Thursday, August 30, 2012

What fantasies are associated with the modern pursuit of happiness?

A draft of the final chapter of ‘Free to Flourish’, the book I am writing, has just been uploaded to the book’s web site.

My aim in this chapter has been to draw together the threads from earlier chapters by identifying fantasies related to the issues discussed.

My list of fantasies:
  • Happiness is just about experiences.
  • Paternalistic governments can help us flourish.
  • Restrictions on freedom help people to flourish.
  • Governments should be seeking to maximize collective happiness.
  • No society is better than any other.
  • Progress is history.
  • Democratic governments can’t fail.

It is tempting to try to summarize why I think the listed points are fantaasies, but anyone who is interested can easily follow this link and take a look at the draft of ‘Chapter 9: The Choice – Fantasy or Opportunity’.

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.