Happiness as a Condition

I've mentioned St. Louis U. philosopher Dan Haybron a couple times before. His is the best stuff on happiness in the contemporary philosophical literature. And I'm almost a little bit disappointed that I agree with his position on the nature of happiness as thoroughly as I do. Haybron rejects both the hedonic and life satisfaction conceptions of happiness in favor of a what he calls the “emotional state” view, by which he means that happiness is a kind of steady, pervasive set of dispositions to feel positively. The opposite of happiness is depression, chronic anxiety, or melancholy. (Here is Haybron's paper on the emotional state view. [pdf] Don't trust my characterization. If I am ever creative, it is because I excel at unconscious opportunistic reinterpretation.)

On this sort of view, a person who has undergone surgery and is in terrific pain for a long period of time might still be happy. In this kind of case, the steady disposition to feel good simply isn't realized, but it's still there. And there is no reason to believe that people's judgments about their lives will closely track this kind of pervasive emotional condition. A happy person who has suffered a serious setback in life may say that things aren't going well, but that may leave her deep, underlying affective dispositions unaffected.

This is me riffing now, not Haybron. I think part of what happiness in this sense involves is asymmetry in speed of adaptation. Seligman in Authentic Happiness remarks that the emotions aren't at all like Freud had it. They don't build pressure, and failing to “let it out” won't cause you to blow a gasket (“bottle up and explode!”) or transmogrify the emotion through a kind of emotional alchemy into some other perverted form. Emotions are more like balloons with a semi-porous membrane. They fill with the air of the emotion—the emotional bladder fills with rage or grief—but, absent new infusions, the emotion just seeps away and the balloon deflates. Expressing the emotion dramatically, or rehearsing it over and over in thought or conversation can just keep the feeling inflated and alive. This is why grief therapy can be bad for you. And why a tendency to nurse grievances is detrimental to happiness.

A dispositionally happy person might be thought of as somebody whose negative emotions deflate quickly and whose positive emotions deflate slowly. There can also be complex relations between positive and negative emotions. There are people whose positive emotions deflate whenever a negative emotion is inflated, or vice versa. And there are people who sustain positive emotions, even when certain negative emotions loom large. The happiest type might be the those for whom strong positive emotions tend to deflate negative ones, but for whom stong negative emotions cannot fully deflate positive ones.

Now, happy people in this sense ought to rate high on hedonism and life satisfaction scales. People disposed to feel good longer and more often, and feel bad shorter and less, or to feel good in some way even when feeling bad in others, will on average feel better. And people who on average feel better will likely say they do. But the symptoms of the condition shouldn't be confused for condition itself.

Now, I don't think it's all about pattens of emotional inflation and deflation. There's also a matter of “default tone”—how you feel when there's nothing special going on, when the surface of your emotional seas are glassy.

Note that all sorts of combinations of emotional inflation-deflation patterns and default tone are hedonically equivalent. But all of them aren't happiness. I think happiness has something to do with a relatively smooth hedonic flow. A fairly negative default tone with frequent, huge, euphoric positive upswings and slow deflation back to default may register more total hedons than a mildly positive default tone with mild upswings and mild downswings. But the first well might be a case of bipolar disorder and require serious professional medical attention. That's not happiness, no matter how huge the hedonic payoff of the upswing. My sense is that a lot of Westeners resist the ideals of Buddhism because we think it takes hedonic smoothing too far. Buddhism asks you to trade almost all hedonic volatility for a better default tone.

Actually, happiness-as-condition framework explains a couple different things you might get out of a serious practice of Eastern mindfulness, and why it has bigger returns for some than others. If you have a good default tone, but suffer from frequent or large negative spikes—you're quick to anger, easily frustrated, often indignant, etc.—a practice of mindfulness that simply leaves you at the default tone more of the time will be big improvement. This is the kind of person who says, “Meditation saved my marriage!” However, if you've got good default tone, mild, or quickly deflating downswings, and big or slowly deflating upswings, then a practice of mindfulness will mostly be taking the tops off good experiences. Why do that, as long as you're not manic?

I think Americans who worry about oversmoothing may find mindfulness more useful in controlling rates of deflation than controlling the distance of peaks from the baseline. In my very limited experience, this is what I like about it. You can willfully distance yourself from negative emotions, and deflate back to default tone faster, or engage mindfully with positive emotions, and deflate more slowly. If that pattern became a habit, part of your ongoing emotional condition, you'd be happier person.

