Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why should we expect a close association between autonomy, realism and happiness in a worthwhile life?

Winton's amateurish artwork
Neera Badhwar writes:
“The main argument of my book can be stated in the following five propositions:
(i)    Well-being as the HPG (highest prudential good) consists of happiness in an objectively worthwhile life;
(ii)   Someone who leads such a life must be characteristically autonomous and reality-orientated, that is, disposed to think for herself and seek truth or understanding about important aspects of her own life and human life in general, and disposed to act on her understanding when circumstances permit;
(iii)   To the extent that someone with these traits succeeds in achieving understanding and acting on it when circumstances permit, she is realistic.
(iv)   To the extent that she is realistic, she is virtuous.
(v)     Hence, well-being as the HPG requires virtue”. 
"Wellbeing:Happiness in a Worthwhile Life", 2014.

I don’t have many problems with the first three propositions. Those propositions have been briefly discussed in my last two posts: “Is human well-being subjective or objective?” and “Is there a close relationship between autonomy and realism?” It is important to be clear that a realistic orientation is consistent with optimistic (hopeful) appraisals of future opportunities. Indeed, healthy human functioning seems to be characterized by realistic optimism. I will write something about that in my next post.

Coming back to the line of argument in Neera Badhwar's book, it was not immediately obvious to me why a person who is autonomous and realistic should be expected to be virtuous (point iv). Examples readily come to mind of situations where ‘being realistic’ appears to involve compromises in which virtue is sacrificed for pragmatic reasons. I will try to explain, briefly, how the author reaches the conclusion that virtue is positively related to realism.

The author accepts Aristotle’s view of virtue as an integrated intellectual-emotional disposition to think, feel, and act “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way”, and to take pleasure in so doing. Her focus is on the cardinal virtues of justice, honesty, courage, integrity, kindness, and the virtues that are partly constitutive of these virtues: practical wisdom, and regard for self and others.

In Chapter 4 she suggests:
“To the extent that an autonomous/ reality-oriented person achieves understanding of the true and the good, and acquires the disposition to deliberate, feel, and act accordingly, he is realistic and morally virtuous” (p. 108).

After reading that chapter I was left feeling sceptical about the line of argument developed. That surprised me because I have previously responded positively to other attempts to link well-being with virtues. (For example, see my previous comments on the views of Martin Seligman about cultivation of signature virtues.) As I see it the problem is that it is necessary to have or acquire a disposition to cultivate the virtues - as well as a somewhat optimistic disposition - before it is possible for the chemistry of autonomy and reality-orientation to produce happiness in a worthwhile life.

The problem is resolved in a later chapter. In Chapter 6 Neera Badhwar observes that nature has endowed humans with positive self- and other-regarding natural virtues and that in their early moral development people tend to acquire emotional dispositions to tell the truth, risk danger, help and empathize. She notes that the idea that well-tempered emotions are necessary for characteristically making the right choices is now widely recognized in philosophical literature and supported by psychological and neurological research.

The author argues that virtue and well-being both involve emotional, deliberative and evaluative dispositions. She notes that the cultivations of those dispositions is “to a significant extent up to us”. She adds:
“Furthermore, the integration of emotional dispositions with intellectual (especially deliberative) dispositions that is required by virtue, makes virtue highly conducive to happiness, since a common source of unhappiness is conflict between our emotions and evaluations. Indeed, since the virtuous agent necessarily takes pleasure or joy in acting virtuously, virtuous activity is inherently productive of some happiness. It also promotes happiness insofar as the achievement of worthwhile goals is a source of happiness, and virtuous activity enables the virtuous agent to achieve them” (p 152-3).

The way the author summarised her argument at the beginning of the book seems to me to have been unnecessarily provocative. After reading the book as a whole, however, I doubt whether many people would have fundamental objections to the idea that an objectively worthwhile life requires virtue and that cultivation of virtue requires autonomy and reality orientation. Indeed, if we accept that widespread regard for the traditional virtues must have evolved because practice of those moral intuitions served the individual and collective interests of humans, it would be strange if individuals who endorse and cultivate those virtues in their own lives did not obtain happiness from seeking to make their lives worthwhile.

