The Courage to Conjoin

Ramesh Ponnuru writes:

What renders atheism incompatible with a coherent account of morality, when it is incompatible, is physicalism (or what is sometimes described as reductive materialism). If it is true that the universe consists entirely and without remainder of particles and energy, then all human action must be within the domain of caused events, free will does not exist, and moral reasoning is futile if not illusory (as are other kinds of reasoning).

This is a stupefyingly widespread view that flows from an elementary error in thinking.

Suppose you know that there is free will or that moral reasoning is not futile. Next, suppose you find that the universe is made out of only whatever the universe is made out of. What do you infer? You infer that free will and moral reasoning, which occur inside the universe (or as aspects of the universe), whatever they may be, are made possible because of whatever it is the universe is made out of. And there you are.

Here is what you do not do. You do not start with a mystifying conditional like “If the universe is only physical (or whatever), then there is no free will,” because how do you know that? You don't. But you may think you do and so you get caught in a retarded ponens/tollens showdown: the universe is physical, ergo no free will, or… free will, so the universe is not physical. But, again, through what method of divination do we validate this conditional? None. Because we already know it is false.

Here are two things you know:  free will exists (it is obvious: go ahead, touch your nose) and the universe is made of whatever it is made of (obvious, if anything is). Therefore, you know the conjunction of those two things. Therefore, you know that the crazy proposition that says that one of them must be false isn't true! There's no need to get hung up on an arbitrary conjecture about the trascendental conditions for the very possibility of the existence of something when things you already know rule it out. P & Q  implies ~ (P —> ~Q). Logic: try it!

If we find out tomorrow that the universe is made of jello, all we will have learned about morality is that it, like everything else, is ultimately jello-dependent. 

Angus Deaton's New Happiness Paper

This is an important new paper using the freshest data. Abstract:

During 2006, the Gallup Organization collected World Poll data using an identical questionnaire from national samples of adults from 132 countries. This paper presents an analysis of the data on life-satisfaction (happiness) and health satisfaction and their relationships with national income, age, and life-expectancy. Average happiness is strongly related to per capita national income, with each doubling of income associated with a near one point increase in life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10. Unlike previous findings, the effect holds across the range of international incomes; if anything, it is slightly stronger among rich countries. Conditional on national income, recent economic growth makes people unhappier, improvements in life-expectancy make them happier, but life-expectancy itself has little effect. Age has an internationally inconsistent relationship with happiness. National income moderates the effects of aging on self-reported health, and the decline in health satisfaction and rise in disability with age are much stronger in poor countries than in rich countries. In line with earlier findings, people in much of Eastern Europe and in the countries of the former Soviet Union are particularly unhappy and particularly dissatisfied with their health, and older people in those countries are much less satisfied with their lives and their health than are younger people. HIV prevalence in Africa has little effect on Africans’ life or health satisfaction; the fraction of Kenyans who are satisfied with their personal health is the same as the fraction of Britons and higher than the fraction of Americans. The US ranks 81st out of 115 countries in the fraction of people who have confidence in their healthcare system, and has a lower score than countries such as India, Iran, Malawi, or Sierra Leone. While the strong relationship between life-satisfaction and income gives some credence to the measures, the lack of such correlations for health shows that happiness (or self-reported health) measures cannot be regarded as useful summary indicators of human welfare in international comparisons.

The Economist reports here.

Money and Status: It Really Is Up to You

Ezra likes to caricature my claim about the multidimensional, opt-in/opt-out nature of status races as “the idea that otherwise pathetic people can be really respected in Everquest.” This is, of course, true. And it is also true that you can choose your career, choose where you will live, choose whether to marry, choose whether to have children, choose what causes to join, what stores to shop at, choose what to buy in them, etc., etc. with straightforward implications on your experience of status. As far as I can tell, however, Ezra thinks all this is doubtful, which is completely mystifying, since I think it's pretty obvious. Ezra:

[Liberal arts degreees, obscure Russian poets and vanity bands are] also for very young people. Braxton's life is essentially defined by an absence of responsibilities, dangers, or economic ties. He's young and healthy, single (but hanging out with an awesome girl!), doesn't own a home, doesn't appear to have college debt, etc. Income doesn't define his status because, at the moment, he doesn't much need income. This will change. Quickly. And then income will define his status — and not just in an envious manner. Income will define whether his kid gets to go to a good school, and whether his family is safe from medical emergencies, and whether his clothing makes him look suitable for promotion. The ability to seek fulfillment in other realms will not vanish as he ages, but his capacity to eschew material concerns and forsake financial security will.

The imaginary Braxton, like Ezra and me (despite being so old), is in a major life stage sociologist Michael Rosenfeld calls “the age of independence,” as detailed in this interesting Kieran Healy post. Whether he is going to need a lot of income soon depends on the choices he makes. He could go on just like that for a long time, if he wants, like I have. If it is in the end “just a phase” (and what isnt?), it is by no means a trivial phase. If the denizens of wealthy liberal democracies now spend longer portions of life free to explore their interests without the necessity of earning high incomes, that seems like a kind of triumph.  

