Thursday, August 23, 2012

How addictive is blogging?

I might be about to find out.

The time has come for me to take a short break from blogging while I finish the first draft of the book I am writing.

Postscript 1:
I would like to thank kvd for his comments, below, which have led me to attempt to articulate more clearly the main message in the book.

As I have been writing the book my perception of threats to human flourishing has changed somewhat. When I began, I thought that the main point I would be making would be that in order to be fully flourishing individual humans need to have control of their own lives. In other words, if governments relieve us of the need to exercise our powers of self-direction, then our skills in running our own lives can be expected to dissipate, resulting in character development failures. That is still an important message, but I think the more urgent message to convey is that when people come to expect governments to take the obstacles out of the obstacle course of life then they are likely to end up disappointed (i.e. unhappy). The gap that has emerged between what democratic governments are expected to deliver and what they can actually deliver cannot go on increasing indefinitely. An adjustment to reality must occur sooner or later. The larger the gap, the more painful the adjustment is likely to be. (That sounds a bit polemical, but I am writing a polemic!)

Postscript 2:
One week later, I can now answer the question posed above – in case anyone thought it might be a serious question.

I’m not addicted to blogging. It is no more addictive than any other hobby might be. The rewards are entirely intrinsic. I am not blogging in order to achieve fame or fortune (just as well!) but for the satisfaction in thinking my way through issues, writing about them and engaging in discussion with other people.

As someone once told me, we always have enough time to do the things that are most important to us. Blogging is fairly important to me, but ‘other things’ sometimes have priority. It seems likely that over the next few months ‘other things’ will often be more important to me than blogging, so I do not expect to be blogging as regularly as in the past.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Is it a fantasy that a happy life is all about pleasant experiences?

It seems to me that the view that a happy life is just about pleasant experiences is a fantasy. I’m not saying that it is not desirable to have a life full of pleasant experiences, just that a happy life involves more than that.

In his famous thought experiment, Robert Nozick asked readers to imagine an experience machine that would give them any experience they desired. They would be able to select experiences from a large library and the machine would be pre-programmed to give them those experiences while they spent the rest of their lives floating in a tank (‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’, 1971, pp 42-44).

Would you choose to spend the rest of your life hooked up to such a machine?

Nozick suggests that we learn that something matters to us other than experiences by imagining the experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. He suggests three reasons why you probably wouldn’t use it. You want to do things, not just have the experience of doing them. You would not want to be a person floating in a tank – that is not consistent with how you see yourself. And the machine would limit you to man-made reality – ‘to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct’.

It might be reasonable to argue that people plugged into the experience machine would be happy – in the sense that their overall emotional condition would be positive. They might have peace of mind, confidence, inner freedom, and feelings of vitality, flow, joy and cheerfulness (to use terms in Dan Haybron’s definition of happiness, discussed on this blog some time ago). I see some merit in that definition of happiness, but it isn’t the definition of happiness that I have in mind when I assert that it is a fantasy that a happy life is all about experiences.

What I have in mind when I refer to a ‘happy life’ is ‘human flourishing’. I don’t have a huge problem with the idea that positive feelings are all about experiences. (Perhaps it might be better to talk in terms of perceptions of experiences - the meaning we attach to experiences must also come into the equation.) But I don’t see how anyone could argue that human flourishing is all about experiences. It seems obvious that a person who spent a life-time hooked up to an experience machine would not be flourishing.

What about motivation? Are those who define happiness as a positive emotional condition able to claim that happiness is the only motivator of human behaviour? One person who seems close to holding that position is the psychologist, Dan Gilbert. He certainly adopts the definition of happiness as a positive feeling and almost claims that it is the only motivator:
‘Everyone who has observed human behaviour for more than thirty continuous seconds seems to have noticed that people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy’ (‘Stumbling on Happiness’, 2006, p 36).

As an economist, I don’t have any difficulty in accepting that just about all human action is motivated by desires of some kind. But if people are strongly motivated by a desire to experience positive feelings, would they not view a life hooked up to the hypothetical experience machine - where positive feelings can be guaranteed - as desirable? Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, says that most of the people to whom he has offered the hypothetical choice refuse it. His explanation: 
‘It is not just positive feelings we want, we want to be entitled to our positive feelings’ (‘Authentic Happiness’, 2002, p 8).

The main power of the experience machine metaphor seems to come from the life-time commitment involved. The nature of humans is such that few of us would view a life-time of virtual reality as a meaningful life.

However, it seems to me that the thought experiment can also help to clarify some issues if we relax the condition of life-time connection. The practical question can be raised of how much time we might be prepared to spend hooked up to a virtual reality machine as a form of entertainment. As virtual experiences become less easy to distinguish from real experiences, people may be tempted to spend more time enjoying virtual reality at the expense of other forms of entertainment, or even work. While many of us would see an hour or two of virtual reality now and then as harmless escapism, we would probably want to draw a line somewhere to ensure that we live meaningful lives. The issues involved are similar to those many of us have had to deal with in learning how to switch off the TV.