In my view Neera Badhwar has presented strong reasons in support of the view that the chances for an individual to achieve happiness in an objectively worthwhile life depend heavily on the extent to which her/his life is characterized by autonomy and reality-orientation. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Is there a close relationship between autonomy and realism?

Is this an empirical question or a conceptual question?

If it is viewed as an empirical question the obvious way to answer it would be to define autonomy, define realism and then test for an empirical relationship. I have made a quick attempt to do that in the chart below, using the excellent data analysis facility of the World Values Survey. The autonomy index used is the sub-index constructed by Christian Welzel for his emancipative values index.  Welzel’s approach is based on survey respondents’ views of desirable child qualities: an emphasis on independence and imagination is considered to be positive in terms of the value placed on autonomy whereas an emphasis on obedience is considered to be negative. The realism indicator I used is based on responses to the statement: “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith”. The data shown are from an Australian survey conducted in 2012.

The chart seems to show that people who place high value on autonomy tend to be more realistic. However, this is a fairly frivolous piece of research. Questions can be raised about the relevance of an Australian survey to people in other countries, the small size of the sample etc. More importantly, for present purposes, the plausibility of the depicted relationship depends on the validity of the indicators of autonomy and realism used in the chart.

The empirical approach to answering the question cannot avoid conceptual issues relating to selection of appropriate indicators. Perhaps the question should be viewed as entirely conceptual.

In Well-being: Happiness in a worthwhile life, Neera Badhwar presents a philosophical argument that autonomy and reality-orientation are two facets of the same character trait. (In my last post I discussed another issue arising from this book, the question of whether human well-being should be viewed as objective or subjective.)

In brief, the argument is as follows. An autonomous person is self-governing. When we live autonomously, we “play an active role in shaping our individual selves, instead of slavishly following others, or surrendering direction of our lives to our fantasies, illusions, momentary urges or inertia”. Autonomous individuals have minds of their own – they rely on their own epistemic powers to form judgements about important issues, including the issue of how far they can rely on their own judgement. They are goal-directed and have a reliable self in charge - they not so self-confident as to be self-deluded. In order to have a reliable self in charge a person has to be reality-oriented. Autonomous individuals also accept responsibility for their actions, and in order to do that they must be reality oriented.

The difference between autonomy and reality-orientation lies only in their focus:
“The focus of reality-orientation is gaining the truth about, or understanding of, important things and responding accordingly, while that of autonomy is living by one’s own judgements and decisions”.

Much of Neera Badhwar’s discussion of the relationship between autonomy and realism is taken up with defence of her view against various possible criticisms. I found her discussion of claims that realism is bad for people to be particularly interesting. (The relevant chapter is based on a previously published article.)

The author concedes that when facts are devastating we might be better off remaining ignorant of them – some happiness based on ignorance is better than total misery based on knowledge. However, she is critical of empirical research which purports to show that holding positive illusions about oneself tends to promote happiness. She points to many problems with the research leading to these claims. She also implies that it is not possible to draw useful conclusions from the research findings, even if they are accepted at face value.  People who have positive illusions about their abilities could also be expected to have positive illusions about their happiness:
the emotions and evaluations that express or constitute their illusions about their abilities, achievements, and future prospects … together entail a sense of meaning and enjoyment of life. … It follows then that insofar as happiness consists of these unwarranted evaluations and emotions, the connection between happiness and illusions is a conceptual, and not a causal, one”.

I have to think more about what means in relation to neural research findings which suggest that it is normal for humans to have an inbuilt optimistic bias. When I look around me most of the people I see seem to have both a realistic orientation and tendency to look on the bright side of life. 

The author makes clear that she is not opposed to optimism. She recognizes that self-fulfilling attitudes, whether positive or negative, are a pervasive aspect of human psychology. The point she is making is that realistic optimism about oneself and one’s future beats unrealistic optimism – and thus recognizes that it is possible to have a realistic basis for optimism (as I have previously argued on this blog).

