The Danger of Values

by F.

Like Gregor Samsa, I seem to have woken up one morning transformed. But rather than being a large insect I seem to have become a libertarian. Or are those the same thing?

OK, maybe that’s too strong. Maybe it’s more that I’ve become an old fashioned, 18th century liberal, like Adam Smith and David Hume. I was never much interested in Ayn Rand anyway, and the goofballs from the Federalist Society tend to turn my stomach.

But whatever you call it, I’m starting to think less is indeed more and that perhaps the best way to increase human welfare is to give everyone an iPod, a refrigerator and a subscription to HBO (after they get their malaria vaccine, of course). Maybe the Wal-Martization of the world is a good thing: if people are shopping they have a harder time killing each other and arguing over “values.” Values scare the McNuggets out of me once we get beyond the kindergarten stuff. Be nice. Pet animals. Don’t lie. Be kind. Anything else just seems to lead to disagreement and violence.

Here’s the latest data point. Scott Atran is an anthropologist currently studying the role of values—rather than “rationality”—in the Arab-Israeli conflict:

From extensive personal interviews and controlled psychological experiments with Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees, leaders of Hamas, radical Islamic groups in Pakistan and Indonesia, and (ongoing pilot work) with certain non-Muslim fundamentalist groups, I… find that when disputed issues are transformed into sacred values, as when land ceases to be a mere resource and becomes “holy” or when structures of brick and mortar become “sacred sites,” then standard political and economic proposals for resolving conflicts don’t suffice and can be counterproductive by raising levels of outrage and disgust.

Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound too good. Sacred values? If we have to agree about values to get along, we are, as the social scientists say, fucked. But maybe there’s hope. Maybe we are just using the wrong model of conflict-resolution:

[M]ost academic courses and journals analyze decision-making in terms of strict cost-benefit calculations regarding goals, and entail abandoning or adjusting goals if costs for realizing them are too high.

For instance,

rational cost-benefit analysis says that the Palestinians “should” agree to give up their claim to Jerusalem in return for an autonomous state in the West Bank and Gaza (they would gain more land than they would renounce), especially if the U.S. and Europe sweetened the deal by giving every Palestinian family $1,000 a year for 10 years in economic assistance.

But that ain’t gonna work, Atran says:

When people are asked to trade sacred values for material rewards they tend to react with outrage and anger, although they are sometimes able to accept trading one sacred value for another….

[M]y research team finds that the sweetener [$1,000 a year] makes Palestinians more opposed to the deal and even more disposed to support suicide terrorism. This suggests that peace between clashing moral communities cannot be achieved by material calculations alone.

So the old model doesn’t work. What’s the solution?

[E]ven token symbolic concessions, such as an apology for a perceived wrong that touches a sacred value, can be more important than material trade-offs in making peace….

[I]n my discussions with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and other Hamas officials, they have stressed the importance of Israel’s recognizing their suffering from the original loss of Palestinian land. And our survey research of Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees and Hamas reliably finds that violent opposition to peace decreases if the adversary is seen to compromise its own moral position, even if that compromise has no material value, for example by simply recognizing another’s right to exist as a moral entity or by apologizing.

That’s the solution! That sounds more like the problem. I mean, it’s hard—for me at least—to imagine such an apology happening, on either side. I don’t have any vested interest in the Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio. I don’t claim to know who is right, who is wrong, who started it, how it should end, and the rest. But it seems to me that, while the “old” approach may indeed be broken, the “new” approach is even more broken. Human beings have been beating the shit out of each other for a long time over different (incompatible) “values.” Seems unlikely that’s going to change, unless those curled fists are pried open and filled with iPods and remote controls.

There’s a saying about Irishmen (a group I can genetically count myself a part of): the only way to get two Irishmen to stop fighting is to point out to them another fight down the street they’ll want to watch. Airdrops of Lazy-Boy recliners, Plasma TVs, and PlayStations are, I think, more likely to distract people from hating each other long enough for peace to break out than any discussion of values will.


  2. An op-ed by Atran.
  3. A WSJ piece on Atran’s work.