Broadening the Frame by Matt Carlson

A. Market Pricing (the Rational/Legal Mindset)

Anthropologist Allen Fiske famously divided social life into four categories: communal sharing (where people relate to each other as equals, taking others’ interests as their own, functioning effectively as “one”), authority ranking (where people relate to each other hierarchically, through a command structure), equality matching (where people treat each other as equals but keep tabs on who owes what to whom), and market pricing (where people use an external accounting system—e.g., money—to trade goods and services and administer justice in precise proportions). Of the four, three—communal sharing, authority ranking, and equality matching—are arguably natural to humans. Historical and anthropological research abounds with evidence that these social structures are prevalent in all or nearly all human societies past and present. The fourth—market pricing—appears to be an invention or discovery of modernity.

Fiske describes market pricing thus:

People in an MP [market pricing] relationship usually reduce all the relevant features and components under consideration to a single value or utility metric that allows the comparison of many qualitatively and quantitatively diverse factors… The most prominent examples of interactions governed by market pricing are…those that are oriented toward prices, wages, commissions, rents, interest rates, tithes and taxes, and all other relationships organized in terms of cost-benefit ratios and rational calculations of efficiency of expected utility. Money is the prototypical medium of MP relations, but there are also many MP relationships that do not involve money. In this kind of relationship, people tend to discuss (and probably cognize) value-relevant features of things propositionally, analyzing inputs and outputs using arbitrary symbols. For example, the use of numbers in equations is common, and people use abstract, conceptually formulated analysis in MP more readily than in other relationships: ‘If we buy this car and make payments of $620 per month, then with the salary left over, we won’t be able to go to Cancun this summer unless air fares go down 50%. (Fiske 1992, p. 692)

Note that the speaker in the quote that closes the passage implicitly invokes a vast web of social interactions (with a car dealer, an employer, providers of tourist services in Cancun, all buyers and sellers in the market for air travel) merely by referencing the external metric Fiske calls “market pricing.”

Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (about the secular decline of violence), takes a somewhat broader view of market pricing. “Market pricing,” Pinker writes, “it seems to me, is specific neither to markets nor to pricing. It really should be lumped with other examples of formal organization that have been honed over the centuries as a good way for millions of people to manage their affairs in a technologically advanced society, but which may not occur spontaneously to untutored minds.” Market pricing then is one of a species organizational forms, characteristic of modern society, through which humans interact on a vast scale. Other such forms include the legal-judicial system, the political institutions of a democracy, a corporation, a university, etc.—all structures in which people use external systems of norms, “worked out by reason and implemented by formal rules” (Pinker, p. 628), to engage in potentially massive collective endeavors. Importantly, people interacting in such systems are not necessarily bound to each other by identity or common purpose or empathy. These are systems in which people can pursue their rational self-interest without regard to the interests of others, most of whom they don’t know in any case. The result, something like an “invisible hand,” is highly complex, coordinated interaction among people on a massive scale, with outcomes for individuals generally better than they would be if people acted individually or on smaller scales.

Pinker refers to human acceptance of such systems of norms as the “rational-legal mindset,” in effect a synonym for “market pricing.” What is the source of human adoption of the “rational-legal mindset”? As noted, unlike the other three structures of social relations identified by Fiske, the rational-legal mindset is not natural to humans but learned, inculcated through education and culture. But what is it exactly that people acquire? Pinker seems to imply that it is nothing less than the use of reason, logic, mathematics, and science—perhaps in a word, rationality. What these styles of thought share is acceptance of an external metric as a criterion of the validity of claims. For example, in logic, conclusions follow only if they respect the rules of logic; and in mathematics, they follow only if they respect the rules of mathematics. Scientific knowledge is gained through a rigorous process of hypothesis testing and tentative acceptance of claims not falsified. The legal-judicial system is an effort to administer punishments in proportion to the seriousness of offences. Subjective and ideologically tinged though many judicial decisions may be, the goal is that verdicts and sentences are based not on the whims of individuals but on bodies of legal principles “worked out by reason,” often over centuries, “and implemented by formal rules.”