The other main reason you might not like either a smoothing strategy (inflation volume strategy) or a deflation rate strategy is that you are accustomed to deploying negative emotions to control other people, ala Griffiths' Machiavellian emotions theory. Emotions aren't just appraisals (immediate internal reports on how well you're doing relative to your goals, values, etc.), they're strategic tools for manipulating other people—for exacting commitment, compliance, concessions, regret, solidarity, affection, etc., etc. If your emotional social management strategy relies heavily on anger, sulking, disdain, guilt-tripping, etc., then a therapeutic practice that shortens the intensity or duration of negative emotions may leave you feeling out of control and socially vulnerable. So some of the people who have most to gain hedonically from mindfulness training may have the most to lose in terms of their strategy for social control.

I'm Grateful to Have This Chance to Say Something about Gratitude

Reihan is puzzled by my bafflement regarding Anya Kamenetz. In the course of his rather more defensible spin on what he takes Kamenetz to be saying, Reihan writes:

Kamenetz is advancing the argument that there is a danger in “performative passion.” Disguising the ultimately transactional nature of employment, by offering unpaid internships that are often very different from traditional apprenticeships (which offered valuable skills in exchange for “free” labor), may well serve the interests of employers at the expense of salaried employees. Will writes, incredulously,

Is really she saying that ingratitude is a precondition for unionization?

Well, yes. It's not clear that one should be grateful for a job, assuming you do your work and keep your nose clean. You are, after all, providing useful services in exchange, which is why you deserve a fair wage. Gratitude doesn't enter the picture. Gratitude is, you'd think, more something you'd find in a servile society, in which employment at a fair wage is seen as an unearned privilege. This is the left has traditionally liked tight labor markets — less bowing scraping. There's something to this.

The anti-gratitude line of thinking strikes this quasi-Mormon lad as strange and, well, ungrateful. Let's set aside the fact that gratitude is extremely good for psychological well-being, and that people would in general be better off if they were more grateful for more things. The bone of contention is whether being offered a job merits gratitude. I think in most cases it pretty obviously does. There is no point in being anything less than wholehearted about the transactional nature of employment. But that means not being vulgarly materialistic about the nature of the transaction.

Let's talk about unpaid internships, and then jobs. A lot of times, the transaction between an unpaid intern and an employer comes to something like this: the employee offers the intern an opportunity (to gain experience, to make contacts, to prove herself) and the intern is expected to pay for the opportunity by making the most of it. This requires doing some work, sometimes even putting your back into it. But the scales balance in these cases not because the value of intern's labor matches her non-existent wages, but because the intern has done justice to the opportunity she has been given. She dived in, learned the trade, made a bunch of valuable contacts, showed her chutzpah, etc. That's often enough to make an employer both satisfied and proud. I would even say that a good employer or supervisor ought to feel grateful for the good work of a good intern, for the experience of seeing someone do justice to the opportunity they've been given. The idea that the exchange of gratitude is an integral part of a healthy and humane workplace seems to me worth defending.

When a Cato intern does some work for me, I'm almost as concerned with what they're getting out of it as what I am. I'm most annoyed when I feel like they are squandering their chance to get something from the experience, not when they're not working hard—though those things are usually pretty closely related. Maybe that's just me, but I don't think I'm weird or unusually benovelent. Obviously, unpaid interns aren't working to make money. They're not trying to make money. They're trying to get something else. Employers and supervisors know that, and are usually trying to help them get it. If some reasearching and filing gets done along the way, then that's wonderful. The lack of pay in unpaid internships gives employers amazingly little leverage in milking labor or pretty much anything from interns. Generally people apply for unpaid internships because their track-record doesn't merit a paying gig in that area. They may have no relevant track-record. Or lots of people with equally good records all want scarce jobs in that field. The're often applying for the chance to prove that their labor is valuable, that they deserve a paying spot. I can't see why you shouldn't be grateful for being given that chance, if a chance is what you wanted.

