Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do I understand the meaning of W B Yeats' epitaph?

I know that poetry can sometimes convey thoughts and feelings that tend to get lost in prose. Nevertheless, I don’t read much poetry. Reading poetry has always seemed like something that I could do when I become older.

Even so, I have recently been reading some of the poetry of W B Yeats. My interest was aroused by the epitaph on his gravestone in the cemetery of St Columba’s Parish Church at Drumcliffe in County Sligo, when we visited Ireland during August.

What could Yeats have meant by suggesting that we should cast ‘a cold Eye’ on ‘Life’?
Before trying to answer that question it may be worth considering why we should care what Yeats meant. I think we should show some interest because he has been widely held to have been a literary genius. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, for what the Nobel Committee described as ‘inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation’. His poem, ‘Easter 1916’, about the participants in the rebellion that occurred at that time in Ireland, comes to mind as a poem that might warrant that description.

Beside the grounds of St Columba’s is this artistic feature, sculpted by Jackie McKenna.

The figure is called ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, after Yeats’ poem of the same name, and the poem is laid out in front of him:
‘Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.

Yeats seems to be widely esteemed in this part of the world. This statue of Yeats can be found in Sligo.

There is also a Yeats memorial building in Sligo, with displays providing information about his links with that region and other aspects of his life.

There is a Yeats exhibition at the National Library in Dublin, which contained among other things his response to a questionnaire about creative effort. I was permitted to take some photos:

Yeats’ suggests that his creative efforts always involved day-dreaming. He never waited passively for inspiration and always worked systematically regardless of inspiration. He claims that his critical ability was always active in his creative efforts.

Yeats’ epitaph is the last stanza of his poem, ‘Under Ben Bulben’. Ben Bulben is a mountain close to where Yeats is buried.

In a small booklet, entitled ‘The Eye of the Heart’, available at St Columba’s church, Derick Bingham suggests that Yeats is saying:
‘If you are looking for answers as to what lies behind life and death, I can’t help you. You must look somewhere else. Horsemen, pass by’.
That is one possible interpretation.

However, reading the epitaph in the context of the poem, it seems that the horseman referred to is mythical superhuman creature ‘with an air of immortality’. We are told in the poem that such horsemen and women now ‘ride the wintry dawn’ ‘where Ben Bulben sets the scene’.
I think the key to the meaning that Yeats was intending to convey is in the following lines:
‘Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all’.

I think Yeats wants us to view life and death through the cold eyes of mythical god-like beings of the ancient world.

That perspective leaves me cold. Is it not better to look at life and death through human eyes? Perhaps contemplating whether those who have gone before have had happy lives can help us to consider how best to live our own lives.

This is one of the most popular posts on my blog. I urge visitors to take a look at the comments provided below, some of which disagree with my understanding of the epitaph.

Postscript 2: April 6, 2020
A followup post with comment by Beth Prescott has now been posted: See: What did Yeats mean by "Horseman, pass by"? 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Should we choose eudaimonia over hedonia?

Last week my attention was drawn to the findings of some recent research, led by Barbara Fredrickson, which suggests that eudaimonia – which can be described in broad terms as a sense of wellbeing associated with a noble purpose or engagement in meaningful activities - provides positive health benefits in protecting against a variety of human ills, including arthritis, heart disease and viral infection. By contrast, the study suggests that hedonia – a sense of happiness associated with pleasure, satisfaction and self-gratification – has the opposite effects.

The findings are noteworthy because previous research has suggested that both eudaimonia and hedonia are associated with improved physical and mental health outcomes. I feel more inspired than surprised by the findings. Like many other people I was brought up to believe that a noble purpose can be protective, but in adult life I viewed that as more a matter of faith than anything else. It is interesting to learn there may be a scientific basis for such beliefs.

