If You're Not Outraged, You've Internalized a System-Justifying Ideology

“I just don’t believe this,” is as close as Hedgemaster General Tyler Cowen ever gets to “this is total bullshit.” Well, that’s his response to Jamie Napier and John Jost’s argument [pdf] that conservatives report higher levels of happiness than do liberals largely because of their failure to be pained by high levels of economic inequality. Well, I just don’t believe it either, and neither does the University of Virginia’s Jonathan Haidt, who took apart Napier and Jost’s argument at an AEI panel on happiness last spring. Here’s the video. Jump ahead to about the 35:00 minute mark to catch Haidt’s ten-minute takedown.  

The thrust of Haidt’s critique is that Jost and Napier attribute conservatives’ edge in happiness to their ability to” rationalize away inequality.” So how do they measure that? By looking at responses to a single item in World Values Survey thought to track attitudes toward meritocracy.  The respondant is asked to identify where he or she stands on a ten point scale that runs from “Hard work generally doesn’t bring success–it’s more a matter of luck” to “In the long run, hard work usually brings a better life.” Conservatism is of course strongly correlated with an answer toward the “hard work pays” end of the scale. But, as Haidt puts it in his talk:

This isn’t some weird belief that shows that you’re explaining away inequality. This is the basic ideological fact — or rather, the basic ideological difference.  It’s not legitimate to take a core aspect of conservative belief and say that it’s not really what it seems, but is really an unconscious mechanism to deal with something uncomfortable.

It would be legitimate were that the best explanation. But Napier and Jost’s story is really hard to credit, both for reasons Tyler mentions and for deeper methodological reasons. For one, it’s not clear what the “meritocracy” question has to do with inequality. If one wants to see a meritocratic bent as a common cause of conservative leanings and higher happiness, here’s a less tendentious explanation. (1) Those with a greater sense of the efficacy of their behavior — with a greater sense of being in control — will tend to (a) think hard work brings a better life, (b) be happier, (c) see policies that seem to penalize hard work as unjust. (2) People likely to see high taxes as an unjust penalty on hard work tend to identify as “conservative.”

So here you’ve got a way of getting from a meritocratic attitude both to happiness and conservatism without bringing in anything to do with inequality. This is conjecture, of course, but I think it suggests that Napier and Jost’s conclusion has all the benefit of theft over honest toil. How did they get from a question apparently about whether work pays to the ability to reconcile one’s sense of justice with abstract macroeconomic variables? The fact that they evidently find it intuitive, rather than bizarre, that the state affairs captured by a nation-level Gini coefficient would have “negative hedonic effects” pretty much gives away the game. It makes exactly as much sense as thinking that certain people must have found some way to harden their consciences against the otherwise intolerable pain of high levels of government spending as a percentage of GDP. Huh? 

Anyway, doesn’t the WVS meritocracy question seems ill-formed to you? What’s the point of opposing “success” and “a better life.” If one interprets “success” in terms of social comparison and “a better life” in terms of self-comparison over time, then there’s no problem in agreeing strongly with both ends of the alleged opposition.

I strongly agree that success, understood as a significant upward move on a valued status dimension, is largely a matter of luck. But I also strongly agree that hard work (in a society with decent institutions) usually brings a better life. It’s possible to work hard and achieve a better life without ever winning anything you’d count as success. So I haven’t a clue how I’d answer this question. Do I believe in meritocracy or not?Maybe my agreement with both statements would sort of average out and push me toward the middle?Or maybe I decide that it’s pointlessly self-defeating to see fortune as overriding agency, even if deep-down I suspect it does (I probably won’t write the Great American Novel, but I definitely won’t if I admit that to myself), and so I’ll just go ahead and agree whole hog with the “work pays” side. Maybe optimistic self-deception, which is good for self-reported happiness, predicts pro-agency answers on the meritocracy question. What does that have to do with inequality?  