My point is that when we make such choices we take into account factors other than the positive feelings generated by different experiences. It is natural for us to think also about the objectives we have for our lives – the kinds of persons we want to become - and the extent to which different experiences might contribute to those goals.

Some people could suggest that it doesn’t make much difference in practice whether or not people believe the fantasy that a happy life is all about pleasant experiences. I think it might matter a great deal. For example, people who believe that fantasy might give less thought to what they could do to make their own lives meaningful. They might also be more inclined to neglect to help their children to develop the skills in self-direction that they need to have happy lives. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Does actualization of potential take us beyond self-direction?

The main point I am making in the second chapter of the book I am writing is that the purpose of our lives is to flourish – to actualize our potential as individual humans - and that what flourishing means is ultimately a matter for each of us to discover for ourselves. As I see it, the reason we have to discover it for ourselves is that flourishing involves, among other things, developing skills in self-direction.

A correspondent has suggested to me that this formulation is excessively focused on individuals and does not recognize that individuals cannot flourish unless they see themselves as part of a community and are able to live harmoniously within it. My correspondent suggested that individual flourishing means transcending self-direction. She referred to Martin Seligman’s idea that living a meaningful life involves ‘belonging to and serving something bigger than the self’ (‘Flourish’, p 17). She also mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s view that we (human beings) are ‘conditional hive creatures’ with ‘the ability (under special circumstances) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves’ (‘The Righteous Mind’, p 244).

As it happens, I am a Seligman fan. I particularly like the final paragraph of ‘Authentic Happiness’:  
‘The good life consists of deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component, using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness’ (p.260).

In the preceding paragraph, Seligman argues strongly that we get to choose the kinds of lives we live. His views are clearly consistent with self-direction. We might choose to serve goodness, for example, but we have to work out what this might mean in practical terms before we can do it.

I am also a Haidt fan. I accept that humans have evolved with a tendency to be groupish. As Haidt puts it:  
‘Hiving comes naturally, easily and joyfully to us. Its normal function is to bond dozens or at most hundreds of people together into communities of trust, cooperation, and even love’ (p 242).

I agree with Haidt that ‘a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people’ and not a ‘promising target for takeover by a demagogue’. He is endorsing civil society. 

Jon Haidt's metaphor of the rider and the elephant, discussed in Chapter 3 of my book, suggest humans have some capacity for self-direction. Nevertheless, groupishness does appear to be somewhat in conflict with self-direction. If we obtain happiness and satisfaction from groups, does that not mean that we are surrendering autonomy?

bookjacketAt this point economics comes to the rescue – in the form of ‘identity economics’ - to provide a framework to consider whether groupishness trumps self-direction. The key idea of 'Identity Economics' - a book by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton - is that people gain satisfaction when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity, which is determined to a large extent by the groups to which they belong. (I have written about identity economics previously on this blog - here, for example.)

In the final chapter of their book Akerlof and Kranton have a brief discussion of choice of identity. The discussion covers the role of identity considerations in choices made by women to pursue careers, choices made by parents of whether to send children to private schools, and the choices of immigrants to integrate into their new countries.

It seems to me that the extent to which we are able to realize our potential depends to a large extent on the choices we make about the groups we belong to – choice of friends, further education, work, social groups, religious groups and so forth. We can choose to lose ourselves, waste ourselves, find ourselves, or whatever, in a range of different ways by bonding to different groups. The groups we join help determine our identities and our identities influence our future choices.

One of the wonderful things about modern society is that it provides ordinary people with a wide range of choice of groups to join, or not join, as they choose. We get to use our powers of self-direction to choose our identities by deciding which groups to join, or leave. I accept that actualization of potential requires us to transcend self-interest (as the term is normally understood) but, it seems to me, that it also requires ongoing development of skills in self-direction.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Could a powerful interest group form around the ideals of social cooperation?

The Foundations of MoralitySocial cooperation is the means by which each of us can pursue our own ends to the greatest extent possible by engaging voluntarily in mutually beneficial activities with others. It requires respect for the rights of other people. (For a more complete explanation, see: Henry Hazlitt, ‘The Foundations of Morality’.)
One way to open up the question of whether a powerful interest group could form around the ideals of social cooperation is to think about the way people consider public policy issues in democracies. Different people are clearly motivated by a wide range of different considerations when they engage in discussion of public policy issues. Their motives are often not widely shared in the broader community. For example people are often motivated by self-interest (impacts on income, wealth, educational opportunities for children, availability of health services etc.) or by other special interests (religious beliefs, environmental concerns, helping the needy, prevention of animal cruelty, gay rights etc.). When their motives are not widely shared, individuals have an incentive to downplay them and to use arguments that might be persuasive to the public at large when presenting their views in public debate. For example, a person who wanted to argue for more help to the needy might put the argument that this is a desirable form of social insurance for everyone – that for the most part those in need are like everyone else except for the misfortunes in their lives.