The research combined psychology tests to determine the nature of happiness experienced by 80 healthy adults with a health check and test of blood samples to assess gene expression associated with chronic stress and antiviral responses. Barbara Fredrickson is a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina. On this project she collaborated with a team led by Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry, at the University of California. (The research findings have been published in PNAS.)

Like previous studies, this study indicated that there is a relatively high correlation observed between eudaimonic and hedonic indicators of happiness (r= 0.79). People who score highly in terms of eudaimonic happiness tend also to score highly in terms of hedonic happiness, and vice versa, but there was nevertheless sufficient difference to enable the impacts of eudaimonia and hedonia to be disentangled.

The authors’ conclusion is a bit complicated, but it seems to be implying that if the ‘good life’ means a long and healthy life, then eudaimonic wellbeing is superior to hedonic wellbeing.

 However, there are some important qualifications noted in the discussion:
‘In interpreting these results, it is important to note that hedonic and eudaimonic well-being are not mutually exclusive approaches to happiness, nor do they represent a simple typology or a tradeoff. Both types of well-being share some common sources (e.g., perceived social connections) and can reciprocally influence one another [i.e., positive affect predisposes people to find positive meaning, and finding positive meaning increases positive affect]. As such, the current finding that a purified index of eudaimonic well-being (purged of shared variance with hedonia) predicts a more favourable pattern of gene expression than does a purified index of hedonic well-being (purged of shared variance with eudaimonia) says more about which form of well-being one would not want to do without, rather than which form one would be better to avoid. For people in whom one form of well-being outweighs the other, striving predominately toward meaning may have more favourable effects on health than striving predominately toward positive affect per se’. (References to cited works have been omitted from the quote.)

I struggle to understand what some of that paragraph means – the findings of the study seem to me to suggest that some kind of trade-off between eudaimonia and hedonia must be involved, despite the existence of complementarity. The issues involved appear a little clearer, however, when I bring my training in economics to bear and think in terms of a possibilities curve that surrounds all the combinations of eudaimonia and hedonia that it might be possible for an individual to achieve.

I have drawn the possibilities curve to depict a trade-off between hedonia and eudaimonia at most of the attainable points (i.e. between A and B) but allowing some regions where single-minded pursuit of either hedonia or eudaimonia might result in inferior outcomes. I draw the curve as concave to the origin over most of its length because I imagine that the eudaimonic benefits we can obtain by sacrificing a unit of hedonic benefits would tend to diminish as we sacrifice more and more hedonic benefits. My reasoning is that there are likely to be diminishing returns to devoting time both to activities that produce high hedonic benefits and activities that produce high eudaimonic benefits. I expect that single minded pursuit of hedonia might be counterproductive for the same reason that J S Mill argued that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it (as discussed here previously). And I expect that single minded pursuit of eudaimonia might be counterproductive for the same reason that Aristotle argued that we need amusement – ‘for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously’. (That comes from the passage in Nicomachean Ethics Book X, where Aristotle suggests that it would, indeed, be strange if amusement was your purpose in life and you were to take trouble and suffer hardship all your life just in order to amuse yourself.)

The sentence in the paragraph quoted above about the findings saying more about ‘which form of well-being one would not want to do without, rather than which form one would be better to avoid’, seems to envisage a person who is at a point inside the possibilities curve, such as the point at the question mark. A person in that position might be considering whether to seek to become happier by moving in the direction of point H or point E.

I should emphasize that the possibilities curve I have drawn is based mainly on my speculations and may not be related to what Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues have in mind.

However, I think my diagram may have some value in considering the information and practical wisdom we need to make sensible decisions about how we live our lives:
  • ·         First, we need to know ourselves well enough to know where we stand at present relative to the possibilities that are available to us.
  • ·         Second, additional information (such as the findings about potential health consequences in the study discussed above) has potential to help us to choose wisely among the possibilities that are available.