Look at it from another angle. Suppose you do know how you’d answer it. You incline heavily toward the “meritocratic” end of the (bunk) spectrum due to your firm faith in the power of hard work and your sense that it is pointlessly demoralizing to think success a hostage to fate. It remains possible to understand that (a) people start in radically different positions due to fortune, (b) hard work doesn’t usually improve each person’s life equally (indeed, people starting with disadvantages may have to work very hard to move up only a little), and therefore (c) inequality can rise even if every hardworking person manages to thereby bring him or herself a better life. In this case, your “meritocratic” belief hasn’t done anything to help you “rationalize away” inequality. You can strongly believe that effort usually pays without thinking that differences in pay reflect differences in effort. In fact, you ought to believe this.    

My guess is that Napier and Jost are not very interested in psychology and so have simply assumed that a preference for explaining lives in terms of agency rather than fortune is pretty much the same thing as thinking people deserve whatever they get.

Catching Happiness

Maybe you’ve heard about the BMJ study that says that happiness wends its way through social networks? Justin Wolfers says:

The study, by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, concludes that happiness is contagious within social networks.

According to the authors, your happiness depends on the happiness of your friends, and their friends, and their friends. It’s a fascinating finding, and it was duly reported by hundreds of newspapers. Indeed, according to Fowler, “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.”

Unfortunately, it’s probably not true.

Find out why not!

Why Are American Atheists Less Happy and Cooperative?

Outstanding stuff from Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in Slate:

In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don’t go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don’t believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they’re nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren’t exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

So, this is a puzzle. If you look within the United States, religion seems to make you a better person. Yet atheist societies do very well—better, in many ways, than devout ones.


The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens … find them immoral and unpatriotic.

America becomes no worse as it becomes more secular. And American atheists would be both happier and more cooperative if we were less marginalized by our culture.  

Also, the fact that non-religious Americans (who don’t lie about it) are basically disqualified from high public office ensures that many of the most rational and intellectually accomplished people in our society cannot participate in electoral politics. For all I know, this is good. It may keep many of our best and brightest focused on productive endeavors, instead of squandering their abilities in wasteful games of political conflict. But it might also lead to a selection effect where political power is left to those with exceptional powers of self-deception, or to those who are willing to simply lie about things that are profoundly important to the people they are supposed to represent. That might not be good. 

I made an argument similar to Bloom’s, here.  


Freestyle Jazz Conservatizing

Oh my. Helen Rittelmeyer:

For the record, I think the Tocqueville point is mostly valid: “well-meaning matieralism” does yield a world “which will not corrupt the soul but noiselessly unbend its springs of action.” But that’s not why I think it’s important to have a theological understanding of suffering floating around our political vocabulary. There’s really only one defensible reason why I care (“the will to badass” being an indefensible reason), which is that I think the redemptive power of suffering is a fact about the world; it’s just true.

I don’t want to be mean to Ms. Rittelmeyer, because I don’t want her to like it. But the standards for determining what’s just true here are… elusive. The Tocqueville point is provably false. Wealthier, happier people are more creative and productive. Springs of action are unbent by depression and the demoralization of poverty. I know, I know. Booooring. But it is, as they say, just true. However, there is no second guessing the redemptive power of making things up.

Let's Measure Meaning!

That’s the upshot of my short piece today at Culture 11.

Here’s a crazy bit that introduced a few too many issues, so I left it out. Enjoy!

“I don’t know why we are here,” Ludwig Wittgenstein, the grimly mystical Austrian logician, once confessed, “but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”  I’m pretty sure Wittgenstein is correct. Evolution by natural selection–the only credible non-fiction story about “why we are here”–tells us that we exist “in order to” make copies of our genes. In the typical case, we enjoy genetic recombination a lot, but to enjoy ourselves is not what we are for. To enjoy ourselves is not why we are here. 

