How can a better understanding of sacred values help us resolve intergroup conflicts?

Scott Atran writes: Humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they strive for lasting intellectual and emotional bonding with anonymous others, and make their greatest exertions in killing and dying not to preserve their own lives or to defend their families and friends, but for the sake of an idea—the transcendent moral conception they form of themselves, of “who we are.” This is the “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’” of which Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. In The Descent of Man, Darwin cast it as the virtue of “morality … the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy” with which winning groups are better endowed in history’s spiraling competition for survival and dominance. Across cultures, primary group identity is bounded by sacred values, often in the form of religious beliefs or transcendental ideologies, which lead some groups to triumph over others because of non-rational commitment from at least some of its members to actions that drive success independent, or all out of proportion, from expected rational outcomes.

For Darwin himself, moral virtue was most clearly associated not with intuitions, beliefs, and behaviors about fairness and reciprocity, emotionally supported by empathy and consolation—which constitute nearly the entire subject matter of recent work in the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of morality—but with a propensity to what we nowadays call “parochial altruism”: especially extreme self-sacrifice in war and other intense forms of human conflict, where likely prospects for individual and even group survival had very low initial probability. Heroism, martyrdom, and other forms of self-sacrifice for the group appear to go beyond the mutualistic principles of fairness and reciprocity.

Whether for cooperation or conflict, sacred values, like devotion to God or a collective cause, signal group identity and operate as moral imperatives that inspire non-rational exertions independent of likely outcomes. In interviews, experiments, and surveys with Palestinians, Israelis, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans, and Iranians, my research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges and Douglas Medin finds that offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence toward compromise. This research, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, shows that backfire effects occur both for sacred values with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, Shariah law) and those with initially none (Iran’s right to nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees’ right of return). [Continue reading…]

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