Now, about paid work. I think the big question here is a framework issue about how to understand employer-employee relations in general. I comprehensively reject the Marx-inflected agonistic labor-capital relationship. That might be helpful in thinking about labor contracts between coal miners and management in a company town. But not so helpful in an extended competitive labor market, and especially not helpful when thinking about internships for college kids. I want to think about the relationship as a classic Smithian positive sum game, since it is. And once you're past the most basic physical scutwork, which is not usually intern fodder, work agreements are only partially about wages.

Employers want employees who, in addition to dependably performing their assigned tasks according to the job description, are pleasant colleagues, participate in and contribute to the culture of the firm, and so on. Employees want pleasant work environments, understanding and accomodating managers, interesting work, meaningful relationships with co-workers, a sense of being valued that goes beyond the number on the paycheck, etc. Most relevant to the internship discussion, I think, is the desire to work in an area that draws on our strengths and that really engages us psychologically. And that's what are we're really talking about, isn't it? Landing a job we, and lots of other people, would really like to have. Here's Reihan:

. . . she's on to something, particularly as her argument relates to a narrow yet significant slice of the population, namely the young people streaming into the second-tier glamour professions, e.g., publishing, prestige journalism, etc. Unpaid internships are the gatekeepers in this world, effectively excluding a lot of people from modest backgrounds. Sad to say, this is largely a function of extremely narrow margins. Only a small handful of freelancers can thrive; the rest struggle to get by, in large part because there will always be a vast, perhaps inexhaustible supply of bright, overeducated young people who want to see their names in print. This is tournament theory at its worst.

We're talking about competition over a handful of really attractive jobs. If Kamenetz was saying that it sucks for graduates of the University of Northern Iowa, for example, that they're at a disadvantage relative to Yalies when it comes to landing internships at the Village Voice, then I guess she's right. But that in a nutshell is why there is a big tournament to get into Yale, right? People from modest backgrounds are effectively excluded if they didn't get into a prestige school. But how effectively excluded are those of us who graduated mainly with connections to the Marshalltown Community Theater? Not very!

Rather relevantly, advances in technology are partly breaking down some of the old barriers to entry. I don't know any UNI grads who interned at the Voice, or who, like Reihan and a couple of my Ivied former housemates, were “writer-researchers” at the New Republic. But a guy from my college poetry class now has his own internet media mini-empire. And a few too many of my friends got their fancy media jobs through high-quality blogging for me to worry that much about the unpaid intern faculty club good ol' boy network. It has never been easier for people with talent to create a platform and get recognized. So let's just keep making it easier. If the problem is TNR not employing enough up-and-comers from the hood and the sticks, then maybe you should just ask TNR to try harder to be good egalitarian meritocrats. But nobody in competitive prestige fields—not even good egalitarians—really want to gamble much on unknown quantities, which is, again, why people compete so feverishly for the signal of a prestige school. The kid who edited the Columbia Spectator is a good bet to get the punctuation right on the magazine web site. But I digress.

[Addendum: FYI, TNR “writer-researcher” is a (not very well-) paid gig. The point was just that this is an example of an highly coveted entry point in prestige media that is almost exclusive territory of prestige school graduates.]
The point was gratitude. If Reihan is right that there is an “inexhaustible supply” of overeducated young people who would all like one of same seven (give or take) jobs, then it seems like you should feel especially grateful to get one of them. If many other people deserved the opportunity as much as you did, but you got it, then I'd think you'd feel pretty glad about that, and keen to make the most of it—to do your best to honor the opportunity and balance the scale unsettled by giving the job to you rather than someone else just as ex ante deserving. This is a pretty far cry from the cigar-chomping capitalist valuing your labor at up to $10 and hour and your accepting an offer for an immiserating $2.50 because of your utter lack of other options and hence weak bargaining power. This is getting a huge break. Taking a better paying job that you like a little bit less may be disappointing, but it hardly smacks of injustice. I know a lot of people would love to have a job like mine, and I can't imagine being anything but immensely grateful for having it.

Let's get back to what Kamenetz said…

. . . internships promote overidentification with employers: I make sacrifices to work free, therefore I must love my work. A sociologist at the University of Washington, Gina Neff, who has studied the coping strategies of interns in communications industries, calls the phenomenon “performative passion.” … How are twentysomethings ever going to win back health benefits and pension plans when they learn to be grateful to work for nothing?