My final point is the same as the point I made a few years ago in discussing whether J S Mill was correct in his rejection of Jeremy Bentham’s claim that pushpin is a good as poetry. There doesn’t seem to me to be much point in arguing whether eudaimonia is or is not superior to hedonia. The important issue is about obtaining balance in one’s life.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How does 'democratic failure' threaten progress?

In Chapter 8 of my book, Free to Flourish, I suggested that the greatest threat to human progress over the next few decades is that democratic governments will not be able to cope with their expanding responsibilities. I noted that increased public disorder is already evident in Europe and is likely to become more widespread as people become increasingly aware that governments cannot deliver on the promises they have made.

There is a risk that failing democracies will be replaced by authoritarian regimes that have little regard for human rights. Even if democracy limps on, however, over-expansion of the responsibilities of government seems likely to bring progress to an end in many societies.
Progress ends at the point where societies cease to be able to offer expanding opportunities for individual human flourishing.

From an economic perspective, the most obvious threat to progress posed by expansion of the responsibilities of government has to do with the economic costs of high levels of government spending, high taxation and excessive regulation. Government spending has to be paid for sooner or later by collecting revenue from citizens and (as every economist should know) the economic cost of taxation rise disproportionately with tax revenue. There are also economic costs associated with forms of government spending and regulations that divert resources to less productive activities or weaken incentives for efficient resource use. As a general rule, the further the activities of government extend beyond core functions in which government has a comparative advantage, the more likely it is that progress will be stifled.

However, that kind of analysis understates the threat to progress posed by expansion of government responsibilities because it assumes that governments act in the interests of the broader community and that all governments have competence in taxing, spending and regulating to pursue agreed objectives. Democratic processes may reduce some of the problems of such government failure, but democracy doesn’t provide much assurance that governments will pursue objectives that are in the interests of the vast majority of citizens, or that the activities of government will be undertaken efficiently. Democracy doesn’t prevent voters from developing inflated expectations of what governments can do – politicians often encourage inflated expectations in competing for votes. Democracy doesn’t ensure that individuals have the opportunity to discover and pursue whatever it is that enhances their own wellbeing and the responsibility to manage their own lives; it doesn’t prevent people from being relieved of important responsibilities – such as education, health care, saving for retirement. Democracy doesn’t prevent governments from becoming captive to interest groups in industry, the community and the public sector, and to pursue the interests of those groups at the expense of the rest of the community. The absence of market disciplines in the public sector makes public sector activities particular prone to corruption and inefficiency, even in democracies.

As a consequence of such democratic failure there is a tendency for the responsibilities of government to expand until economic disaster threatens. The point at which this occurs differs greatly between countries, depending on the extent of corruption and inefficiency. For example, Greece was well on the way to an economic crisis before its government spending as a percentage of GDP reached levels comparable to those in Sweden, which is often held up as a prime example of a country with big government.

Another symptom of democratic failure is difficulty in changing course when disaster threatens. Again, a comparison between Sweden and Greece is appropriate. When disaster threatened in the early 1990s, Sweden was able to introduce reforms to contain the growth of government spending, reduce marginal tax rates and regulate more efficiently. Despite the high level of government spending in Sweden - still around 50 per cent of GDP – there is some prospect that opportunities for individuals to flourish will expand over time in that country. Gallup poll data suggest some increase in average life satisfaction in Sweden over the period from 2005-07 to 2010-12 and that Swedes are optimistic that their lives will improve further over the next five years.

By contrast, Greece has shown much less ability to introduce the reforms needed to avert economic disaster, even though successive governments in that country have known that public debt problems were looming since before 2001, when Greece joined the Eurozone. The consequence has been a fall of about 20 per cent in Greece’s GDP since 2008. The average unemployment rate in Greece has been about 28 per cent this year and youth unemployment over 60 per cent. Over the period from 2005-07 to 2010-12, average life satisfaction in Greece declined from 6.3 to 5.4 (on the Cantril scale in which the ‘best possible life’ is given a value of 10 and the worst possible life a value of zero). Greeks have become pessimistic about the future – the average Greek expects life to get worse over the next five years.