But knowing why we are here, or what we are for, turns out to be terrifically useless in guiding our choices or framing our lives. It doesn’t matter why we are here. Should I learn that I had been designed by bioengineering performance artists from Alpha Centauri to savagely exterminate kittens, it would not validate my taste for ripping the heads off tiny whimpering calicos. Knowing my function would not tell me what it is for my life to go best, from my point of view. Were I to fight my instincts and lovingly cuddle kittens instead of wantonly destroying them, that would be my otherworldly creators’ failure, not mine. Should I find a hollowness, a gnawing absence of kitten corpses at the center of my life, I might be right to think that my life would, in some sense, mean more to me were I to give in to my biological imperatives. But I would be wrong to think that a more meaningful life, in that sense, would be better. The value of meaning would remain an open question.  

The Measure of Meaning

[Originally published at Culture11.com, October 29, 2008]

One of the most annoying tropes of modern intellectual life is that the material abundance of liberal market societies has come at the cost of increasing unhappiness and unease — the “paradox of prosperity,” I call it. Over the past half-decade, a raft of books has been devoted to our allegedly paradoxical ennui. Examples include The Progress Paradox, by Greg Easterbrook, The American Paradox by David Myers, and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. But the paradox of prosperity is a myth. The multidisciplinary field called “happiness research,” from which all these books draw, now shows that, other things equal, prosperity makes us happier. Wealthier individuals tend to be happier. Wealthier societies tend to be happier. Average happiness tends to rise in places where average wealth is rising.

For the paradoxicologists, these are inconvenient truths indeed. The point of substituting measures of psychological well-being for crude economic measures was to show that a society that delivers the goods doesn’t thereby deliver the good life. The happy-seeking heart craves the solidarity and egalitarian comfort of Northern European social democracies. So freaking what if the socialists got completely drubbed in last century’s fight over which socioeconomic system best creates material prosperity? Material prosperity is overrated!

Except, it isn’t. Live by data, die by data.

Of course, one may always choose to impugn the data when it gives the wrong result. Anyway, isn’t it ridiculous to try to measure happiness, of all things? What cold caliper can span the infinite soul!?

I have questioned the reliability of the data myself, at length, and recommend measured skepticism of findings based on the prevalent survey-based methods–even of the findings I like! But, no: it isn’t ridiculous to try to measure happiness. There is little agreement on what happiness is, exactly, which might seem to pose a problem. But whatever you think the elements of happiness are — second-to-second pleasure, a sense that life is going well overall, a feeling of engaged self-efficacy, whatever — we can try to measure that. And we’re only going to get better at it. The empirical study of the seemingly intangible is only beginning to flower. The labcoats are putting divines in the FMRI and college kids the world over are having their moral intuitions scraped. If you haven’t heard, trust can be nasally administered.

A more thoroughly empirical study of happiness is so worthwhile because we might actually learn something from it. It becomes possible to discover an ideologically incorrect or socially unacceptable fact that may change the way we frame our personal or political choices. Take, for example, the finding that children tend to make us slightly less happy than we would be without them. Each extra kid only makes it worse, up until about the fifth. It comes as no surprise that many parents, for whom it was too late to take this exciting discovery into account, consider this the wrong answer. Some family-flogging pundits predictably impugned the data and defended the warm unfathomability of happiness against the chill of “scientism.”

More interesting, and much more compelling, were those who chose to admit the evidence, but argued that happiness isn’t everything. Sure, family can be a pain, but it’s meaningful. Indeed, the Newsweek article that imparted the unhappy news to a broad American audience noted that “parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who’ve never had kids.” If meaning an excellent reason to have children (and I’m not saying it isn’t), perhaps it is also at least as good as happiness as an argument for generous child tax credits. And with meaning firmly in hand, perhaps happiness mavens disappointed by the numbers can jump from one paradox of prosperity to another.

