Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Freedom and Flourishing: Which questions come first?

As I noted in the title of this blog my aim here is to explore the links between freedom (liberty) and human flourishing.

I decided when I started this blog about seven months ago that the best way to ensure that I actually used it to undertake this exploration of links between freedom and flourishing would be to make each item in the blog an attempt to answer a relevant question.

It seemed to me that the exploration could usefully be thought of as a sequence of questions. As each question was explored, that would raise further questions, which would, in turn, raise further questions, and so on.

However, the existence of a sequence of questions is not obvious when you look at the front page of the blog, even though I think I have stuck fairly well to my original intentions. As with any other blog, what you see on the front page of this blog is like what you would see opening a book at random. You might see some topics at the side, but trying to follow those is like looking at the index at the back of the book and then reading entries that look interesting.

Dipping into a blog in this way can be a useful thing to do to get an idea of what it is about. But some readers may prefer to read an introduction.

What I attempt to do below is to give readers the benefit of my thinking about the order in which questions should be considered.

Where to begin?

Many people who come to this blog will view happiness as the ultimate goal of life. If that applies to you, you might like to begin by considering how human flourishing relates to happiness.

  • What does flourishing mean? Here
    However, you might have come here with the view that there is nothing more important than individual freedom. If so, you might ask:
  • Why consider the links between freedom and flourishing? Here
Where next? In my view the question most central to this blog is:

  • Is freedom a necessary condition for human flourishing? Here

From there it seems to me that it would make sense to consider a set of questions related to the links between freedom and flourishing.

  • What do objective measures of freedom and flourishing tell us? Here.
  • What do subjective measures tell us about human flourishing and about the links between freedom and flourishing? Here.
  • Do people want to be involved in political decision-making? Here
  • How can we categorize the arguments against freedom? Here
Now, each of those questions raise a series of further questions.

1. Objective measures of flourishing. How good is income as a measure of human flourishing? See particularly:

  • Is anything left of the Easterlin paradox? Here
  • How does probability of happiness vary with income levels? Here
  • What should we make of survey results showing no increase in happiness as income rises? Here

2. Subjective aspects of flourishing.

  • How well do happiness surveys measure human flourishing? Here
  • Does inner freedom link liberty with flourishing? Here
  • How important is autonomy? Here
  • What is the best book about pursuit of happiness and good government? Here
  • Are some goals better than others? Here
3. Political institutions.
  • What does living in peace entail? Here
  • How would you know if you lived in the best of all possible worlds? Here
  • Can government be bound? Here
  • Can government be restrained by transparency requirements? Here

4. The arguments for restricting freedom

  • What is the role of individual responsibility? Here
  • How should needy people be helped? Here
  • Does a welfare state strengthen the social fabric? Here
  • Why not let people opt out of the welfare state? Here

This sequence of questions is not a complete listing of the topics covered in the blog. Hopefully it covers enough ground to provide readers with a useful introduction.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Does paying tax make us happy?

I know that just about everyone who has read this far will think this post has to be about masochism, or schadenfreude. What is the definition of masochism? Masochism is the pleasure that some people feel when they pay their taxes. What is the definition of schadenfreude? Schadenfreude is the pleasure that some people feel when others have to pay more tax than themselves.

Actually, that is all I intend to write about masochism and schadenfreude in this post. The rest of the post is about the findings of some scientific research that suggests that paying tax can stimulate the same brain regions as are fired when basic needs such as food and pleasures are satisfied (B Harbaugh, U Mayr and D Burghart, ‘Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations’, Science, 2007).

In the experiment 19 women were given $100 and then their brains were scanned as they watched some of their money go to a food bank (a local charity) through mandatory taxation and as they made choices about whether to give more money voluntarily or to keep it for themselves. When the participants saw their money going to the food bank this fired off the same areas of their brains that respond to basic rewards like sweets, nutrients or positive social contact – indicating that they felt good, even when they had no choice about giving. The activation of these brain areas was even larger when the participants gave the money voluntarily.

One of the authors of the study, Ulrich Mayer, claims that the results show that people are to varying degrees pure altruists. Arguably, however, the results show that giving provides emotional benefits to the giver. When they give anonymously some people may give solely for the benefit of others, but most would do it for the warm inner glow.

I am not particularly surprised by the results of this study. People like to see others being helped when they fall on hard times because they know that they would appreciate help themselves in similar circumstances. I imagine that, if choosing behind a veil of ignorance about their own income, the vast majority would choose to live in a society in which those unable to support themselves were helped by others - and would be more than willing to pay an income-related insurance premium for this purpose as the price of admission.

At the same time, however, we often have good reasons to think of redistributive taxation as more akin to extortion than payment of an insurance premium. A substantial proportion of redistribution occurs because the recipients of transfers have the political muscle to have the coercive powers of the state used for their benefit. Paying tax could not be expected to make people happy under those circumstances.

It seems to me that the way this experiment has been structured tends to favour the result obtained.
First, I wonder whether inclusion of men among participants would make any difference to the results. For example, men might be less sympathetic than women to the plight of needy people.
Second, I wonder whether it would make any difference if participants were required to work for the initial allocation of funds. People might have less resistance to compulsory sharing of windfalls than money that they have worked to obtain.
Finally, I wonder what difference it would make if people saw their money being used by welfare recipients to fund such things as purchase of alcohol or gambling. It seems to me that a person would have to be a masochist to feel happy about paying tax under such circumstances.