Even though people come to the public discussion of issues with a wide range of different personal interests, the discussion tends to centre on social consequences i.e. the question of whether policy options are consistent with the kind of society they want to live in. The issue of social cooperation is viewed by all participants as being of fundamental importance – options are taken off the table if they are not consistent with respect for the rights of all citizens. There are differences of view about the weight that should be placed on different objectives, such as making opportunities more equal or providing greater economic security, but there is widespread acknowledgement of the validity of such objectives. Discussions about the appropriate means that should be used to pursue objectives are informed by expert advice. As a result of the public debate, opinion tends to coalesce around particular options and governments proceed to implement those options.

Yeah, right! You have probably realized that in the preceding paragraph I outlined how I think the political system should work, rather than how it actually works. For example, I have disregarded the obvious point that a large part of the contributions of interest groups to public discussion are aimed at marshalling the people they purport to represent in order to signal to political parties that their votes are at stake. The leaders of some interest groups might even see advantages in promoting a divisive debate to get the people they represent to identify more strongly with that group and less strongly with the interests of the broader community.

In casting their votes, citizens are often faced with a choice between identifying with a particular interest group or voting on the basis of broader considerations about policies that are most likely to promote the common good. If they are cynical about the democratic process and have come to view it as a power struggle between interest groups they are more likely to identify with a particular interest group. If an increasing proportion of citizens think that way and engage in the competitive struggle to obtain benefits at the expense of others, the benefits of social cooperation will tend to be increasingly overlooked, to the detriment of the wider community.

In order to consider whether a powerful interest group could form around the ideals of social cooperation we should look first at Mancur Olson’s theory of collective action. Olson suggests that the relative power of different interest groups can be explained in terms of their access to selective incentives. Selective incentives enable interest groups to provide rewards or punishments in order to encourage individuals to contribute to their collective efforts. For example, they may be in a position to provide services to members including opportunities for social interaction, or to threaten punishments such as ostracism or even violence (in some trade unions, for example). Encompassing groups, such as consumers and taxpayers, do not have as much access to selective incentives and hence tend to be less powerful than narrow interest groups.  (See: Mancur Olson, ‘The Rise and Decline of Nations’, 1982, chapter 2.)

Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory (explained in ‘The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion’, 2012) sheds further light on the relative power of different interest groups. As explained in an earlier post, the basic idea is that the virtues that are found in many cultures are related to adaptive challenges of social life that have been identified by evolutionary psychologists. While moral foundations are innate, they are expressed in differing ways and to differing extents in different cultures. Political parties and interest groups that are seeking your support strive to make their concerns trigger at least one of your moral foundations so that you will see yourself as belonging to their tribe.

Haidt identifies six moral foundations: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; liberty/oppression; and sanctity/degradation.  It seems to me that all of these foundations are often used by narrow interest groups in ways that are detrimental to social cooperation. The groups can appeal to your instincts to care for other people in your industry, occupation, community, religion etc., to seek retribution if you feel that you have been cheated, to maintain loyalty to the group, to respect group leaders, to overcome the oppression that the group is suffering as a result of ‘a corrupt system’, and to feel disgust at the ‘degrading’ behaviour of those who oppose the group’s interests.

However, if an interest group is able to trigger moral foundations, this suggests that it could be powerful even if it doesn’t have strong selective incentives available to it.

So, does moral foundations theory suggest that it might be possible for powerful interest groups to form around the concept of social cooperation? Social cooperation seems to me to involve all six moral foundations. The ideal of non-coercion - living in peace on the basis of respect for the rights of others - is clearly related to the care/harm module. The ideal of voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit involves reciprocity and trust, and is closely related to the fairness/cheating module. When people in western societies engage in acts that conflict with the ideals of social cooperation they are betraying the heritage that enables them to live in peace, with widespread opportunity and a degree of economic security beyond the dreams of their ancestors. The ideals of social cooperation are consistent with recognition of the authority of the leaders of organizations that individuals are free to join or leave. Social cooperation is all about liberty. In respecting the rights of others we can take comfort from knowing that we are respecting the sanctity of the golden rule to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.
In addition, the ideals of social cooperation seem to me to be supported by what Steven Pinker refers to (in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, 2011) as ‘the escalator of reason’. He argues that the escalator of reason has provided a basis for taking intuitive moral foundations to a higher level as education levels have risen and skills in abstract reasoning have improved. As previously discussed on this blog, the escalator of reason involves ascending to the vantage point of an impartial spectator (i.e. detaching oneself from a parochial viewpoint). Pinker argues that a value system in which human flourishing is the ultimate good can be mutually agreed upon by any community of thinkers who value their own interests and are engaged in reasoned negotiation.

Despite all the above, some might argue that a powerful interest group could not form around the ideals of social cooperation because, like motherhood, it is commonly viewed as so obviously desirable that there does not seem to be any need to campaign for it. If we look back in history, however, we owe the benefits of social cooperation we now tend to take for granted to the activities of interest groups a few centuries ago (see this post for elaboration). When the basis for social cooperation is seen to be coming under threat, strong countervailing interest groups could be expected to form in order to defend it. 

For elaboration of these views, please see my book Free to Flourish.