Appeals to meaning are nice, but they just push the lump in the rug. What’s so great about meaning, anyway? For that matter, what is it? How does one validate that x is in fact meaningful, or more meaningful than y? If meaning is going to carry a justificatory load in weighty personal and political deliberation, we can’t just wave our hands about it. Intellectual virtue requires care. We need get started on measuring meaning. There are many questions. How much is meaning worth to us in terms of happiness? How much is happiness worth in terms of meaning? There are no doubt many and varied sources of meaning. With science on our side, we are sure to discover that some them are corrosive to other of our cherished values while some enhance them. Then we’ll be well-situated to say goodbye to toxic meaningfulness. Goodbye national identity? Goodbye God? Who knows what we might find? Science is a source of excitement as well as wonder.

I don’t anticipate the new field of “meaning research” will be warmly received by those with a refined taste for meaning. Many of these fine folks say that the very attempt to measure happiness scientifically — not to mention the effort to put meaning itself under the microscope — saps life of… meaning. But how do you know? Anybody can say this. You can say it while waving a copy of The Closing of the American Mind. You can say it smoking a pipe. But it doesn’t help.

There is certainly more than one way of winning an argument, but there’s just one way of knowing: the empirical way. If there’s a way of knowing something about meaning–including whether measuring meaning threatens meaning–that’s the way. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of happiness. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of meaning. But there is more than a little something wrong in blind pursuits when the means to enlightenment are at hand.

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.

Heartburn and the Unseen

Last night before bed I had a wicked case of heartburn. For whatever reason, I get heartburn a lot. Thankfully, ranitidine doesn’t just make me feel better. It makes the simply heartburn go away. It cures it. I find this amaing, and I’m very grateful for it. (Regular antacid is simply not enough.) A few times recently, when I’ve been away from home and didn’t have my pills, heartburn has completely destroyed my sleep, leaving me fatigued and aching all the next day. Until recently, the drug required a prescription. But now a bottle of ranitidine can be had at WalMart for $4. There are 65 pills in a bottle, each one–worth about $.16–a small salvation from misery.

Perhaps my heartburn is a symptom of a stressful modern life. Or perhaps I’m approaching my middle years. Either way, the problem is as good as solved. But the hellish nights and dragging days I have not slogged through are not something I notice–not something that ordinarily enters into my estimation of how good I have it. But it is a part of how good I have it. A world of comfortable beds, shoes that fit, basic indoor climate control, and $4 bottles of ranitidine is a world of massively reduced low-grade suffering. We would do even better if we would spare a moment now and then to reflect on the wonder of this, to allow ourselves to feel gratitude for all those things that give us the comfort to be aggravated by distant injustice and overwhelmed by a superabundance of possibilities in life.

David Brooks' Jihad Against Individualism

On behalf of America, I am staging an intervention. Country first!

David Brooks is evidently infatuated with the idea that individualism is just downright unscientific. It is more than a bit queer that Brooks uses this alleged Fact of Science to argue that American conservatives ought to purge all remaining vestiges of individualism from its thought since, you know, American conservative ideology is engineered entirely along scientific lines. On one understanding of the words, the opposite of “individualism” is “socialism”. So I think it’s safe to say that David Brooks is on a quest to make the Republican Party safe for scientific socialism. And that’s just the sort of surprise that makes David Brooks such a consistently interesting thinker.

Nevertheless, I cannot say I understand what he is talking about. Brooks appears to believe that the discovery that human beings are hypersocial mammals is some kind of earthshattering gamechanger, but it’s hard to grasp why he thinks this. Brooks’ account of the science is fine, but the remainder of the column is a lavish non-sequitur, a richly embroidered but intellectually vulgar instance of the naturalistic fallacy. Indeed, the fact that he tries to get where he does with the science he cites is evidence that he doesn’t understand it so well. Now, Brooks is entirely correct when he writes that

…we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.