I’m sorry! I forgot I wasn’t going to mention masochism again in this post.

Does spending money on others promote happiness?

Some new evidence that spending money on others promotes happiness was recently published in ‘Science’ (Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton, ‘Spending money on others promotes happiness’, Science, 21 March, 2008).

Three studies were reported. The first involved asking a sample of 632 Americans to rate their general happiness and to report their annual income as well as how much they spent each month on bills and expenses, gifts to themselves, gifts to others and charitable donations. A regression analysis of the results suggested that income level and spending money on others had a similar positive effect on happiness, but personal spending was unrelated to happiness.

This study does not reveal anything about the direction of causation. The results could just mean that happy people tend to be more generous. I know that when I am feeling grumpy I am not in a mood to be generous. The other two studies provide a better indication of the direction of causation.

The second study involved asking people their happiness prior to and after receiving a bonus from the company they worked for. The results suggest that those who spent more of the bonus on others experienced greater happiness after receiving it. Unfortunately there were only 16 people in the survey, so some caution is needed in interpreting the results.

The third study was an experiment in which 46 people were asked to rate their happiness one morning and then given an envelope containing either $5 or $20 to spend that day. Some were asked to spend the money on themselves and the others were asked to spend the money on a gift for someone else or a charitable donation. At the end of the day they were all asked to rate their happiness again. The participants who were instructed to spend money on others were significantly happier than those instructed to spend the money on themselves.

If we can assume these findings are reliable, what should we make of them? Elizabeth Dunn, the lead author, is reported as having said that it would be wrong to glean from this research that you should try to get a high-paying job so you can make tons of money and spend it on others so that you'll be happy (see here). Why not? Even if a person of moderate means gets the same boost in happiness by giving away a few dollars a week as a billionaire gets from giving in away the same proportion of her income, the billionaire can have the additional satisfaction of helping a far larger number of people.
Will Wilkinson asks: “how long before someone tries to use this study to argue that taxes make us happy?” (See here.) I imagine it will not take long. It seems to me, however, that the findings might support the opposite conclusion (as Gil, a person leaving a comment on Will’s blog, has already suggested). To the extent that taxes substitute for voluntary giving they might reduce the happiness of donors since they no longer have any choice in the matter. If you were to give some cash to a needy person it is conceivable that this could make you feel happier. If the same person held a gun to your head and told you to hand over the same amount of cash then I think it would be reasonable to predict that this would make you feel very unhappy.

How can we choose between alternative futures?

I ended my last post (here) wondering how I would feel after I had finished reading Daniel Gilbert’s book, “Stumbling on happiness”. In particular, I wondered how I would feel if the author managed to persuade me that I was wrong in believing that individual humans have the capacity to look forward in order to choose the best future for themselves.

I need not have been concerned. This is a lively and interesting book, but it seems to me that Gilbert has not succeeded in demonstrating that we are unable to shop around among the different fates that might befall us. Perhaps he mis-stated his intention in the first chapter. His book certainly demonstrates that we experience illusions of foresight – more illusions than I had imagined we experience. It concludes, however, with a recommendation about how we can make more accurate predictions about our emotional futures. The author suggests that we can do this by observing how happy other people are in different circumstances rather than by trying to imagine how happy we would be in those circumstances in the future.

Gilbert acknowledges that because everyone is unique the emotional experience of others is an imperfect guide to how we might feel. He suggests, however, that we tend to make greater errors when we reject the lessens that the emotional experience of others has to teach us and rely exclusively on our attempts to imagine how we might feel in those circumstances.

It seems to me that by the end of his book Daniel Gilbert is acknowledging that humans do have the capacity to look forward in order to choose a better future for themselves and can improve their use of this capacity. In effect, this view is consistent with, economist, Gary Becker’s view (“Accounting for Tastes”, 1996, p11) that the capacity that people have to anticipate future utilities can be improved by developing “imagination capital”.

Ironically, Daniel Gilbert implies that if individuals were more effective in pursuing their own happiness this could have adverse consequences. The example he gives is having children. There is a common belief that children bring happiness, even though people who are married without children report being happier, on average, than those with children living at home. Gilbert suggests that “the belief that children are a source of happiness becomes part of our cultural wisdom simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that holds it” (p244). He notes that the opposite belief would actually be self-terminating because people acting upon it would fail to reproduce.

It seems to me that this apparent conflict between pursuit of happiness and human flourishing stems from either too narrow a definition of happiness or failure to recognise that people pursue some objectives that are not encompassed by a narrow definition of happiness. Gilbert wants to reserve ‘happiness’ to refer to “that class of subjective emotional experiences that are vaguely described as enjoyable or pleasurable” (p 41). This corresponds to what Daniel Nettle describes as Level 1 happiness (“Happiness”, 2005). He suggests that when people say they are happy with their lives they are reporting Level 2 happiness: “They mean that upon reflection on the balance sheet of pleasures and pains, they feel the balance to be reasonably positive over the long term” (p17). Level 3 happiness involves “making judgements about what the good life consists of and the extent to which one’s life fulfils it” (p23). Thus the belief that “children are a source of happiness” may be linked to individuals’ conscious perceptions of the “good life” rather than just “part of our cultural wisdom”.

Is Daniel Gilbert’s book relevant to anyone who wants to pursue the “good life’ rather than Gilbert’s narrower perception of happiness? Yes. It seems to me that anyone seeking to choose between alternative futures could benefit from greater knowledge of the illusions of foresight discussed in this book.