The Evaluative Worthlessness of Happiness

I've been dipping into the literature on the measurement of happiness, and the most stunning thing about happiness is that it is so incredibly robust. It seems that there is almost nothing one can do to significantly and permanently alter one's natural temperamental disposition to happiness. Most people in most places are pretty happy. Income means very little. People who suffer horrifying disfigurements and disabilities usually bounce right back to their happiness “set-point.” The Minnesota twins studies show that hedonic tone is to a large degree genetic. It seems that even people in prison aren't a whole lot less happy than people not in prison. Freedom and democracy mean something, but not that much. If you're on good terms with your family, have close friends and meaningful work, you're probably doing about as well as you're going to do.

All this implies that any form of happiness-consequentialism is pretty much useless as anything more than a very brute standard of evaluation. I have yet to fully process what this really means. (It does mean that the Objectivist subjective-happiness-as-barometer-of objective-life-success view is plain false.) I do think this pushes me to a more Scanlonian view according to which our reasons for action are not even close to exhausted by considerations of “well-being.” If being more free, more healthy, and so forth do not cash out in terms of happiness, then so much the worse for cashing out value in terms of happiness.

Additionally, I think the methodological implications of the happiness research on measurement problems in economics have yet to be digested. Consider the concluding paragraph of Krugman's excellent essay “Viagra and the Wealth of Nations“:

In other words, as soon as you try to think seriously about how to measure Viagra's effect on the nation's wealth, you realize what a dubious enterprise such comparisons are. I have nothing against calculating real G.D.P. as accurately as possible; we need that number for all kinds of purposes. But the rather vulgar case of Viagra reminds us that, in the end, economics is not about wealth — it's about the pursuit of happiness.

Krugman seems to be saying that “problem of Viagra” is not simply a problem for calculating the effects new innovations have on material wealth, but a problem for determining the effects of innovation on happiness (which is what wealth really amounts to). But if we take the happiness research seriously, almost nothing has much effect on anyone's long-term happiness. So if we are to say what makes it better to have Viagra than to not have Viagra (or whatever), then we're going to have to say something about our reasons to value more possibilities, more choices, and enhanced abilities. But what we have to say is not going to be much about happiness. That is to say, “wealth” isn't a measure of happiness, either. My intuition about what wealth is: a garden of forking paths leading to multitudes of possible lives.

Jazz Hands Forever!

Although we were not dominant in competition Team Jazz Hands was dominant in spirit (sprit fingers!) at the DC National Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament. Jazz Hands member (and beloved housemate), Kelly, is featured prominently, if not exactly by name, in the Washington Post's excellent coverage of the DC National RPS Championships (but why is this not in the Sports section?). Follow the link. Look at the picture. The boa! Jazz Hands represent! And check this:

Right now the men of DC Gambit are too busy for a formal interview because they are screaming insults at a possible opponent: a tiny woman in a black tank top and tight jeans, brandishing a cigarette and Yuengling beer, wearing a pink feather boa. She is yelling at them about what wimps they are, how they can't possibly out-RPS her and her friends.

Sure, it's cute, but you don't have to live with the tiny, insult-screaming woman.

It must be mentioned that Jazz Hands member, Ryan “T2” Nunn made the finals, and made us all damn proud.

And behold this awesomeness:


JAZZ HANDS! Next year, man. Next year.

Against Nature

Why is it that some conservatives get hung up on the idea that certain forms of behavior are “unnatural” and thus to be stamped out with extreme prejudice, but will, in the same breath, praise to the heavens our peculiar form of extended market-based social organization, which is as artificial and “unnatural” as one could like? If you want to put your anti-buggery together with cave-living, then, well, that's OK by me. But if “unnatural” is an objection, then it applies to almost all the benefits of modern life.

The Semiotics of Shit

From Slavoj Zizek's review of Timothy Garton Ash's Free World.

In a famous scene from Buñuel's Phantom of Liberty, the roles of eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at toilets around a table, chatting pleasantly, and when they want to eat, sneak away to a small room. So, as a supplement to Lévi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matière-à-penser: the three basic types of toilet form an excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking (the raw, the cooked and the rotten). In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that in the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that 'German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.' It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement.

I have nothing to say.

We the People . . .

aren't very smart.

Louis Menand has an enjoyable summary of some of the work on democratic choice in response to Phillip Converse's classic “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” Converse was the first systematically to point out that very few of us have any idea what we're talking about when it comes to politics. Menand highlights three theories about democracy in light of Converse.

The first is that electoral outcomes, as far as “the will of the people” is concerned, are essentially arbitrary. . .

A second theory is that although people may not be working with a full deck of information and beliefs, their preferences are dictated by something, and that something is élite opinion. . .

The third theory of democratic politics is the theory that the cues to which most voters respond are, in fact, adequate bases on which to form political preferences.

My own view is some combination of the first and second theories. However, I believe that the opinions of the elite are also “essentially arbitrary.”