False consciousness explanations are the last refuge of the desperate. Why doesn't the world agree with me? Brainwashing by the liberal media! Capitalist control of the organs of propaganda! Getting people to say “death tax” instead of “estate tax” turns voters into addled zombies unable to think straight! “Performative passion!” “The coping strategies of interns”? What exactly are they coping with. Well, clearly, the profound injustice of working on terms AK condescendingly disapproves of. If someone seems to really like her internship, then she must be suffering from a kind of low-grade Stockholm Syndrome. But of course, interns aren't hostages. And in this case, the false consciousness comes after the choice to work for free. So what explains that? Why would you choose to make sacrifices to do it? Because the expected payoff is bigger than the sacrifice? Because you want a chance to do be involved in something you love? Isn't “I'm sacrificing to work for free, therefore I must love it?” almost exactly backwards? Rather, we make sacrifices to do things we love. We perform passionately because we are passionate about what we are doing.

Summing up, I find the agonistic conception of the labor market simply odious. I think it is false as a description of the labor market in general, super-false as a description of the market for prestige intellectual work, and encourages a sensibility that is psychologically corrosive, and (ironically?) quite likely a hindrance to labor market success. Any healthy relationship, including work relationships, involves an ongoing exchange of gratitude. Proper gratitude is not servile. Gratitude is the virtuous mean between a grasping sense of entitlement, on one extreme, and servility, on the other. Nor does gratitude breed complacency and impede progressive social change. That is the work of ignorance, fear, and hopelessness.

Addendum: In response to Reihan's absurdly kind claim that I'm “one of his favorite public intellectuals,” let me repay the compliment and say that, on paper at least, Reihan is our greatest living freestyle rapper. I'll address other parts of Reihan's post later.

The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number

Any good ethics textbook will tell you that “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is something of a useless chimera of an ethical precept—imagine a gazelle with the legs of a tuna. There are two rather different principles jammed together here. “Promote the greatest happiness” is a principle exhorting us to maximize the quantity of happiness. “Promote happiness for the greatest number” tells us to seek the widest distribution of happiness. But these two principles don't necessarily jive—they can flatly contradict.

Suppose the population is evenly divided between blue people and green people. Green people are usually just a little bit happy (say, averaging 3 on a scale of +10 to -10. [I'm going to use averages here, for convenience sake. The example doesn't create a difference between average and total utility.]) But blue people are either extremely happy (+10) or almost not happy at all (1), depending on how happy green people are. If green people are not happy at all (< +1), then blue people are elated (+10), otherwise, barely happy (1). The “greatest happiness” principle then says that we want a world in which green people are not at all happy. That's a world with an average of 5 on our scale. The “greatest number” principle seems to say we want a world in which everyone is at least a little happy. That's the world with an average of 2 on our scale.

Eminent utilitarians like Bentham, Mill, Sidwick, and Parfit end up embracing the maximizing principle and simply dropping the distribution principle. But what is left over fails badly to capture the upshot of the Enlightenment conception of “public happiness” or “social happiness” which the “greatest happiness” principle is attempting to capture. If screwing over the green people is what maximizes the total… well, nobody said morality is easy. Well, harumph.

I propose that the maximizing utilitarian interpretation, as influential as it has been, is a wrong turn down a dead end—a heretical gloss on Enlightenment gospel. As any member of the Eastern Christian church will tell you, orthodoxy and heresy are not matters of popularity. Therefore, the fact that it is a minority view will not stop me from declaring that what I will call the “fuzzy contract” interpretation is the correct and therefore orthodox interpretation.

The two parts of the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” principle reflect two separate but conceptually related aspects of the Enlightenment creed. First, happiness is each person's moral goal. Second, people and their lives are of equal worth. Mainstream heretical utilitarianism chokes on both ideas.

Mill's attempt to cross the chasm from individual to aggregate happiness is an infamous example of the fallacy of composition. A classic example of the fallacy would be: atoms are invisible, therefore aggregates of atoms are invisible. Mill's argument, that since happiness is good for each of us, then the general happiness is good for the aggregate of people, really is like that. Sidgwick, the most clear-headed of heretical utilitarians, leaves us at the end of The Methods of Ethics with the famous “dualism of practical reason,” unable to reconcile heretical utilitarianism with orthodox Enlightenment moral individualism. On Sidgwick's account, we arrive at the value of the aggregate only through a mysterious intuition.