One might wonder how market pricing differs from one of Fiske’s other types of social structure, equality matching. Under equality matching (e.g., friendship), people treat each other as “equals,” and therefore, a rough account is kept of who owes what to whom. The difference between this and market pricing is that, under equality matching, accounting is done using an intuitive internal sense of fairness, whereas under market pricing (or the rational-legal mindset), people accept the validity of an objective external metric. The use of the latter enables people to make comparisons of any degree of fineness and sophistication, e.g., ratio comparisons, as when a crime is punished in proportion to its degree of seriousness or multiple prices are compared using a common currency.

Growing adoption of the rational-legal mindset is one of Pinker’s explanations of why violence has declined. In Pinker’s account, the spread of the rational-legal mindset has led to a fall in violence for two reasons. First, it has eased the way for cooperation by enabling people to capitalize on the “non-zero-sumness” of interactions—the fact that cooperative endeavors, e.g., market transactions, are not zero-sum games but tend to make all parties better off. And as Pinker notes, the potential for non-zero-sum interactions makes neighbors, rivals, and potential enemies “more valuable to us alive than dead”; hence, motives for violence diminish.

Second, as noted, the acquisition of the rational-legal mindset is associated with the increased use of reason in human affairs. And reason by itself, Pinker argues, leads to declining violence. Reason, as Pinker describes it, “is an open-ended combinatorial system, an engine for generating an unlimited number of new ideas. Once it is programmed with a basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interests of ever-increasing numbers of others” (p. 669). Why? Because, however instinctive one’s impulse to privilege oneself or family or tribe may be, reason doesn’t allow for that. A moral agent, as a category of abstract reasoning, logically occupies exactly the same place as any other individual. And as the scope of human interaction widens, and justification for actions increasingly requires appeal to external, publicly-accepted, criteria, differential treatment of agents becomes increasingly unsupportable.

It should be noted that impartial abstract moral reasoning that accords all agents equivalent moral standing is by no means unique to modernity. The idea is embodied in a host of ancient “Golden Rule” precepts, e.g.:

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” (Confucius)

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” (Judaism, Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Christianity, Matthew 7:12).

“The most righteous person is the one who consents for other people what he consents for himself, and who dislikes for them what he dislikes for himself.” (Hadith, Islam)

But in modern times, in the era of the “rational-legal mindset,” impartial moral reasoning arguably has a force behind it that it didn’t have in earlier periods. It is not merely a moral directive that religious authorities strive to impress on followers but an integral feature of social cognition, a basic assumption of most interactions one has with one’s fellows. As Pinker notes, this is essentially the idea embodied in Peter Singer’s notion of an “expanding circle,” a gradual historical broadening of people’s sphere of moral concern, from family and tribe to increasingly wider aggregates that ultimately include non-human animals. In Pinker’s account, this reason-driven process ultimately gave rise to the cascading series of “rights revolutions” (civil, women’s, children’s, gay, and animal) of recent decades.

Sacred Values

The increasingly widespread adoption of the “rational-legal mindset” might seem like an unalloyed good. Plausibly, as Pinker shows, it’s related to the secular decline of violence, and more broadly, it would seem integral to the rise of science, technology, capitalism, democracy, and a legal-judicial system that, at least theoretically, renders justice based on objective criteria rather than whim. In fact, however, the rational-legal mindset sits uneasily with one of humankind’s knottiest preoccupations: morality. Morality, broadly speaking, concerns guidance of behavior. But within that broad swathe, moral claims can stem from radically divergent sources. At one pole, many moral claims are intuitive. Incest, for example, is simply repugnant to most people. There are laws against incest, but they’re mostly superfluous. Group loyalty is similarly instinctive. Though laws against treason are not superfluous, moral disapproval of disloyalty is, as with incest, visceral. Disloyalty is generally felt to be wrong, both by oneself and one’s community. At the opposite pole, many moral claims arise from careful deliberation—indeed, from carefully worked-out moral systems such as utilitarianism or Kantian deontology. Such reason-based morality is evidently of relatively recent vintage, dating plausibly from no earlier than the ancient Greeks. Pausing before acting and thinking through the ethical implications of one’s actions appears to be a relatively modern innovation.