And it is also true that we are intensely social creatures, deeply connected to one another, and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often not an illusion. It is least often an illusion when one inhabits a moral culture in which psychological individuation, autonomy, and independence are cultivated and prized. If we have managed to wring a relatively individualistic culture out of the raw materials of our tribal natures, that is a triumph of deanimalizing civilization. Individualism is indeed unnatural — much like other noted mockeries of the natural order, such as equality under the law, vaccination, and the wheel. Brooks might stop to note that improvements on nature are both possible and desirable. The existence of mirror neurons no more debunks individualism than the existence of retinas debunks telescopes.

Americans individualism is a manifestation of human sociality. In our culture, individualist norms are routinely transmitted from one generation to the next through the unique hypersocial-mammalian capacity for cultural transmission. Brooks apparently wants to interfere with further transmission of individualistic norms because they produce a politics he finds insufficiently authoritarian and illiberal. Which is, of course, precisely why we need to double down on a moral culture of individualism.

Do individualistic cultures cut across the grain of human nature? Sure  — in a good way! It is a well-confirmed finding of happiness research that individualistic cultures are happier than collectivistic ones. Indeed, this discovery grounds a number of hypotheses about why average wealth correlates with average levels of self-reported life satisfaction. For example, here is Aaron Ahuvia in the Journal of Happiness Studies:

Rather [than increasing happiness directly through increased consumption], economic development increases SWB [subjective well-being] by creating a cultural environment where individuals make choices to maximize their happiness rather than meet social obligations (Coleman, 1990; Galbraith, 1992; Triandis, 1989; Triandis et al., 1990; Veenhoven, 1999; Watkins and Liu, 1996). This cultural transformation away from obligation and toward the pursuit of happiness is part of a broader transition away from collectivism and toward individualist cultural values and forms of social organization.

Got that? Wealth, which produces all sorts of hugely desirable human goods, also weakens orientation toward pre-assigned roles and their obligations and strengthens the orientation toward individual fulfillment, resulting in more fulfillment. Collectivist moral cultures do serve an important function in the typical human condition. But we are lucky when that function has become unnecessary  —  when collectivist values become a vestigial organ of the body politic. Ahuvia puts it nicely:

Collectivism revolves around face, honor, and public reputation. Collectivism is associated with poor countries because it is a cultural survival mechanism born of the necessity for group solidarity. Indeed collectivism is a survival mechanism that is positively correlated with well-being if one looks only at a sub-sample of poor countries (Veenhoven, 1999). Survival mechanisms are serious business. It is not surprising, then, that collectivist societies often rely on social coercion via threats and rewards to one’s public reputation to ensure compliance with group norms, since the stakes for the group are so high.

Does Brooks really want to fight so hard for a morality of poverty? It is true that in straitened circumstances we are forced to close ranks and get with the program, but this is and ought to be repulsive to a free people.

Brooks mentions Edmund Burke and Adam Smith as “conservatives” (WTF?) who really understood social embeddeness. They sure did! So they’re not individualists? Well, in Friedrich Hayek’s brilliant essay, “Individualism: True and False,” he says this:

The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke…

The difference between Brooks and Hayek on this score is that Hayek understands Western political thought, and, more generally, he grasps that sociality is an enabling condition, not the antithesis, of the ethos of individualism that created modern liberty and the wealth of the Western world.

America is reputed to be the world’s most individualistic culture, and has been for a long time. Our individualism is the foundation of the mind-blowing innovation and variety of the American scene. Our individualism is a main source of our world-historical prosperity and high levels of happiness. Yet Brooks, unembarrassed or unaware, wheels out a fallacious appeal to nature specifically to discredit this — the most distinctive and valuable feature of American culture.

It clearly tickles Brooks’ collectivist fancy “when John McCain talks at a forum about national service.” But that is precisely when McCain exposes his martial animosity to the character of his own country. Brooks may wish to join McCain in an effort to efface the separateness of lives, to degrade the dignity of self-creation and self-command by denying its possibility, to cultivate in Americans the docility of subjects ready to kill and die for the state. In Prussia this may have been a “conservative” project. But this is America. And defending American individualism is my one conservative impulse!

