When land is sacred and peace profane

Andrew Brown describes research into conflicts over “sacred values”, published last year in the Proceedings of the NAS.

Our experiments tested the general hypothesis that, when reasoning about sacred values, people would not apply instrumental (cost–benefit) calculations but would instead apply deontological (moral) rules or intuitions.

When land is sacred and peace profane

… In these experiments, nearly half the settlers considered land on the Occupied Territories a sacred value, while a little more than half the Palestinians considered sovereignty over Jerusalem in the same light. More than four-fifths of them thought the right of return was a sacred value, too, which makes any rationalist observer despair.

The first interesting result was that offering money or material goods in exchange for sacred ones did not make the sacred goods less valuable but more. Expressions of anger and disgust and of the willingness to use violence actually rose among moral absolutists when a deal involving giving up some sacred value was sweetened with material incitements, such as suggesting to Israeli settlers that they give up the West Bank to a Palestinian in return for an American subsidy to Israel of $1bn a year for 100 years.

So far so hideously depressing. But the second, more optimistic, result was that the absolutists who rejected with contumely the offer of profane money (or peace) for sacred land would accept deals that involved their enemies giving up things that they considered sacred. The paper cites both Israeli and Hamas leaders saying that they could make peace if only the other side would apologise for 1948, or recognise formally Israel’s right to exist. Demanding this kind of wholly intangible mutual surrender of pride makes no sense on a utilitarian calculus, and yet it may be the only thing to unlock the situation. …

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