still choose to keep the patch of pristine nature in the end!  What happens is you then get the urge to show compensation behaviour after making a morally bad decision, or even thinking about it, against sacred values. Yes, you just sold your patch of pure pristine nature to a real-estate agent, but you’ll make up for it, by donating to Greenpeace! These Taboo trade-off dynamics can both impede and assist real life trade-offs with nature (nature is often seen as one of the sacred values we hold).

One of the main differences between Tetlock and Baron, is how each defines values. Tetlock defines values through a theory of social cohesion, whereas Baron bases values entirely on utility. Baron’s thoughts are quite disempowering and imposing, causing the reader moral outrage. It would be interesting to think about how and whether these results as a more individual level can be applied to a societal level, where context and politics plays an even more important role.

2. How are values defined?

There is a useful distinction made between ‘norms’ and ‘moral rules’: They both come from culture, and go beyond formal rules but people usually claim that moral rules are in some way universal (which they wouldn’t necessarily do for norms, like driving on the right side of the road). There do not seem to be any universal (transdisciplinary) definitions of either concept, and so it depends from what school of thought you come if you even have definitions, and if so, what they stipulate. It seems there is some room here for further clarification!

3. Origin of values

At first sight, we observed that values seem not to be universal, since nearly any value you can think of is transgressed in one or more other cultures across the world. However, the thought rose that maybe this is because we simply haven’t phrased the context or the value itself correctly, and if we do so, if we get to the ‘core’ of the value, we would maybe be able to find universal values. Perhaps if we formulate them as wanted ideals, this was a suggestion.

If values are not universal, what does seem universal is our need for ‘having’ values in human societies. This may even be an innate characteristic of human beings, although none of us was certain of such an assertion.

Next, we discussed protected values. What if, by shaking it, we can make any protected value lose its ‘protectedness’ (for instance by insisting on counter examples)? Doesn’t that make the term a bit void? But if we see the protected values as a sort of network, where more than one protected value is tied together with others in a sort of ‘ideology’ network, then it becomes easier to consider the loss of one protected value without doing harm to the whole (and thus the person’s feeling of integrity). We looked at this from an individual’s point of view, but as was later mentioned in the plenary discussions, values are products of society and culture, and so need to be viewed from such an aggregate level too. Having one person lose the ‘protectedness’ of a value due to a counter example doesn’t make the value ‘go down the drain’. Here the social-reputation aspect of values comes into play. Even if you yourself do not ‘believe’ in the protectedness of a value anymore, it is still important for your reputation to not harm that value, because other people still do hold that value sacred.

4. Stockholm Resilience Centre values

What could possibly be a protected value of the SRC? We first made a distinction between what could be protected values of people working at the SRC (assuming there is a certain ‘type’ of people working here, there might be a self-selection process going on resulting in people with like-minded values working here). We, however, were interested more in the values of the SRC as an institution in itself. What would shake the institution to its foundations, if it was refuted? What would no SRC staff member ever want to trade for money, or all the luxury in the world?

We came up with biodiversity first, but it seemed that there were plenty of easy cases in which we could imagine being confronted with a situation where less biodiversity was the more desirable situation (look at BBOP for example). No foundation-shaking shock there. So Resilience was next. However, this did not pass scrutiny either. Social-ecological (linked and interdependent) systems came up next, and we were not able to wholly refute this as a sacred value for the SRC. On the more individual level, we discussed that academic integrity was a value that likely would be central for most SRC staff members. Another prominent share sacred values at the resilience centre is re-connecting to the biosphere.

We could think of reconnecting the biosphere as an axiological value. With that, we simply mean it is part of the ‘study of values’ and not something else (e.g. epistemological). Spinning from that we may have various ontologies: there is a real physical social ecological system, ‘connected’ knowledge, whether local or indigenous is scared (though not everyone agreed on that). The possibilities seem endless, and are at the very least abundant. One hour is definitely not enough to come to the core values of the SRC, this is a conclusion we can draw with certainty! But that said, it is both fun and insightful to try, and experience firsthand how difficult such a thing can be!

Finally, we want to add that understanding the existence of sacred or protected values, and the way in which they influence us – be it through social image and reputation or via heuristic shortcuts in our decision making – can help us SES researchers in understanding (even modelling?) the behaviour of stakeholders in governance structures. This could shed some light on the dynamics in resource management dilemma’s and explain thus-far unexplained ‘deviant’ behaviour of stakeholders that are not playing the game as rational actors.

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