“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Nike is using the line in its latest ad, celebrating the rise and fall of one of the NFL’s star quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, he led the US footballers who sank to one knee when The Star Spangled Banner was played before games, as a protest against social and racial injustice in America.
No NFL team has signed up Kaepernick since the 2016 season ended. Americans who are offended by the perceived insult to their flag and all that it stands for are now also boycotting Nike products, although its sales have increased since the ad launched.
Monash philosopher Toby Handfield is interested in how our attachment to the values we hold sacred can divide us. The hope is that by developing a better understanding of the role sacred value plays, a way of breaking deadlocks in long-running disputes might emerge.
“Sacred values are particularly interesting because they tend to be focuses of disagreement,” he says.
They are “beyond price”. Part of what defines the sacred is “that you would be outraged by the suggestion” that a price could be placed on them at all, he says.
He gives the example of offering to pay a Monash employee $1000 to vandalise a corridor in the Menzies Building. Most would laugh it off. But if you offered them $1000 to harm a child, the likely reaction would be rage and disgust.
Similarly, an offer to bribe someone into defiling a family grave, or offering them money to melt down their wedding ring would also likely trigger outrage. Graves, rings and flags can be sacred symbols of relationship, even for those who aren’t religious.
Associate Professor Handfield says he’s interested in exploring the roots of our deep emotional attachment to sacredness.
“I have a background in moral philosophy. And in that area, a big issue is, how did we evolve to get that whole set of cognitive systems that we call morality? Is there some explanation in terms of natural selection?”
The instinct to protect children, or the incest taboo, can be seen in evolutionary terms, for instance.
But what about self-sacrificing behaviour? It might make evolutionary sense for a parent to sacrifice themselves so their child can live, but can evolution alone explain why Kaepernick risked his career?
And if an evolutionary reason can be found to explain the sacrifice, does it undermine the act’s moral value?
"How did we evolve to get that whole set of cognitive systems that we call morality?"
Philosophers are divided, Associate Professor Handfield says.
He’s received an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship for his project, ‘The evolution and economics of sacred value’.
The multidisciplinary project will use game theory and experimental methods to test three hypotheses about the role of sacred values in negotiations, and will also build computer models “that try to map the evolutionary dynamics of very basic moral and psychological traits, and how they might interact together in a population”.
A day spent on Twitter or reading the news will demonstrate how much anger and intolerance can be displayed by transgressing the idea of the sacred – the debates over same-sex marriage, or climate change, or land disputes in the Middle East are all examples.
“I thought it was a particularly important area of moral behaviour, broadly understood, because it’s a source of such intense conflict,” he says.
His first hypothesis is that in disputes, values are described as sacred as a way of “presenting a tough face”.
“If you send a message that for no price will you give up, then it’s the best possible message you can send to the other side: give up fighting now, because we’re in this for the long run.”
He concedes that this approach often leads to more prolonged conflict – the Israel-Palestine dispute is a prime example, he says.
“I’m not suggesting that people are cynically adopting these sacred values,” he says.
Rather, he wants to understand, “why do we have minds that are fertile grounds for these ideas to take hold?”.
It might be because “our ancestors who didn’t have such ideas ended up losing out in important disputes”.
The second hypothesis is that outrage over violating sacred values is used as a recruiting tactic in disputes over social norms and customs.
“You don’t have any big arguments on Twitter over whether murder is a bad thing or not,” he says. “We all agree about that. But the idea of homosexual people being married – that is very threatening to some people’s ideas of how they are accustomed to living.
“And the key thing you need to stop the world changing is for a whole lot of people to share your idea that this is repulsive.”
In this scenario, an appeal to the sacred can be used to manipulate people.
The third hypothesis takes a more optimistic view of the role sacred values play.
“A striking feature of humans, from an evolutionary perspective, is how we can maintain these amazingly trusting relationships over long distances, over long times,” he says.
He suggests that a willingness to make a sacrifice is a way of demonstrating our commitment to a larger group. “You might be saying, ‘Trust me, I’m a good guy, and you can cooperate with me in the future’.”
He plans to test the hypotheses in a series of experiments, in collaboration with experimental economists at Monash.
The first experiment involves giving students the opportunity to profess sacred values, or alternatively to “sell out” their sacred values, and then seeing if the sacred value positions adopted earlier lead to favourable treatment when encountering others in an economic bargaining or cooperation scenario.
By varying the sorts of sacred value object and the sorts of strategic encounters that follow, evidence will be available to discriminate between the project’s different hypotheses.