So, David Brooks, here’s a line. Paine, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Garrison, Spooner, Tucker, Twain, Mencken, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, and America are over here on this side. And there’s you over there. You are most welcome to step across and attempt to wrest the individualism from our cold dead fingers. Bring McCain! In fairness, I should say that Emerson is a vicious Indian leg wrestler.

More on the CPI: The BLS Responds!

John Greenlees of the BLS was kind enough to reply by email to my recent post on the CPI, and has agreed to allow me to post his comments:

Thank you for the kind words on your The Fly Bottle blog about my article with Rob McClelland, “Addressing Misconceptions about the Consumer Price Index.”  You also say there that you would be interested in our response to the concern that the CPI is too conservative in accounting for gains to consumers.

In calculating the CPI, the BLS faces a set of well-known but difficult challenges, including dealing with consumer substitution behavior, accounting for product quality change, and handling the introduction of new products like Ipods and new distribution channels like the Internet.  With respect to each of these issues, we attempt to employ the most advanced methods available, subject to the requirement that those methods also be objective and reproducible.  There is no perfect way, however, to measure the welfare gains and losses that consumers experience when prices change and products appear and disappear.  Thus, we know that the CPI is not perfect, but we do not have an estimate of any statistical “bias” in the index; if there was an accurate and reliable method to estimate such a bias, we would use that method to improve the CPI by eliminating the bias.

The most recent summary of the BLS approach to CPI measurement problems is probably the article “Working to Improve the Consumer Price Index” by Commissioner Katharine Abraham and others in the Winter 1998 Journal of Economic Perspectives (at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2646935.pdf).  More recently, at an American Economics Association session in 2006, I reviewed the BLS considerations underlying changes it made during the years surrounding the 1996 Boskin Commission report on the CPI.  That review was subsequently published in the International Productivity Monitor, available at http://www.csls.ca/ipm/12/IPM-12-Greenlees-e.pdf.

I hope these citations are helpful, and thank you again for mentioning our article.

John S. Greenlees, Ph.D.
Research Economist
Division of Price and Index Number Research
US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Thanks, John (and Rob)!

Here’s a few thoughts… I don’t think it’s surprising that there is no statistical estimate of conservative bias, given current modes of measurement. As John says, if there was, they’d use it to correct the measure. But I wonder what kind of measure would be convincing in establishing an overall conservative bias. In particular, I wonder about the possibility of objectively measuring average subjective consumer welfare gains.

I don’t think we can do this with current life satisfaction survey methods. But suppose some future science of the measurement of affective quality could track changes in the levels of the various hormones and the activation of the various neural pathways underpinning the various positive and negative feelings. Then suppose we were able to use statistical analysis to isolate the portion of these changes attributable to changes in consumption. We should then be able to say something more precise about the real hedonic (in the psychological sense) value of quality changes, new products, new outlets, etc. Shouldn’t we?

Of course, subjective states aren’t the only things we care about and don’t exhaust well-being, on plausible accounts of well-being. Longevity, health, and various capabilities are plausible constituents of well-being, too. And it strikes me that we can measure some of these things quite directly. So why not estimate the effects of new products and quality changes on all these aspects of well-being?

Let’s say a “theory of well-being” is a list of plausible candidate constituents of well-being together, where each element is assigned a weight corresponding to its relative importance. We could poll people and do other experiments to reveal the most popular theories. Then we could calculate changes in well-being, relative to the most widely accepted theories of well-being, as typical consumption baskets change in composition and quality over time. Your real income might go up according to an index built on one theory of well-being and down on another. Then, instead of arguing over suspected biases in the CPI, pundits could argue directly about the constituents of welfare. That would be better. That’s what the argument is really about anyway. Could pluralistic indexing be the future?

One last thing that you should skip unless you care:  I find the Austrian subjectivist argument against economic measurement based in the heterogeneity of preferences uninteresting. It’s still useful to know the average effect of a change in the set of consumption options, and preference profiles don’t randomly differ. They cluster in rough types. So heterogeneity is no argument against discovering usefully general truths. Anti-“scientism” is often little more than obscurantism or methodological laziness.

