Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is economic development and increased 'inner freedom' leading to greater selfishness?

‘As an evolutionary shaped capacity, agency is a particularly ‘human’ capacity. It is indeed a defining characteristic of our species … . ‘Human’ development is hence any development that promotes the most human trait—agency … . In the life course of individuals, human development is the maturation of a person’s agentic traits. Applying the same logic to the trajectory of societies, all changes that bring a larger number of people in the situation to more fully realize their agentic traits, is to be characterized as ‘human’ development’: Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart, ‘Agency, Values and Well-Being: A human development model’, Soc. Indic. Res. (2010).

Some explanation is required to relate that quote to the question I wish to discuss. ‘Inner freedom’ refers to feelings of individual agency. Individual agency involves the capacity of an individual to act purposefully to his or her own advantage. Individuals have feelings of agency when they feel that what they do has an effect on how their lives turn out. The quoted passage is suggesting that the level of human development is greatest in societies where a high proportion of the population feel that what they do as individuals has a substantial effect on how their lives turn out. That seems to me to be a very important point, but some people claim that there is a dark side to this freedom – namely greater selfishness.

What do we mean by selfishness? Noble behaviour that an individual perceives to be a constitutive part of his or her own interests (acting in accordance with perceived identity) is sometime referred to as selfishness (e.g. by Ayn Rand). I think that what the critics of freedom have in mind when they talk about selfishness is atomistic individualism - a situation in which individuals make choices without regard to social norms or to the effects of their behaviour on anyone else. I accept that definition for the purposes of this post.

What is the basis for the view that feelings of individual agency tend to spread and become more widespread with economic development? Welzel and Inglehart provide substantial evidence in support of this view in the article cited above. They establish that:

• Self-expression values are stronger in countries with higher levels of economic development (and cognitive mobilization). Self-expression values encompass gender equality, tolerant attitudes toward abortion, homosexuality and divorce; an emphasis on autonomy and imagination in education rather than obedience and faith; and attitudes favouring democracy and freedom of speech. It is more appropriate to attribute this increase in self-expression values to economic development than to westernization.

• As the contribution of greater financial satisfaction to overall life satisfaction has become ‘saturated’ to a greater extent in countries with higher self-expression values, people in those countries tend to achieve higher life satisfaction to a greater extent through activities that enhance feelings of agency. In the authors’ words, there is an increase in the ‘relative strength of agentic life strategy’.

• Average life satisfaction levels tend to be higher in countries in which the relative strength of agentic life strategy is high.

It is worth noting at this point that in countries in which a relatively high proportion of the population have strong feelings of agency, proportion of people who are satisfied with freedom also tends to be relatively high. Such countries also tend to have higher levels of economic freedom as well as more civil liberties. I discussed the links between different indicators of freedom in an earlier post.

The question I posed in the heading of this post stems from the concerns expressed by some critics that individual freedom has a dark side. According to this view, excessive individualism results in a diminished sense of community, a loss of higher purpose and increased risk of mental illness.

In the course of their analysis Welzel and Inglehart found that agency feelings and communion (a composite index combining people’s emphasis on family and friends as important life domains) are not competitive factors. In fact, their results suggest that these factors amplify each other’s impact on life satisfaction.

When I read that I decided to have a look at the data on the web site of the World Values Study in order to get a feel for the data. (This web site has an excellent facility for instant cross-tabulation of data.) I focused on surveys for 2005-07 and on combined data for a group of countries with high self-expression values: Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and United States. The data show that people with high feelings of agency do tend to place higher importance on family and friends. When I looked further, I found that people with high levels of agency also tend to place higher emphasis on unselfishness as an important quality for children to learn.

In addition, people with high feelings of agency are also more likely to identify with the statement: ‘It is important to help the people nearby’. The pattern of responses is shown in the chart below. (The chart has been constructed so that observations add to 100% on the depth axis.)

Some readers might respond by suggesting that the pressures of life in countries with high self-expression values tend to result in higher incidence of mental illness. That proposition is easier to assert than to test with available information enabling international comparisons of the incidence of mental illness. However, a recent study by Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer has brought together the results of relevant studies in many different countries (‘What is more important for national well-being: Money or autonomy?’, JPSP (2011). The results suggest that the incidence of negative psychological well-being tends to be lower in countries with high levels of ‘individualism’ i.e. countries where people tend to have high self-expression values and greater feelings of agency. The exceptions to the general pattern seem to be a few countries which apparently have relatively good mental health outcomes despite low ‘individualism’ scores (e.g. Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia).  I will write more about this study in a subsequent post.               


Anonymous said...

"critics of freedom"??

Can you name a self-identified critic of freedom, or is "critics of freedom" simply code for "critics of deregulation"?

Winton Bates said...

Not many critics of freedom would identify themselves as such. The particular critic of freedom that I had in mind was Martin Seligman – a person for whom I have great respect and whom I was reluctant to name because he may not like to be labelled a critic of freedom. In my view Seligman has been a critic of freedom because he has argued that a cultural shift away from the ‘minimal self’ and greater emphasis on individual freedom has led to a ‘diminished sense of community and loss of higher purpose’ which ‘provide a rich soil for depression to grow in’. That view was expressed some time ago in his book, ‘Learned Optimism’ (1991), but he does not seem to have walked away from it in later writings – and the view still seems to be influential. It seems to me that such criticisms of freedom are misguided. If there has been a diminished sense of community, the available evidence suggests that it is not attributable to a greater sense of individual agency.

Anonymous said...

OK, I guess that would make someone fair game for the 'critic of freedom' label. Of course, 'enemy of freedom' would go beyond the pale. Even Hobbesians don't quite merit that.