Thursday, April 24, 2008

Does inner freedom link liberty with flourishing?

Dan Gilbert claims that “human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed” (“Stumbling on happiness”, 2007, p 22).

As an economist I rarely feel entirely sure how much credence can be placed on strong claims made by psychologists. The problem is not with psychologists. Their knowledge of psychology might even make them less prone than, say, economists or climate scientists to let their enthusiasm run away with them when propounding their pet theories. It is just a problem of asymmetric information – scientists who are selling ideas related to their areas of expertise know a lot more about the strength and weakness of those ideas than do potential buyers of those ideas.

In this instance, however, I feel that a lot of credence can be placed on Dan Gilbert’s claim, not least because he backs it up with a reference to Martin Seligman’s path-breaking work on helplessness in the 1970s. This research has been tested extensively in the intervening years.

So, if humans have a passion for control of their own lives (or inner freedom) it seems to me that this raises a series of questions that are relevant to the purpose of this blog.

1. Is self-direction necessary for happiness? This question has already been addressed at two levels in this blog. First, at a philosophical level, it has been discussed in terms of Aristotelian views - ancient and modern - of about the nature of human flourishing as an inherently self-directed process (here). Second, at a more pragmatic level, it has been discussed in terms of the research undertaken by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan that indicates that human flourishing depends on the extent to which people satisfy a need for autonomy as well as a need to feel competent and connected to others (here).

More recent research by Alan Waterman and others suggests that requiring the performance of an activity previously associated with the feeling of eudemonia – developing one’s unique individual potentials and furthering one’s purposes in living – “may have the effect of moving it from the category for which both hedonic enjoyment and eudaimonia are present to the category for which neither is present” (‘The implications of two conceptions of happiness ...’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2008).

However, it seems to me to be consistent with self-direction that people voluntary submit to various requirements because they feel that some short-term sacrifice is worthwhile in order to achieve greater happiness later. For example, people submit to examinations in the process of skill development - knowing that this will take some of the joy out of learning. From an economic perspective such sacrifices are what investment is about.

2. Is liberty necessary for human flourishing? Some people view human flourishing as a communal effort that does not leave individuals much if any room for self-direction. I think that view is mistaken, but I am prepared to live and let live provided the people who hold that view are willing to reciprocate. I agree with Douglass Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl that if people are to be allowed to flourish to the maximum extent possible without infringing on the flourishing of others, then we need a political/ legal order that will not favour some varieties of human flourishing above others (see here).

3. Is freedom a sufficient condition for happiness? Some people may not flourish under freedom simply because they lack the minimal resources that are necessary. This opens up questions about how such people might be helped (see here).

Learned helplessness can also be a problem. In Seligman’s original experiments some dogs were subjected to conditions under which they were unable to escape electric shocks no matter what they did. Some of these poor animals "learned" to be helpless because after changes were made so that they could easily escape shocks by jumping over a low partition, they didn’t even try. Even though they were free to escape the shocks, they just lay down passively and whined. (The experiment is described here.)

I propose to consider the following additional questions at some stage in the future:

  • How closely is inner freedom correlated with life satisfaction?
  • Is inner freedom correlated with external freedom as measured in indexes of economic freedom?
  • Is inner freedom correlated with income and other economic variables?

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