Regarding the egalitarianism embodied in the “greatest number” principle, heretical utilitarianism does even worse. Utilitarians make a big deal out of the fact that each person's pleasures and pains count equally. But the equality of pleasures and pains is a far cry from the equality of persons. Rawls and Nozick's separateness of persons criticisms get it right. The thing that counts equally is not feelings, but lives. To conceive of us as containers for pleasures and pains simply doesn't take persons and their life-constituting projects seriously.

Let's step back and think again about the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” It's not a bad principle, really. And there's a way of reasonably parsing it so that makes good sense. Don't start with “greatest happiness.” Start with “greatest number.” The greatest number of people in society is, well, everybody—each individual, that is. So we're thinking about each person. Got it? Now we move on to “greatest happiness.” For each person, we want the greatest happiness, for them. For each person, we're going to try to see it their way.

This puts us in the neighborhood of the contract view. Everybody desires to achieve happiness by succesfully implementing his or her life-plan. Now, imagine we're all deliberating together about policy. Gary proposes policy P, because it's good for him. Lucy, who is well-informed and rational about her own interests, testifies that P would seriously hinder her ability to realize her life-plan and achieve happiness. So P doesn't promote the greatest happiness for Lucy. Now, on the interpretation I'm after, the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” principle states a presumption against imposing P, even if Gary's gain is happiness is bigger than Lucy's loss. The Pareto conception of social welfare is a sort of like this. We consider a change in policy an improvement just in case it makes someone better off and no one worse. (Pareto wasn't talking about happiness, though, he was talking about preference satisfaction—ophelimity!)

Now, on the the strict contractarian bargaining model, each person has a veto. Unanimity is required to make a move. Now, there's a lot you can do to achieve unanimity. If P is worth n+$.01 to Gary, then he'll put n on the table for Lucy to get her to change her vote. Etc. Of course, in the real world, we can't always actually bargain, can't actually offer each other side-payments, and can rarely get a unanimous decision. So our contractarian method is going to have to be fuzzy around the edges to work. The degree of gains and losses matters. What matters is not so much the quantity of feelings, as the impact on a life. If P would make Gary, Sara, and Delores rather better off, and would make Lucy just a little worse off, and no alternative that would be better for Lucy would be equally good as P for the others, then we should probably go ahead and just implement P. Sorry Lucy! Now, this is in the neighborhood of Scanlon's “reasonable rejectability” criterion. (But isn't the same: Scanlon rejects the idea that happiness is the sole consideration.) Even if Lucy knows P won't be as good for her as some alternative, she's benevolent, cares about other people, and knows their projects count too. And when other future hard choices arise, Lucy hopes that others would be will not hold out for every last scrap of satisfaction when doing so would place a significant burden on others. So it just wouldn't be “reasonable” for Lucy to object to P. However, if P really screwed up Lucy's projects and happiness in a deep way, then it wouldn't be reasonable for the others to press it.

There is a balancing to perform between the “greatest happiness” for each individual and that of all the others individuals, “the greatest number.” The fact that this balancing is required isn't a symptom of incoherence. Quite the opposite: it's a sign of realism in a world in which the pursuit of happiness is intricately interdependent. Our diverse ends aren't automatically reconciled—our interests aren't harmonized by magic. “Public happiness” requires ongoing give and take. Almost every real world change produces a loser. We should aim to keep losses small and gains broad, to create a stable system of institutions where everyone in pursuit of happiness is able to take a lot, and is required to give only a little. That's what I think the “fuzzy contract” view comes to. That's what I think the pre-heretical exponents of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” had in mind, and that's largely what the American Founders were thinking when they talked about public of social happiness.

May the true principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” be blessed. And may heretics be damned!

Delayed Self-Promotion

I'm failing to shill for myself!

My review of Benjamin Friedman's The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth [pdf] is in the latest Cato Journal. Regular readers will notice that a lot of my criticisms of the book discussed on this here blog didn't make it into the review. Had to keep it short. And there is a sentence toward the middle that no longer makes much sense to me. It's amazing how that can happen.
I also have a Cato podcast about “libertarian paternalism” [mp3] online. All the points I make are, I'm sure, points I've made here before. But if you want to hear me trying hard not to hem and haw, check it out. We had to cut out the discussion of hyperbolic discounting due to time constraints, which is just as well.