To be precise, then, the rational legal-mindset (or market pricing) sits uneasily with intuitive, as opposed to “reasoned,” morality. Indeed, reason-based morality is itself an aspect of the rational-legal mindset, an extension (or some might say an intrusion) of rationality into the moral realm. To see why this causes a clash, we must look to the roots of intuitive morality.

Humans are, of course, a social species; we gain from interaction and cooperation with fellow humans. But the foundational role of interaction in human society occasions pitfalls. There is, for instance, the free rider problem, where an individual obtains the benefit of some cooperative endeavor without paying a cost. There is also moral hazard, where the agent in a principal-agent relationship is incentivized to act against the interests of the principal. The paradigmatic illustration of moral hazard is insurance. But another example is a worker shirking her tasks, knowing that the shirking is unobservable and thus unpunishable. So the problem of moral hazard is quite old, by no means unique to the age of insurance and too-big-to-fail banks.

These are problems of commitment. Individuals only maximally benefit from ventures undertaken collectively if all partners to an endeavor act honestly, i.e., don’t shirk or cheat or otherwise undermine the group’s efforts. How can one be sufficiently sure of one’s fellows’ commitment to a collective endeavor such that one’s own efforts are worthwhile? The answer is that partners must show passionate commitment to the group (tribe, nation, platoon, marriage, etc.) through ostentatious, costly, public display. Religion, for example, arguably evolved to bind people into groups. When people engage in various religious practices—rituals, fasting, prayer, painful initiation rites, asceticism, etc.—it is very difficult to believe that they’re not sincere. Otherwise, why would they engage in such behaviors, which are certainly not in their rational self-interest? The nature of the passions displayed is an attitude of uncompromising loyalty to a creed or a system of norms held in common by members of a group or to the group members themselves. A key aspect of such a commitment is that for an individual to even entertain the idea of disloyalty is experienced with repugnance. This is true not only for the individual involved but, perhaps more importantly, for the community as a whole.

Another example is marriage. Male-female pair-bonding is adaptive, since cooperation in child-rearing increases the odds of passing one’s genes to the next generation. But how to get a man and woman to link up for a period extended enough to raise children to maturity? The answer is to animate them with a passion—romantic love—that impels them to publicly declare fealty to each other, with all the moral trappings that entails. In modern society, under the pressure of the “rational-legal mindset,” marriage is a legal contract. But barriers to breakup go well beyond legal unpleasantries and are above all moral. As with disloyalty to one’s group or tribe, to even to consider the idea of infidelity—in one’s own view but perhaps especially that of the community—is typically experienced with repugnance.

The socio-biological function of the passions then is to solve the commitment problem. Individuals—or more precisely, their genes—benefit from cooperation. But individuals face myriad temptations to defect from cooperative endeavors, whose payoffs are often long-term and uncertain. The passions—by compelling us to set aside impulses and even, at times, our rational self-interest—get us to remain loyal.[1]

Passions that solve the commitment problem are the source of—or perhaps synonymous with— “sacred values.” As defined by Tetlock, Kristel, Elson, Green, & Lerner (2000, p. 853), a “sacred value” is “any value that a moral community explicitly or implicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values.” Examples of sacred values include honor, love, loyalty, life, friendship, comradeship, etc., all features of human relationships that people are loathe to treat as fungible.[2]

Market pricing refers to the ready availability of means by which anything, theoretically, can be traded for anything else. Thus, possibilities for “taboo trade-offs”—tradeoffs that “pit sacred values against secular ones” (Tetlock, p. 322)—are ubiquitous, integral to the social environment.