Neera Badhwar notes that Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, leaders of the human potential movement, viewed realism as central to mental health and well-being. She notes that in Rogers' view the fully functioning individual is open to experience, distorting neither his perceptions of the world to fit his conception of himself, nor his conception of himself to fit his perceptions of the world. I find this particularly interesting in the light of Rogers’ use of Alfred Korzybski’s notion that “the map is not the territory”. Carl Rogers recognized that our maps do not serve us well if they are not realistic.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is human well-being subjective or objective?

I usually try to begin the discussion of topics on my blog by explaining why the question and my answer might be of interest to potential readers. That is difficult this time because I am attempting to answer the question in the hope that doing so will help me to become less confused about the topic. However, confusion about subjectivity and objectivity seems fairly common - particularly so among economists - so hopefully what I am about to write will have a potential audience of more than one person.

In Free to Flourish I wrote:
“Observers can clearly make judgements about the extent that individual humans are flourishing or languishing in much the same way as they can make such judgements about plants and animals. In the case of humans, however, the subjects are capable of telling an observer how they feel about their own lives and their opinions usually deserve more respect than those observing. For example, it may appear obvious that people with poor physical health or very low income have a low quality of life, but if the individuals concerned feel content, what right has any observer to imply that they do not know how they feel?
As noted previously, individual flourishing involves a variety of factors including emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction, as well as more objective factors such as physical health, education and wealth. The relative weights any individual gives to these factors reflect personal preferences. …

If we were to substitute community values for personal preferences we would be at risk of attempting to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with. That would certainly be inappropriate.” (Chapter 5).

I stand by what I wrote. (At least I did earlier in the day when I wrote the preceding sentence.) 

Does that mean that I believe human well-being is objective or subjective? The first sentence in the quote implies that well-being is objective. Are the sentiments in the final paragraph of the quote consistent with those in the first sentence?

Before reading the first part of Well-Being: Happiness in a worthwhile life, by Neera Badhwar, a philosopher, I believed that well-being is subjective. Now I am fairly sure that there are objective standards of well-being.  (Many of the relevant issues are also discussed by Neera Badhwar in an article published last year.)

The problem is conceptual. My previous view that well-being is subjective was based on the view that it must be because it contains important subjective elements. That seems to have been the view of the welfare economists who declared interpersonal comparisons of utility to be impossible. It is also the view of the philosopher, Wayne Sumner, who suggested that the term ‘objective’ be reserved for the view that well-being is simply a matter of meeting certain objective standards, regardless of the individual’s emotional condition and her evaluation of her life.

At this point I recall a discussion a long time ago with an economist who pointed out to me that people often make interpersonal comparisons of utility - so we can hardly claim that such comparisons are impossible. In our everyday lives we often make judgements about whether other people are happy or sad, satisfied or unsatisfied with their lives, whether they feel that they are achieving anything worthwhile and so forth. Those judgements are based on what people say and do. They are often ill-informed, but that does not necessarily mean they are not objective. 

I suspect that it is only in their professional lives that economists have ever refrained from making interpersonal comparisons of utility. These days, many economists (self included) view the subjective ratings that individuals place on their happiness, satisfaction with life etc. as objective evidence pertaining to important aspects of their well-being relative to other people.

Neera Badhwar suggests that we should view theories of well-being as objective if they make objective worth essential to well-being. She argues that for individuals to be flourishing their lives must be supremely desirable and worthwhile, and therefore eminently worth living. They must not only meet the individual’s own standards of worth but be able to pass muster according to objective standards of worth.

The author argues that objective well-being requires self-direction:
the idea of objective well-being is perfectly compatible with the idea that objectively worthy lives can take many different shapes depending on the interests, opportunities and abilities of the individual and, in fact, must take a shape that both suits the individual’s own psychological nature and meets her standards to count as a life of well-being”. (p 8)

Neera Badhwar answers those who argue that objective theories of well-being are paternalistic by pointing out that theories of well-being in themselves do not tell us to promote other people’s well-being, let alone to promote our conception of their well-being.
That is consistent with the position that I have previously taken that “the case for individuals to be responsible for their own lives does not necessarily rest on each individual being the best judge of what is good for himself or herself”. In my view it rests on the proposition that adult humans cannot fully flourish unless they accept responsibility for their own lives. (Free to Flourish, Chapter 3.)

