How Much Do We Value Our Values?

02/22/2012 08:40 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2012

A friend of mine -- an ardent environmentalist -- just had a baby. She was trying to decide whether she would buy cloth diapers, which would be much friendlier to the earth, or go with disposables. She naturally started with cloth, but within a couple of weeks of washing and reusing and washing and reusing and washing and reusing, she gave in and bought disposables.

"I love the environment," she said. "Just not enough."

Very often, when we talk about values, we want to talk about simple right and wrong -- we should be good stewards of the earth, or remember that we have a responsibility to help those in need, or ensure that every human being has certain rights. But while some values are about simple right and wrong, in truth, the vast majority are actually about costs and benefits.

Indeed, even one of the greatest scholars in Jewish tradition realized that doing the right thing often has a cost -- and doing the wrong thing sometimes has a benefit. In Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic sayings, Rabbi Judah had suggested that we should "calculate the loss of doing a mitzvah against its gain, and the gain of a transgression against its loss." (Avot 2:1)

And yet there is something unsettling about thinking about moral values in terms of gains and losses. After all, each of us has certain core beliefs -- sacred values that define who we are and that we would never compromise on.

But as my friend realized, we don't always know how much we value our values. So when do we look at values in terms of right and wrong, and when do we look at them in terms of costs and benefits?

Two Different Ways of Looking at Values; Two Different Parts of the Brain

A recent study at Emory University showed that when we think about our principles, our mental processes lead us to think differently about the values that we hold most dearly and the values that we are more willing to compromise on.

In this study, as participants were placed in an fMRI, they were presented with 62 pairs of two contradictory statements, such as "you support gay marriage" and "you oppose gay marriage." They then had to choose which one they agreed with.

After people decided on which side of the fence they fell, the experimenters gave them an option: if they agreed to sign a statement that was the opposite of what they believed, they could "auction off" that value, and receive up to $100. But if they truly felt strongly about a particular moral tenet -- what the researchers called a "sacred value" -- participants could refuse the money.

The experimenters weren't interested in which particular values people held; instead, they were wondering how those values were processed in the brain. And the results were striking.

Gregory Berns, the author of the study, explained that "the brain imaging data showed a strong correlation between sacred values and activation of the neural systems associated with evaluating rights and wrongs (the left temporoparietal junction) and semantic rule retrieval (the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex), but not with systems associated with reward." In other words, depending on whether a particular value viewed as "right and wrong" or as "costs and benefits," a different part of the brain was activated.

Not only that, when it came time to decide whether they would pay money to give up their sacred values, the participants' amygdalae were aroused, which happens only when there is an emotional reaction. As Berns noted, "Those statements ... would be expected to provoke the most arousal, which is consistent with the idea that when sacred values are violated, that induces moral outrage."

So perhaps surprisingly, we think about our values in two very distinct ways. Some are dispassionately calculated in terms of gains and losses, while others are emotionally charged and are felt to be inviolable.

The question is, what causes us to think about values through one frame or the other?

Perhaps not surprisingly, religion plays a big role in that answer.

Religion and Values

There was one other intriguing result from the Emory study: people who were more connected with groups had stronger activity in the parts of the brain that correlate to sacred values. Berns posited that "[o]rganized groups may instill values more strongly through the use of rules and social norms."

Organizations with a purpose, therefore, can help us internalize values. They not only give us a common language to talk about what we hold most dear, their social nature also reinforces those ideas.

And "organizations with a purpose" is a textbook definition of religious institutions.

Jonathan Haidt is an expert on the psychology of morality, and has an upcoming book entitled "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics." And as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes:

A big part of Haidt's moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the "psychology of sacredness," the notion that "some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure." If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals.

So while humans certainly don't need religion in order to be moral, religion brings people together around a shared sense of mission and purpose. And perhaps the greatest impact religion has had on the world is that it helps us move the discussion of values from "costs and benefits" to "right and wrong."

A Unique Moral Code

The most well-known statement of religious values is, of course, the Ten Commandments. We may think that the reason they continue to inspire and to resonate is because they outline a moral code, or are simple to understand, or because "ten" is an easy number to remember.

But biblical scholar Dr. Joel Hoffman has a different idea. What makes the Ten Commandments unique, he believes, is that the five commandments surrounding interpersonal relationships -- don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't bear false witness, and don't take your neighbor's possessions -- were designed to focus on "right and wrong," and not on"costs and benefits." As Hoffman explains:

The entire body of [legal] code in America doesn't make any distinction between right and wrong. It never says, for example, that killing someone is wrong. All it says is, "If you do, here's what happens..."

Here's an example: let's suppose you're a 16-year-old boy, a high-school dropout, and you have no future in front of you except for flipping burgers. Fortunately, you have caught the eye of a very, very wealthy 55-year-old woman. Being 16, you think that 55 is "almost dead," and so you marry her. Then you realize that she might live for a long time...And so what you do is take your wife's money, put some of it in an off-shore account and then you kill her. And you figure you're going to get a good defense and you're going to out in 7-12 [years]. So at the end, you'll be thirty years old, single again and wealthy and you say to yourself, "It's worth it."

There is nothing in the entire body of American law that says you are not entitled to make that calculus. Nowhere does it say that even if you're willing to do the time, you shouldn't do the crime.

That's why the Ten Commandments are so important. The Ten Commandments are a list of things that are wrong even if you are willing to pay the punishment. They are unlike any legal code, unlike anything I can see in America.

Every society has laws. But those laws are almost always about the consequences of violation. In contrast, the section of the Ten Commandments that govern human interaction -- the ones where we would be most likely to see consequences listed -- don't even mention costs and benefits. While the writers of the Torah didn't have access to modern neuroscience, the Ten Commandments seemed to have been intentionally written in order to activate the "right and wrong" part of our brain, and not the "costs and benefits" part.

How Should We Talk About Values?

We don't often realize that we categorize values in two different ways. Some are experienced emotionally, while others are computed more rationally. So our task is one that is at the same very simple and very complicated -- namely, to recognize when we are moving from one system to the other.

On the one hand, we often forget how hard it is to be rational when we are emotionally charged about something, and that rational evidence never convinces anyone (even ourselves) when we are riled up.

On the other hand, as my environmentalist with the baby friend realized, sometimes the values we hold most dear are actually the result of a cold cost / benefit analysis, and we often forget that doing the right thing has a cost.

So the real question isn't, "What do we value?" That's a comparatively easy question to answer -- we all talk about things like justice, peace, and fairness. The real question is, "How are we experiencing this particular value?" Are we deliberately calculating, or emotionally reacting?

Because only by answering that question can we learn how much we truly value our values.