Consternation occasioned by “taboo tradeoffs” is well documented. For example, in one of Tetlock et al.’s experiments, respondents were asked to rate the acceptability of various trade-offs categorized as “routine” or “taboo.” “Routine” tradeoffs included “paying someone to clean my house,” “buying a house,” “buying food,” “paying a doctor to provide medical care to me or my family,” and “paying a lawyer to defend me against criminal charges in court.” “Taboo” tradeoffs included the buying and selling of body organs, surrogate motherhood contracts, adoption rights for orphans, votes in elections, citizenship rights, a right to a jury trial, sexual favors, surrogate imprisonment contracts (serving jail time to which another had been sentenced), and surrogate military service contracts (performing military service that another had a draft obligation to perform). As might be expected, subjects generally exhibited far greater “moral outrage” over “taboo” than “routine” trade-offs.[3]

In addition, Tetlock et al. point to a “mere contemplation effect,” a sense of repugnance aroused by mere contemplation of a taboo trade-off, even if the trade-off is rejected. The researchers tested this by presenting respondents with two scenarios, one involving a taboo trade-off, the other a “tragic trade-off.” A “tragic trade-off” is a trade-off that pits two sacred values against each other. In this case, the tragic trade-off involved a hospital administrator (“Robert”) who can choose to save either the life of “Johnny, a five year old boy who needs a liver transplant,” or that of “an equally sick six year old boy” who also needs a liver transplant, in a context where, “because of the shortage of local organ donors, only one liver is available.” In the taboo trade-off scenario, the hospital administrator can choose to spend $1,000,000 either to save the life of “Johnny,” the five-year old who needs a liver transplant, or on hospital needs “such as purchasing better equipment and enhancing salaries to recruit talented doctors to the hospital.” Among the hypothesized determinants (in addition to the scenarios themselves and the choices the administrator makes) of “moral outrage” were the speed and ease with which the administrator makes his decision, variables that were programmed into the two scenarios by variously tacking one or the other of the following sentences onto the above stories: “Robert sees his decision as an easy one, and is able to decide quickly,” or “Robert finds this decision very difficult, and is only able to make it after much time, thought, and contemplation.”

In the taboo trade-off case, even if the administrator chooses Johnny over the hospital improvements (affirming the sacred value of life over the secular value of money), if the decision was “difficult,” respondents were considerably more morally outraged than if the decision was “easy.” Conversely, in the tragic trade-off case, if the decision between the two boys’ lives was “easy” (regardless of which boy was chosen), respondents expressed significantly more moral outrage than if the decision was “difficult.” As the authors note: “Participants in the tragic trade-off conditions apparently reasoned: ‘The longer the deliberation, the greater respect shown for the solemnity of the decision’.” 

By contrast, in the taboo trade-off scenario, mere contemplation of trading a sacred for a monetary value elicits not just moral outrage but what the authors call “moral cleansing”—symbolic acts undertaken to reaffirm one’s moral identity and the sacred value itself, both of which are threatened by the market pricing mindset. For example, in the first experiment described above, half the respondents in each group were asked before, and half the respondents in each group were asked after, they evaluated the acceptability of the various taboo trade-offs, to rate their willingness “to volunteer to help a political-action group fighting to prevent passage of a (fictitious) ballot proposition that would legalize the buying and selling of adoption rights for children in need of parents.” The idea is that such an action would be a way of “cleansing” oneself of the “taint” caused by merely contemplating the taboo trade-off. The question was whether the correlation between “moral outrage” and “moral cleansing” would be significantly stronger after contemplating the taboo trade-off than before. And the answer, of course, was yes. Indeed, there was no significant correlation at all between the two variables before contemplating the taboo trade-off (r = 0.06) but a highly significant one after (r = 0.44).

A rationale for “moral cleansing” is not hard to see. The purpose of sacred values, after all, is to compel people to maintain social commitments in the face of temptations to defect. And the best way to maintain such commitments is to act in ways that manifest those commitments. While the psychological experience of “moral cleansing” may be one of “cleansing” oneself of the “taint” caused by contemplating a taboo trade-off, the social effect should be to reestablish the particular connection one has with one’s community, which requires concrete, observable action.