Coming back now to the last paragraph of the quote at the beginning of this post, if I now accept that a flourishing life must pass muster in terms of objective standards of worth, can I still maintain that it is inappropriate to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with? 

I don’t think so. I can acknowledge that objective standards of worth are relevant, whilst also urging researchers to accept the implications of the fact that “community standards” can be controversial. But that does not mean that it is never appropriate "to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with". For example, it is appropriate to assert that it is not possible for slaves to flourish, even though it is possible that an individual slave might claim that freedom has no value to her.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Is work-life balance a big problem in Australia?

There was a time, not long ago, that I avoided using the term “work-life balance” on the grounds that work is a normal part of life. Writing about work-life balance makes about as much sense as writing about sleep-life balance. But here I am now, writing about work-life balance! Never mind, everyone knows that what I am actually writing about is the balance between work and other aspects of life, including leisure, spending time with family members, and sleeping.

According to the OECD’s Better Life index, work-life balance in Australia is among the worst in the OECD. Australia’s ranking on this criterion is even below that of the United States. The indicators used by the OECD to assess work-life balance are the percentage of employees working very long hours, and time devoted to leisure and personal care. Australia’s ranking is 30/36 on both those indicators.

Do those indicators accurately reflect the impact of hours of work on the well-being of individuals? In order to answer that question it makes sense to look at the way hours of work impact on life satisfaction and other measures of emotional health. The fact that people are working long hours does not necessarily mean that they are irrational, or even that they are choosing to sacrifice some life satisfaction in order to achieve other objectives that are more important to them. They might just like working.

A few years ago, in an update of one of my more popular posts - entitled “How much does over-work affect happiness?” -  I ended up suggesting (not surprisingly) that life satisfaction data might help to answer that question. Since then I have wondered from time to time why I had not seen any studies using Australian survey data to shed light on the issue. I obviously hadn’t looked!

An article by Mark Wooden, Diana Warren and Robert Drago entitled “Working time mismatch and subjective well-being”, published in 2009, uses HILDA panel survey data to examine the relationship between working hours and levels of work and job satisfaction in Australia. The authors found that neither job satisfaction nor life satisfaction varied much with number of hours worked when the number of hours worked was consistent with the preferences of individual workers. That suggests the OECDs work-life balance indicators are not particularly relevant to the well-being of Australian workers.

Wooden et. al. found that the mismatch between the preferred working hours of individuals and their actual working hours has a significant impact on job satisfaction and life satisfaction. Both underemployment and overemployment have similar negative impacts on job satisfaction, but overemployment has larger negative impacts on life satisfaction than does underemployment. The authors suggest that although the absolute impacts on subjective well-being appear small, “the measured impact of overemployment should be viewed as important”, relative to “quite serious events, such as the onset of severe illness or injury”.

More recent research by Natalie Skinner and Barbara Pocock published in the latest Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI 2014) makes use of a flourishing index (the Huppert and So index discussed in my last post) encompassing characteristics of positive mental health such as optimism, resilience and competence. The survey results suggest that the rate of flourishing among Australian workers is higher than that for European workers. The difference is particularly marked for women workers, with 41% estimated to be flourishing in Australia, compared with only 33% in EU countries. I wonder how that can be explained.

The authors also found that rates of flourishing do not vary with length of work hours, but do vary according to whether working hours fit with the preferences of individual workers. The results are depicted in the chart below.

The rates of flourishing are much lower among women who would prefer more work than among the other categories. (The authors also found that working unsocial hours (weekends, evenings/nights) was associated with lower rates of flourishing for men.)

In order to show that mismatch between actual and preferred hours of work is a big problem in Australia it would be necessary to show that working hour mismatches tend to persist over time. In fact, research by Robert Breunig, Xiaodong Gong and Gordon Leslie using the HILDA data base suggests that most working hour mismatch problems are resolved within one year. Full-time workers who prefer to work less are the only group for which this is not true – the persistence of mismatches is just over 50 percent for this group, but declines in a predictable way over longer time periods. The evidence suggests that workers often resolve mismatches when they change employers.

My conclusion is that people who argue that work-life balance is a big problem for the well-being of Australians have been talking through their hats.