Tuesday, January 14, 2014

‘Sacred’ values, rule-based choice and the brain

Source: B3ta (I forget which specific
image challenge, so can't be more
specific than that. Grovels & apologies.)
This working paper grew out of my encounters with a claim that seems to be currently fashionable, to the effect that some values are 'sacred'. Although different ways of filling in what 'sacred' amounts to are to be found, some of them involve denial of the claim that all values are represented on a common scale. In my view the evidence used to justify the sacred values claim is not currently up to the job that is being asked of it.

The topic, and the recent scientific attention, are nonetheless of interest because they accompany empirical attention to old question about lexical preference orderings, and the possibility that some values might be 'incommensurable'.

The text below is the abstract I used for a recent presentation on this topic.


A number of recent empirical papers claim to have found evidence that (some) people have so-called ‘sacred’ or ‘protected’ values. These are understood as values that cannot be traded off against non-sacred values, or values with respect to which such trade-offs are resisted, or (finally) values with respect to which even contemplating trade-offs provokes outrage. Different, and incompletely compatible, explanations for this putative data are offered. Sometimes it is claimed that sacred values are infinitely valuable compared to secular ones. Sometimes it is suggested that decisions concerning sacred values are made according to unconditional rules, rather than weighing expected consequences. Finally, it is also sometimes claimed that sacred values are incommensurable with secular ones, in the sense that comparison is strictly impossible.

Unsurprisingly, the claim to have found evidence of people having sacred values thus understood is regularly accompanied by claims to the effect that this presents a problem for models of people as ‘rational actors’ or as approximately economic agents.

I argue here that the variously proposed explanations for the empirical evidence that people have ‘sacred’ values are importantly distinct, rather than complementary, and that some are less plausible than others. If sacred values are infinitely valuable, then they are not incommensurable. If sacred values are incommensurable with non-sacred ones, then it might help to have a way of deciding by rule rather than comparison. But rule-based choice for some category of values requires neither incommensurability nor comparatively infinite value.

I also argue that the evidence in the recent empirical papers falls well short of defending the claim that anyone in fact has ‘sacred’ values in any of the relevant senses. The evidence for an opposed conclusion in the area of addiction – for example that choices concerning heroin by addicts are responsive to opportunity cost, and so economic rather than automatic – is more impressive than the evidence that choices about ‘sacred’ values are made in non-economic ways. And the experiments themselves are flawed. Among other things, the psychological constructs that inform the data analysis fail to draw the required contrasts, and the designs lack the incentive compatibility recognised as a requirement for eliciting expressions of genuine preferences. 

I pay particular attention to a recent paper (Berns et al. 2012) claiming to have identified neural correlates of the representation of sacred values. The set of options used in the experiment shows severely limited construct validity, and so fails to support even a very tentative localisation claim regarding sacred values and the brain.


Berns, G. S., Bell, E., Capra, C. M., Prietula, M. J., Moore, S., Anderson, B., Ginges, J and Atran, S. 2012. The price of your soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1589): 754-762. [I've discussed the Berns et al article in a previous posting on this blog.] DOI:10.1098/rstb.2011.0262

Tetlock, P. E. 2003. Thinking the unthinkable: Sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(7): 320-324. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00135-9

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