Once again, thanks to the guys from the Division of Price and Index Number Research for so kindly responding!

McCloskey on Happiness and Flourishing

Speaking of McCloskey, I’m enjoying her response to critics [doc] of Bourgeois Virtues. I’m symapthetic to her position on happiness in this passage:

[Graafland and I] do more sharply disagree that “the goal of virtues is just this: to become happy.”  The Greek word that started the discussion, eudaimonia, is indeed sometime translated erroneously as “happiness,” which then slides over to the pot-of-pleasure definition favored by modern utilitarians.  A well-fed cat sitting on the window sill in the afternoon sun would report to a happiness-questionnaire scientist that she was happy, being at 9 on a scale of 10 (reserving 10 for sexual intercourse).  But we are not cats—though I would be the last to deny that a cat-like “happiness” from time to time is an element of a full life.  Baskin-Robbins. 

One would have thought that more economists, though, would be familiar with the Experience-Machine example that Robert Nozick devised in 1974 (I discuss it in The Bourgeois Virtues, pp. 124-125).  “Superduper neuropsychologists,” wrote Nozick, “would stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel” any life you want. Then you would die.  “Would you plug in?”  No, of course not.  You are you.  You have an identity (faith) and projects (hope) and loyalties (love).  Being Queen Elizabeth I would be great fun, the fun we get from a novel or a history about her reign, or a TV series starring Helen Mirren.  But in a novel or TV series we do not have to give up being ourselves, and won’t.  Nozick’s argument devastates any version of utilitarianism that does not have a serious theory of identity (faith, hope, love).  The experiment shows, as Nozick put it elsewhere, that “we are not empty containers or buckets to be stuffed with good things.”

The better translation of Plato’s and Aristotle’s eudaimonia is “fulfilled” or “flourishing” or close to literally (though having then anachronistic Judeo-Christian overtones) “blessed,” since the word literally means “having good spirits attending one.”  Doubtless, if she was lucky enough in 1800 to miss smallpox and starvation, Burns’ impoverished Scottish nut-brown maiden, “Her eye so mildly beaming/ Her look so frank and free,” equaled in “happiness” defined in the pot-of-pleasure sense the average person on the streets of Glasgow nowadays.  That is what recent research on so-called happiness claims, quite plausibly.  Nonetheless the modern Glaswegian has gigantically greater scope.  She can do 100 times more of some things, leading a fuller life-fuller in travel, education, ease of life, ease of listening to “The Nut-Brown Maiden” sung in English and Gaelic on the internet.  “Happiness” viewed as self-reported mood is not the point of a fully human life.  Therefore I think it obvious that modern economic growth has greatly improved modern life, and made people better as much as better off.  Some people don’t get it, true, and watch TV for six hours a day and eat Frittos by the bagful.  Therefore let us preach to them.

I don not believe that recent happiness research in fact implies that the nut-brown maiden would have reported a level of happiness no less than contemporary Glaswegians. But the broader point is bang on.

Nozick is right that we’re not utility pots. But I’m skeptical of superstrong notions of personal continuity, too, (“faith” is the right word for identity) and therefore I’m skeptical of certain kinds of strong conceptions of flourishing as living according to virtue — unless simply we define virtues as “those habits of mind and action that facilitate flourishing” — in which case, we need an independent account of flourishing. I’m not skeptical of the idea that neural deselection and myelination creates deeply persistent skills or excellences that one might want to identify with virtuea. But I doubt that (1) there is a pattern of such brain development that counts as virtue everywhere and always, completely independent of local social structure, and that (2) the internalization of local norms — the kind we tend to identify with virtues — generally goes this deep. Once acquired, it is difficult to lose a well-practiced backswing or the hard-won ability to see through to an argument’s implicit logical structure. But given the right shift in social context, many of our virtues can turn on a dime.