It would be nice to be able to contrast the experiences of both Sweden and Greece with those of a country that can be held up as a model of ideal democratic governance. Unfortunately, no country comes to mind. Institutional innovations have resulted in improved policy outcomes in some countries, but I don’t think any one country deserves to be held up as a model of ideal governance.

The growth of inflated expectations of what governments can do seems to be a common pattern throughout the democratic world. It is also common for responsibilities of government to expand until crisis threatens.

As we have seen, what happens at that point is of critical importance. If policy reforms are introduced to contract the responsibilities of government, that enables opportunities for individual human flourishing to expand over the longer term. If reform is too little and too late there is the prospect of following Greece down the path toward widespread misery. Unfortunately, a Greek tragedy may await many countries, particularly in Europe, where democratic failure seems to have become too deeply entrenched for substantial reforms to be implemented.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How should virtue ethics be applied in the pursuit of happiness?

Jeffrey Sachs has described his essay, ‘Restoring Virtue Ethics in the Quest for Happiness’ as highly speculative. That description is apt in my view, even though the idea of restoring virtue ethics does deserve serious consideration. (The essay was published recently as Chapter 5 in the World Happiness Report 2013.)

Jeff begins by establishing that before the modern era, virtue and happiness were seen to be inextricably intertwined. Happiness was seen to be achieved by harnessing the will and the passions to live the right kind of life. He goes on to argue that, over several centuries, virtue ethics has largely been replaced by utilitarian considerations, resulting in greater hedonism and consumerism.

I agree that people have come to think of happiness as being largely about feelings – about pain and pleasure, or positive affect and negative affect, rather than about tranquility, equanimity or spirituality. And, for many people, the pleasure of immediate consumption seems to have encroached upon the virtue of prudence.

Jeff takes this argument much further. He suggests that in the early decades of the 20th Century (the Roaring 20s) ‘America slid into an ethos of ‘hyper-commercialism, untethered by ethical, religious, or philosophical constraints’. He suggests that since then the prevailing ethos has been that happiness ‘was more and more to be found in personal wealth, pure and simple’. He follows Wilhelm Ropke in suggesting that the ubiquity of advertising and the other ‘dark arts of persuasion’ are undermining social values and ethics. He also shares Ropke’s concerns that financial innovations are undermining the fragile restraints that induce households to save for the future.

Jeff argues that hyper-commercialism is the dominant ethos in the United States today. He also claims:
‘Hyper-commercialism has failed to lift average US happiness for more than half a century, even as per capita income has tripled. In Figure 2.3 of this report, the US ranks just 17th in happiness, though it has a higher income per capita than the 16 countries ahead of it, with the exception of Norway’.

However, I don’t think Jeff has established that hyper-commercialism is the dominant US ethos. It seems to me that what Jeff describes as ‘hyper-commercialism’ is normally referred to in less inflammatory terms as ‘materialism’ - a preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts and considerations at the expense of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values. Whereas hyper-commercialism is linked exclusively to commercialism, materialism could have a number of different causes. Businesses certainly try to tempt people to buy the things they sell, but they were not alone in encouraging materialism. The 20th Century was also prime time for industrial and political movements which promoted materialism by encouraging people to agitate for improvement in the material conditions of their lives. Practitioners of the politics of envy have been active in America in encouraging people to become discontented, even though they have been less successful than in some other parts of the world.

The idea that materialism has become dominant seems to me to understate the ongoing influence of ethical constraints and non-commercial values in the United States. Views about anti-social behaviour have moved in favour of greater government regulation, and opportunistic and untrustworthy behaviour is widely discouraged. Moralists and even some entertainers preached against materialism during the 20th Century, as in earlier periods. Their view has gained impetus in recent years as scientific evidence has emerged that people whose main goal in life is to become wealthy tend to become unhappy if they fail to attain that goal.

