Best Happiness Paper Ever: The Ready-to-Be-Disappointed Danes

The bar is extremely low, but this paper in the BMJ, “Why Danes Are Smug: Comparative Study of Life Satisfaction in the European Union,” is easily the funniest happiness research paper ever. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

Our analysis points to two explanatory factors. The Danish football triumph of 1992 has had a lasting impact. This victory arguably provided the biggest boost to the Danish psyche since the protracted history of Danish setbacks began with defeat in England in 1066, followed by the loss of Sweden, Norway, Northern Germany, the Danish West Indies, and Iceland. The satisfaction of the Danes, however, began well before 1992, albeit at a more moderate level. The key factor that explains this and that differentiates Danes from Swedes and Finns seems to be that Danes have consistently low (and indubitably realistic) expectations for the year to come. Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.

This finding is supported by Danish news coverage of the 2005 pronouncement by Ruut Veenhoven, Dutch Professor of Social Conditions for Happiness and head of the World Database of Happiness, that Danes are the world’s happiest people. The headlines in Denmark ran: We’re the happiest “lige nu.” The phrase “lige nu,” which can be translated literally as “just now,” is a quintessentially Danish expression redolent, indeed reeking, of the sentiment “for the time being, but probably not for long and don’t have any expectations it will last.”

Luckily, I didn't expect this paper to be any good.

Free Kareem! Rally Tomorrow in Support of Jailed Egyptian Blogger

Thursday, January 11, 12:00 pm
Egyptian Cultural and Educational Bureau
1303 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington, DC

I've never been much of a placard-waving activist, but conversation with my colleague Tom Palmer, international ambassador of liberty, who knows about such things, has made me deeply concerned about the case of 22 year-old Egyptian blogger Abdelkareem Soliman Amer, who was unjustly jailed by Egyptian government authorities for refusing to recant criticisms of repression and religious extremism on his blog. He has now been in jail for over 2 months, and there is now some concern that he may come to harm in prison, which is why a few good folks and I decided it is urgent to make a statement as soon as possible to the Egyptian government in support of Kareem's (and all of our) basic human rights to freedom of conscience and expression. “As soon as possible” would be tomorrow (Thursday) at noon.

We have organized a rally tomorrow outside the Egyptian Cultural and Educational Bureau near Dupont Circle in Washington. If you are a blogger, and would be willing to spread the word on your blog, we would be extremely grateful. Better still, if you are in DC, come to the rally. We are trying to get a decent turnout of bloggers and blog readers from the DC area in order to create exposure for Kareem's case, and to send a clear message that the freedoms of conscience and expression are dear and not to be trifled with.

Please notify friends and colleagues you think might be interested, and encourage them to show up at noon tomorrow, or to spread the work to their friends and colleagues, etc. And I strongly encourage you, my good friend, to turn up tomorrow. We don't need a huge crowd. If we get just 10-15 or so people and we'll have accomplished something worth having done. The demonstration is over the lunch hour, just off Dupont, so it's easy to get to, and you can grab a sandwich on the way back to the office. I'd like to think that if I were sitting in jail simply for saying what I thought, others would do at least that much for you. Or at least a blog post.

If you think you're going to come, please drop me a line, just so I can keep track. And if you're interested in doing anything else to help.

The details about the vigil and Kareem's case are at the blog of the DC Coalition for Blog Freedom, an ad hoc group created to bring people together to help Kareem and no doubt (sadly) many others in the future. That's you!

Here is the FAQ about Kareem's situation and don't miss the links in the sidebar that tell the fuller story.

Please join us tomorrow, or least spread the word, to help a young man punished for speaking his mind.

Well-Being as Nature-Fulfillment? WTF?!

What are happiness and well-being? No need to make it complicated. Dan Haybron is correct:

The short answer, according to me

Happiness is best understood as consisting in a person’s overall emotional condition. This includes moods, many emotions, and a person’s mood propensity, or tendency to experience various moods (which varies considerably over time). To be happy is roughly for one’s emotional condition to be solidly positive, with a heavy predominance of positive over negative affect.

Well-being consists in nature-fulfillment, making my view eudaimonistic. The account will likely take this form: well-being consists mainly in the fulfillment of the self’s emotional and rational aspects—i.e., in being authentically happy, and in success regarding the commitments that shape one’s identity. But our subpersonal natures probably also count, so we might add, secondarily, the fulfillment of our “nutritive” and “animal” natures: health or vitality and pleasure.

Almost correct. So, I take it back. Plenty of need to make it complicated. Starting about ten minutes ago, I no longer understand what “nature-fulfillment” is. I have no idea what my self's “emotional and rational aspects” are. I have emotional capacities and cognitive capacities of various sorts—powers Hobbes might say. But I can't exercise all of them. I am budget-constrained in the exercise of my capacities. Which ones to exercise, then? Which one's to develop, perfect? Which to ignore, let wither? (How do I even individuate them—know where one ends and another begins?) If I'm supposed to exercise just the ones that add up to “well-being,” then we've circularly defined well-being, and haven't said anything about it.

