I’ve decided to post periodic brief notices about things relating to the Common Currency topic, but where I’ve not yet developed a more detailed response. (So in most cases the idea is that in some future posts I’ll say something more comprehensive.)
First, here’s an interesting and recent review article (in an Open Access journal) by Peter Shizgal:
Shizgal P (2012) Scarce means with alternative uses: Robbins’ definition of economics and its extension to the behavioral and neurobiological study of animal decision making. Front. Neurosci. 6:20. [Journal link - open access] [doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00020]
Few have done more than Peter Shizgal to make a certain part of the empirical case that some species exhibit patterns of choice for which a central and unified value representation (that is, a Common Currency) is a good, or perhaps the only, explanation. I’ll discuss some of his empirical work at more length in the future. In this review article he makes the case for using Robbins’ definition of economics to inform the study of animal decision-making.
Second, I read an interesting op-ed piece by Scott Atran in Foreign Policy [Access may be subject to annoying pop-ups].
The main point of the article is to argue that immanent cuts to social science funding threaten national security. In the course of making this point, he glosses some of his current work relating to sacred values and human conflict. The first passage that specifically struck my eye was this one:
“Humans process these identities as moral rules, duties, and obligations that defy the utilitarian and instrumental calculations of realpolitik or the marketplace. Simply put, people defending a sacred value will not trade its incarnation (Israel's settlements, Iran's nuclear fuel rods, America's guns) for any number of iPads, or even for peace.”
Shortly after that, he makes clear that he both knows and means what he’s saying here:
“The sacred values of "devoted actors," it turns out, generate actions independent of calculated risks, costs, and consequences -- a direct contradiction of prevailing "rational actor" models of politics and economics, which focus on material interests. Devoted actors, in contrast, act because they sincerely and deeply believe "it's the right thing to do," regardless of risks or rewards.” [emphasis added.]
I’m not decided yet whether this interpretation of his evidence is the best one. But there is indeed a growing body of evidence (both from his work, and that of other social scientists). You can see some of his related papers here. All I want to note for now is that this looks like prima facie documentation of decision problems that suggest there is not a single common currency. That is, the alleged impossibility of paying some people to act contrary to their sacred values, or the ways that their actions in service of those values are insensitive to risk and reward, suggest that those values just don’t appear on the same scale as other things they will work for.