Jeff also seems to have overlooked the possibility that people might have chosen to become more materialistic in their outlook even in the absence of urging by commercial and political interests. Is it not possible that we have come to want the material objects that make our lives more comfortable and provide us with better travel and communication possibilities as they have come into existence and as we have come to learn how they can improve our lives? My casual observations suggest that it is possible. For example, when I visited Bhutan it seemed obvious to me that many of the people who live there still want access to the material objects of the modern world, even though they have been exposed to little advertising.

The evidence that Jeff cites of no increase in average happiness in the US for more than half a century is contradicted by evidence from the Pew Research Center and the Gallup Organisation that since 1964 the proportion of Americans saying that their life today is better off than five years ago has generally far exceeded the proportion saying that their life today is worse than five years ago. It seems to me that the latter surveys are more reliable because they require respondents to evaluate their current and past lives on a directly comparable basis.

The point that Jeff makes about average happiness in the US ranking below that of some countries with lower incomes invites an inspection of the reasons why the US ranking is lower, to see whether they provide support for speculations about hyper-commercialism. I don’t see any obvious evidence in support of Jeff’s speculations in Figure 2.3 (to which he refers in the passage quoted above). Perceived levels of social support and generosity are comparable to those in the highest ranking countries. The Figure suggests that the areas in which the US performs more poorly than the highest ranking countries are perceptions of corruption and freedom to make life choices – which are not linked in obvious ways to hyper-commercialism. Further research is required to understand why people in the US perceive corruption to be high and their freedom to be restricted.

It is fairly clear from what I have written that I disagree with a fair amount of the reasoning by which Jeff comes to the view that virtue ethics should play a larger role in the quest for happiness. Nevertheless, I agree with him that we should be seeking some kind of ethical consensus as a guide to public policy. In Free to Flourish (and on this blog) I have suggested that the concept of a good society – a society that is good for the people who live in it – could be a useful focus for thinking about this issue. I have suggested that there would be widespread agreement that a good society would have three important characteristics:
·         a set of institutions that enable its members to live together in peace;  
·         widespread opportunities for its members to live long and healthy lives, and to pursue their economic, educational, cultural goals; and
·         a degree of security against misfortunes such as accidents, ill-health, unemployment and environmental disasters. 

Finally, I agree with Jeffrey Sachs’ suggestion that more attention should be given to monitoring individual norms regarding honesty, trust and other aspects of virtue ethics. The state of the social fabric is clearly of fundamental importance to the pursuit of happiness.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What has happened to average world happiness levels since the GFC?

Despite the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and its aftermath, there has been a small improvement in average life satisfaction of the world population over the period from 2005-07 to 2010-12. That finding is based on data from the Gallup World Poll, and is reported in the World Happiness Report 2013 edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs.

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It seems to me that the report may actually understate the extent to which most people in the world have perceived their lives to have improved since the GFC. I will give my reasons for that view toward the end of the article, after I have presented some of the Report’s findings.

Chapter 2 of the World Happiness Report indicates that increases in average life satisfaction occurred mainly in Latin America and Caribbean countries, the Commonwealth of Independent States (Russia and other former Soviet countries), East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. It suggests that these increases were offset to a large extent by declines in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Western Europe and NANZ (North America, Australia and New Zealand).

Significant improvements in average life satisfaction occurred in 16 of the 21 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and significant declines occurred in only 2 of those countries. The increases for Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Chile were all greater than 0.7 (on the zero to 10 Cantril scale), putting those countries among the top 12 countries in the world in terms of improvement in average life satisfaction.
The pattern was more varied in other regions. For example, average life satisfaction declined in 7 of the 17 countries of Western Europe but increased in 6 of those countries. Average life satisfaction declined in the United States and New Zealand, but did not change much in Canada and Australia.