Further, I claim, our basic, culturally untutored cognitive capacities don't add up to some kind of natural “rationality” in either an Aristotelian or Kantian (or whatever) sense. Rationality is an art. So our normative conception of rationality (and probably our conception of various forms of emotion) just is a kind identity-shaping commitment that doesn't exist prior to or independent of set of social conventions and a personal commitment to hew to them. If I shape my identity by commitment to the exercise of certain emotional or rational capacities, then it may be necessary to sacrifice the exercise of some other emotional capacities—for example, the ones that reinforce a “solidly positive emotional condition,” or happiness. Can happiness be anathema to some people's well-being?

Back to this nature-fulfillment business. Many folks seem to believe in “callings,” or nature-fulfilling activities. Maybe your calling is to make beautiful music on the piano. But it's not like there are pianos in the wild, sprouting from the ground under the baobab trees. In a possible world without pianos, where would you be? Is the piano just a specification of a general to-be-fulfilled nature, a general naturally defined set of begging-to-be-realized potentials just hanging around in some kind of waiting room of the “self” (or subpersonal animal)? It seems doubtful. It seems more likely that the piano is an opportunity for a previously undreamt identity-shaping—capacity-shaping—commitment. There is no kind of personal nature that mastering the piano fulfills without pianos.

It is tempting for me to see this conclusion as a fat shiny nail craving the tender attentions of my hammer and to argue (Bang!) here is an argument for the proliferating plenitude and specialization of market society. The more piano-like opportunities to uniquely shape a custom soul, the better. But, the thought is, there may be no relevant fixed “nature,” and so there may be little normative  oomph in the possibility of committing to and fulfilling a particular constructed nature, unless there is something especially fitting about that nature relative to the infinite alternatives. But in that case we still need something fixed, like natures, just more individualized and specific.

Maybe we do have them, not because we come with them built in, but because they get built in through the interaction of our natural material–basic capacities, powers, etc.—with the culture we find ourselves embedded in. The more various and abundant the culture, the more fine-grained our micro-natures. So well-being as nature-fulfillment in market societies requires the maintenance of markets that churn out a dizzying variety of undreamt identity-shaping “pianos” that we can commit to in order to realize our seemingly factory-installed but hyper-individualized “potentials.”

So, Bang!, anyway.

Metaphysics is Boring When You Know the Answers

I took a huge number of metaphysics courses during grad school and, over time, I changed my mind about pretty much everything, other than my dogged commitment to the law of non-contradiction. Then I stayed stuck, because, of course, I eventually landed on the correct answers. I thought the NYTM article on free will was pretty good, but I also no longer find the question very interesting. There are lots of uninteresting metaphysical questions. Here are a few obviously correct metaphysical conclusions not worth thinking that much about (to me).

Free will: The universe is either deterministic or it isn't. This has nothing to do with free will. We have it. Yes, we often make mistakes in attributing agency to ourselves and others. But often we don't. It is frequently possible to have done other than what we did in fact do. The trick is understanding the relevant sense of “possible,” which has nothing to do with ultimate issues about the nature of causation.

Ontology: Quine is right. To be is to be the value of a bound variable. That is, if something plays a role in our best explanation of some phenomenon, you should believe it exists. Otherwise, not. God, for instance, is the best explanation for nothing. That's why you shouldn't believe in God, or the posits of string theory. (People like Megan who hesitate to call themselves atheists because they cannot “prove” nonexistence are simply confused about ontological commitment. If Megan's p for “God exists” is so low (“vanishingly unlikely”), then God must play no role in her economy of explanation, which is all there is to being an atheist. You don't just get to decide whether or not you are one.)

Universals: There are “repeatable” fundamental “kinds”, which explains why there are relations of causal necessity. Realism about universals confuses the semantic generality of concepts for ontological generality. “Instantiation” and “exemplification” relations add nothing useful to property instances (tropes). There are individuals and that's it. If two are in different locations but it would have made no difference whatsoever to the history of the universe had they been switched, then they are two of a kind. We can have essentialist scientific realism without essences. But it really doesn't matter much: choosing a particularist or universalist ontology is just a Carnap-style choice of vocabulary. It's an open question whether the more elegantly parsimonious vocabulary works out better in the work of explanation. It's probably easier to think like a realist.

Modality: There is exactly one possible world, the actual one. Pace Lewis, more than one possible world is the best explanation for nothing, so that's that. “Possible” means “not inconsistent with the fundamental laws that govern basic kinds.” Modal statements about fundamental kinds (“gold might have had a different atomic weight”) may be grammatical but are not meaningful. Whereof we cannot speak, etc. Bonus: modal epistemology is just epistemology, and epistemology is the psychology and sociology of truth-tracking. Unless there is reason to think that our haphazardly evolved and organized and imaginative abilities for some bizarre reason happen to reliably track truths about the fundamental laws governing ultimate kinds, it's hard to see what thought experiments about transparent iron or a molecular duplicate but non-conscious Zombie me are even supposed to be about, much less explain.

Qualia: Yes! They play a computational function. (This is a joke! I don't know that at all!)

Don't mean to bore you. It's all pretty obvious when you just come out and say it like that, huh?

Also, it has come my attention that some readers of this blog find philosophical jargon forbidding. Sorry! But if a man can't use clubby, exclusive, abstruse jargon on his own blog, where can he? Anyway, if you end up on a game show, and they need the answer to the problem of universals, you're in luck. OK… Back to hard, interesting stuff, like happiness and inequality.