Making Sense of the Sacred


Kevin Gibson is an associate professor of philosophy at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His e-mail address is


In this note I examine the concept of sacred values. Some commentators have recommended avoiding the question or postponing negotiations until other issues have been settled, whereas others have suggested that few sacred values cannot be rendered into some form of trade-off (i.e., they are pseudosacred). Here, I follow Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod and argue that ritual and the sacred can be an important component of negotiation and, when addressed effectively, have great potential to break impasse.

I first examine the notion of the sacred and its near synonyms, the priceless and the intrinsically valuable. I then look at the issue of valuing life and show that although society places limits on lives as a matter of policy, it paradoxically funds heroic acts, such as mine rescues, which defy economic justification. These acts turn out to fulfill an important symbolic and ritualistic function. Finally, I draw out three implications of the framework for negotiators: negotiators should engage in some form of values clarification among the parties, material compromise by one party does not necessarily indicate that that party's values were not ultimate or that these have been relinquished, and considerable weight should be placed on ritualistic and symbolic gestures with regard to values.