The overall effect of threats to sacred values on the fervency with which such values are held appears to be ambiguous. On the one hand, it is plausible that repeated exposure to taboo tradeoffs has a wearying effect, impelling people to sacrifice their sacred values for short-term gratification or rational self-interest. On the other hand, “moral cleansing” suggests that perceived threats to sacred values may actually strengthen them, as people seek to reaffirm the sacred values they view as threatened. The very nature of sacred values—their “sacredness,” their power, their impregnability—tells us that temptations to compromise on them are nothing new. Throughout human history, in all societies, humans would have encountered myriad temptations to defect from social commitments. However, in the modern era, with the advent of market pricing (brought about particularly by the rise of capitalism), temptations to compromise sacred values appear to be chronic and systematic, as an ever vaster, more “liquid” “market” in which sacred values can be traded away has become integral to the social fabric.

So the question is: what happens to human beings when threats to sacred values become chronic and systematic, as under the market pricing/rational-legal mindset? This is an extremely vast, complex question. But I suspect the answer lies largely before us, in many of the most prominent features of social life. As Pinker emphasizes, part of the effect of the advent of market pricing is almost certainly positive: a secular decline in violence. On the other hand, the notion of “moral cleansing” suggests that sacred values don’t just sit idly by, as it were, and get expunged by the increasingly pervasive rational-legal mindset. Indeed, they are innate (or at least I shall argue that they are) and thus un-expungeable. The question is how they respond, or how they get people to respond, to threats to their existence.My hypothesis is that the impingement of market pricing on sacred values has a bifurcating effect on humans’ moral sensibilities. In particular, it leads to the emergence of two opposing moral orientations: one that seeks justification for moral claims largely through external metrics (e.g., fairness, the amount of harm or well-being caused by a given action) and one that relies much more heavily on intuition. As stated, these two moral orientations represent opposing poles, and in reality, people will vary across a spectrum that stretches from one pole to the other. However, I suspect that people don’t vary continuously across this spectrum, as the orientations are fundamentally irreconcilable. If, for example, one adopts a utilitarian criterion of what shall count as ethical, one must ultimately ignore the emotional pull of a sacred value like loyalty or respect for authority. On the other hand, if one is repelled by a utilitarian calculation that suggests the desirability of trading away this or that sacred value, then one may well be driven by a “moral cleansing” urge to reaffirm the threatened sacred value. Thus, plausibly, people will tend to be driven to the two poles, which would appear to be attractors of the human mind.


[1] For an examination of the economic function of passion, see Robert Frank, Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of Emotion. Frank characterizes passions as signals of commitment. Like nuclear weapons, they’re irrational to use but strategic to have available.

[2] A more complete definition concept of “sacredness,” and of its inherent tension with “rational self-interest,” is given by Graham and Haidt:

“Sacredness refers to the human tendency to invest people, places, times, and ideas with importance far beyond the utility they possess. Tradeoffs or compromises involving what is sacralized are resisted or refused. In prototypical cases these investments tie individuals to larger groups with shared identities and ennobling projects, and so tradeoffs or compromises are felt to be acts of betrayal, even in non-prototypical cases in which no group is implicated” (Graham and Haidt, p. 4).

They go on to note: “The human ability to live peacefully and cooperatively in large groups of non-kin is one of the greatest puzzles in the social sciences,” but “if the ‘evolved psychological mechanisms’ that are part of moral systems include a psychology of sacredness, then the puzzle is much easier to solve than if human beings are modeled as fully profane—i.e., as rational agents in pursuit of self-interest, broadly construed” (Ibid., p. 5).

[3] Interestingly, degree of moral outrage varied along ideological lines. The authors divided their sample of college undergraduates into four groups: Marxist socialists (who endorsed “public control of the economy as well as a radical leveling of incomes”), liberals (who endorsed “a moderate leveling of incomes by means of progressive tax rates” and “guaranteed access to medical care”), conservatives (who agreed that “government regulations on business are excessive” and endorsed “some restrictions on abortion”), and libertarians (who agreed “that regulations on business are excessive” but rejected “any state role in redistributing income” and “state interference not only in abortion but also in personal decisions to use marijuana or to engage in any form of consensual sex”). The striking results were (a) that taboo trade-offs triggered “scarcely a flicker of annoyance from libertarians” and (b) that the Marxist socialists “found even many routine trade-offs distasteful.”