Analysis in the report suggests that the main reasons for the improvement in life satisfaction in Latin American and Caribbean countries was growth of average income levels, combined with substantial declines in perceived corruption and a substantial improvement in life-choice freedom.

The Report includes a special analysis of the reasons for the decline in life satisfaction in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, the four countries of Western Europe in which life satisfaction declined to the greatest extent during the Eurozone crisis. The declines in life satisfaction in those countries were far greater than could be explained by the decline in income alone. Declines in perceived life-choice freedom, social support and generosity and increases in perceived corruption went some of the way toward explaining the decline in life satisfaction, but left a substantial amount unexplained. Inclusion of unemployment in the analysis suggested that this variable also had a significant independent impact.

The authors note that Greece stands out among the four countries as having the largest decline in life satisfaction that cannot be explained by any of the above factors. They suggest that another factor that might be of particular importance in Greece is a decline in trust in key institutions, such as the legal system.
It might have been illuminating to include Ireland in this analysis because that country was also severely affected by the GFC and still has an unemployment rate of 14%, which seems alarmingly high even though only about half the rate in Greece and Spain.  In contrast to the four countries included in the analysis, average life satisfaction levels in Ireland remained virtually unchanged over the period considered.

The time has come to discuss why I think the Report may actually understate the extent to which most people in the world have perceived their lives to have improved since the GFC. In my view there is a problem in attempting to measure changes in world happiness levels by comparing the results of successive surveys. The problem arises because the measurements have been made relative to a reference point – perceptions of the best possible life – that changes over time, and changes to a different extent in different parts of the world.

It seems to me that while it would be reasonable to expect that people in Europe would not have changed their perception of the best possible life to any great extent over the last five years, that is unlikely to be true of people in a country such as China, where high levels of economic growth would have been accompanied by broadening horizons and rising aspirations. I think that means that the World Happiness Report has probably tended to understate progress toward a better quality of life in countries with relatively rates of economic growth and thus to understate the increase in average happiness levels of the world population.

Perhaps it would help to clarify the point I am trying to make if I elaborate on the implications of rising aspiration levels in China for measurement of happiness. I noted on this blog a few years ago that Gallup data for 2008 indicates that the rating the Chinese gave to ‘life five years ago’ is lower than the average life satisfaction rating for just about every country in the world outside Africa. I also noted that the rating the Chinese gave to their lives five years ahead was higher than average life satisfaction in some western European countries. I went on to predict:
‘When they appraise their current quality of life in five years time they will realize that they still have somewhat further to go before attaining “the best possible life”. But they are not likely to become discontented while they continue to experience the economic growth they have come to expect’.

The World Happiness Report shows only a small improvement in average life satisfaction in China, from 4.7 in 2005-07 to 5.0 in 2010-12. We don’t have data on how much the Chinese have perceived their lives to have improved over the last five years, but it could well be by about the same magnitude as the improvement they perceived in the five years to 2008 (1.2 points). What we do know is that the Chinese remain just as optimistic about the prospects for improvement in the quality of their lives over the next five years as they were in 2008 (with an average improvement of 1.5 points expected in both instances).

We can be confident that the current optimistic expectations of the Chinese people will not be fully reflected in their average happiness levels in five years time because expected improvements in the quality of life in China over that period are likely to be accompanied by a further elevation in perceptions of the ‘best possible life’. Even if optimistic expectations are met concerning economic growth and other relevant factors, it is likely that there will be little increase in average happiness levels in China. Changes in the average happiness data provide little information on the extent to which people in China perceive that their lives are improving.

If we want to know the extent to which Chinese people perceive that their lives are continuing to improve we need information on the rating they give to their past lives that is comparable to the rating that they give to their current lives. As noted above, in the past the Gallup organization has in the past collected data on ‘life five years ago’ when collecting evaluations of ‘life today’. Unfortunately, this information has not been collected in recent surveys. Hopefully, the relevant information will be collected regularly in future.