Right or Happy? — In

Right or Happy? — In a comment on the “Keeping it Real” post below, Julian glibly defines an intellectual as one who would rather be right than happy. Well, I don’t think that can be right. I’d rather be happy than right, no doubt about it. Experience machine, here I come! My problem is that I have a neurotic urge to be right. I just can’t help trying to be right. (I should say, not about everything – there’re lots of fights in which I’ve no dog.) It would be wonderful if there was some kind of pre-established harmony here, where the lack of ignorance is bliss. But, no.

Now, I do think that we’re all stuck with a disposition to regard the feeling of having truth as integral to happiness. We can’t just say out loud, with full awareness, “Sure! The religious stories around which I build my life are nothing but elaborate fictions, and there is a largely unconscious conspiracy to create an environment in which the social and psychological costs of rejecting this tangled skein of falsehood is higher than just going along,” and then believe all the same. The point of this kind of tacit conspiracy is to insulate believers from psychological dissonance–to maintain a milieu in which it is possible, even easy, to believe that the stories are literally true, so that one can derive whatever value there is in them, including the satisfying feeling of having posession of the truth, without having to seriously confront the divergence of tale from fact.

It is precisely the need to reduce uncertainty, to feel sure, that makes it hard for certain intellectual types to be satisfied. I can’t escape or dismiss the high likelihood of my own self-deception, delusion, and habits of confabulation. So my defining commitments are cast under a shadow of doubt, and my sense of my self becomes indistinct, which is unpleasant. I try to be Zen about it, and convince myself that the self is an illusion anyway, but it doesn’t help.

It strikes me the Marie Gryphon is a bit optimistic in her smart post on the happy/right issue. She argues that by deferring to “opinion leaders” who appear to have happy followers, one is pursuing a generally rational policy for getting at the truth. All I see in such opinion leaders is the leader of a succesful conspiracy of belief. The relationship to truth eludes me. Furthermore, I think Marie’s undersestimating the role of epistemic deference in the intellectual lives of even very independent minds. Almost everything I believe, somebody else told me. In this, I’m just like everybody else. We all make extensive use of the cognitive division of labor. What makes me different from many other people is that I have different policies for when to believe what people tell me. However, I adopted these policies rather than others in no small part due to my deference to certain people I regarded as experts in good policies. But it never ocurred to me that I should prefer to adopt policies for deciding when to believe what I’m told from experts with happy customers. And, for the sake of truth, it’s probably a good thing too.

Marie writes that, “Most everyone is pursuing a rational strategy for finding truth,” and I wish she was right, but I can’t quite believe it. No doubt, most are pursuing rational strategies for generating the feeling of having the truth, but that’s not the issue. Now, there is a trivial way in which Marie’s claim is true. Keeping your eyes open is a good strategy, and most everyone does it. And if you want to know which way to take the Red Line to get to Woodley Park, then asking’s about as good as revelation, and we’re all in the habit. But when it comes to the big questions — what it means to be a human being, or what a just society is, or what happens to us when we die — rational strategies seem thin on the ground. If the world were teeming with rational strategies for getting at the truth, wouldn’t we see rather less delusion?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center