Menand's penultimate paragraph is excellent:

Man may not be a political animal, but he is certainly a social animal. Voters do respond to the cues of commentators and campaigners, but only when they can match those cues up with the buzz of their own social group. Individual voters are not rational calculators of self-interest (nobody truly is), and may not be very consistent users of heuristic shortcuts, either. But they are not just random particles bouncing off the walls of the voting booth. Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.

All this raises the question of the moral legitimacy of democracy. For here we are imposing coercive sanctions on people solely due to the fact that some critical mass of essentially ignorant people have happened to decide to choose one way rather than another. Although I am inclined to shit on democracy when given the chance, I acknowledge that it is superior to the alternatives. My main argument for a broad franchise is that it tends to create the illusion of legitimacy, and the illusion of legitimacy lends itself to a kind of political stability that each of us has reason to desire.

In other “the people are stupid” news, the AP runs a story by Jerry Schwartz about voter ignorance. Samuel Popkin, doyen of the “gut rationality” school of political choice is featured here as well as in the Menand piece. Popkin's view about heuristics are not impressive. At best he establishes that our electoral preferences are not entirely arbitrary, but reflect some non-irrelevant information about candidates. This is not heartening.

After treating us to a fairly entertaining parade of voter incompetence Schwartz slinks back to civics class where Fishkin and Ackerman await to lecture us on the virtues of hanging out in elementary school gyms calmly “deliberating” about the commonweal as local chomskyites and christian evangelicals rip out each others' throats. My comments on deliberative democracy are here.

They Got Soul

Check out Friend of The Fly Bottle Robert Campbell's review of Owen Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul in the latest edition of Navigator. Compare and contrast with review of the same by Friend of the Fly Bottle Julian Sanchez in the January Reason.

Brighouse on Desert

Harry Brighouse keeps the debate on desert aflame.

It is as obvious to me that no-one deserves political power as that no-one deserves their talents, or deserves to live in an environment in which those talents attract the contingent rewards that they happen to attract. (Steffi Graff’s income more than doubled in the year after Monica Seles was stabbed. Did she deserve to be in that environment? No. So in what sense did she deserve her increased income? Not any foundational moral sense, surely?) Is Wilkinson denying this?

I find this to be a puzzling response. Yes. I'm denying a lot of this, because it's pretty crazy.

Now, as a matter of fact, I think very few people deserve political power. But not because nobody deserves anything, but because the mechanisms of democratic choice generally fail to even loosely track desert. But sometimes people are elected because of their merit and, to the extent unequal political power is legitimate, they deserve their office and its powers. None of this is to say that there exist no non-desert grounds for legitimate political power.

People of course don't deserve their talents, insofar as a talent is pure potential given at birth. People of course do deserve their talents if they have deliberately cultivated and brought them to fruition through effort and work. If I am a wonderful violinist, I no doubt got to be that way by some combination of native ability and years and years of hard practice and discipline. If Harry doesn't believe that people deserve their cultivated talents, then I wonder why not. It's obvious to me, and I think most people, that people do deserve their cultivated talents. I don't deserve to be the sort of person who is ABLE to become good at the violin. But if I worked hard to realize my ability, then I deserve the ability that I've earned through my dedication and hard work. I take this judgment to be a deep and fundamental part of our moral self-conception. I think people who disagree have either broken or ideologically distorted intuition. Of course!

Surely Steffi Graff did not deserve to be in a Seles-free environment! But this has no bearing whatsoever on whether Graff deserved her winnings that year, since she had no responsibility for stabbing Seles. If she won a bunch of matches played according to the rules of tennis, then she deserved to win them, and deserved the prize money. Isn't this obvious? Suppose that 30 years ago a fetus was aborted who, in the nearest possible world in which she was not aborted, became the best women’s' tennis player in history and dominated all the major tournaments. By Harry's logic, we then have to say that almost all of the major tournament winners neither deserved to win, nor deserved their prize money. I consider this a reduction to absurdity. (Michael Phelps is living a lie!)

More of the same:

Politicians who win do not deserve to win at the very least because they do not deserve to live in systems which reward their particular talents (very few UK MPs would reach the top in the American political system, and very few American members of Congress would reach the top in the UK system; desert just doesn’t help out here). There are good, desert-free, reasons for designing a political system one way or another. I don’t see how desert could possibly come into it.

Again, I don' think politicians tend to deserve their power, but I think they could in principle. Anyway, I guess I should just make explicit that I reject this form of argument:

(1) S doesn't deserve to be in context C.
(2) S does A in context C, and thereby gets some reward R.
So, (3) S doesn't deserve R.

I don't deserve to be in a universe where our actual laws of physics obtain. But I eat, and thereby preserve my life in virtue of the laws of physics. So I don't deserve to live? I know this is an utterly stupid argument, but I don't really see how other arguments of this form really differ. Try a Michael Phelps example. Michael Phelps doesn't deserve the existence of the 100m freestyle, which happens to be well-suited to his particular physical talents. Michael Phelps wins the Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle. So Michael Phelps doesn't deserve the Olympic gold. But of course he does deserve the gold, simply in virtue of swimming faster than his competitors in accordance with the official rules.

I haven't gotten to the core of Harry's comments, but I need to run. So more later.