Morevover, if Braxton partners and chooses to have children, requiring extra income, it is completely open to him (and completely normal) to see that income as an instrument to raising his children, not as a signifier of status. And income has almost nothing to do with whether his kid gets to go to a good school. Where he chooses to live does. This might require some hard tradeoffs. Good public schools might not be available in the Boston neighborhoods Braxton can afford, where his friends are. But they are available in Omaha in neighborhoods he can afford. And it's probably a better music scene, too. If he decides to get a different kind of job so he can afford a place in a Boston neighborhood with good schools, we've got to keep in mind that there is no sense whatsoever in which unavoidable circumstances forced him into this. His preferences — for children, for Boston — did. We are not entitled to whatever we at the price we want wherever we want.

Millions upon millions of people in societies like ours spend their whole lives and raise families on modest artist, editor, teacher, or non-profit incomes because they prefer it over ready alternatives that provide larger incomes. Their status comes from being well-received and respected in their communities, whatever their communities may be. Being a beloved school teacher, a leader of a community theater, or the social pillar of a church are the kinds of sources of real status that most people do enjoy and emphasize in their lives. Everquest is good, too. Why demean the way people choose to live?

Ezra needs to put down the Robert Frank. Frank needs to establish that the rat race is something like an inevitability to get the conceptual machinery behind his policy proposals churning, but he can't, and so it doesn't. Narrowly materialist status pursuits just aren't an inevitability and it is so easy to show it that I really wonder what's going on psychologically and ideologically with people who keep trying to sell us on this. Give me a week and I'll find a hundred stories of people who have chosen a life in which income in not their main source (or even a source) of status. Give me a year and I'll find five thousand stories. What does it take? 

Also, Frank has never shown that his conclusions about tax policy even follow from his premises. As David Weisbach, director of the U of Chicago Law & Economics program, makes clear:

This [Frank's] simple intuition [about status] does not tell us anything about the likely effects of status on the tax rate schedule.  For example, increasing progressivity would move everyone closer together.  This might decrease status competition, because the gains from competition are smaller – it would be harder to separate yourself from the group.  On the other hand, it might increase status competition.  If you are closer to beating someone in a status race, you might try harder.  Thus, we can imagine status considerations leading to either a more progressive tax system or a less progressive tax system.

And, like Adam Smith and David Hume thought, in the right institutional and cultural context, the externalities of income-related status-seeking may be net positive, in which case a benevolent planner would subsidize it. So, the idea that people can't help but seek social status through income and consumption is pretty clearly false in the first place, is of indeterminate policy implication in the second place, and, in the third place, it's a pretty unattractively materialistic conception of human motivation for nice liberals (the leftwing homo economicus?).

I agree with Ezra that

To most people, money matters. A lot. Sometimes in absolute terms, sometimes in positional terms. Really good taste in vanity bands rarely pays the mortgage.

My point was precisely that money does matter. You need to live in a wealthy society to do the things Braxton does. Wealthy societies — societies in which uninternalized positive externalities run like milk and honey — are liberating. And in that kind of society, you can do these things without making a lot of money yourself.  The absolute amount of money you need, say, for a mortgage, depends on choices you make, mostly the choice of where to live. But the existence of a market in inexpensive secondhand electric guitars, lots of other people who play instruments, and a “scene” is not something you have to pay for yourself. And the importance of money as a positional matter depends on choices we make (especially if you consider the failure to break the hold of your accidental clique's expectations as a choice, which I do). My point was precisely that vanity bands may not pay the mortgage, but it doesn't matter, because you don't have to have a mortgage to have a vanity band, a satisfying level of social status, or happiness. It doesn't matter how old you are. Surely Ezra doesn't  really think we are all fated to pin our hopes of esteem on our paychecks. So what are we really talking about?  

Relatively Awesome

This is the best article I've read on the relationship between income, autonomy, status, and happiness. It happens to be from the Onion. Best bit:

Braxton, who earns roughly one-fourth of what the firm's lowest-seniority full-time employees make, said he has no desire to make his coworkers feel bad about their “boring, shitty lives.”

“If somebody complains about how bad it sucks to work overtime five days straight, I just nod and agree,” said Braxton, who spends his weeknights at parties, at concerts, and playing basketball in the park. “No point in rubbing in the fact that no matter how busy things are, I leave at exactly 5 p.m. every single day. If anyone asks me to stay later, I just say my agency doesn't let me do overtime.”

After graduating from Wesleyan University in May 2000 with a degree in Russian literature, Braxton worked a series of part-time jobs in and around Boston. In December 2001, he signed on with QualiTemps, the city's largest supplier of temporary office labor, which currently pays him $8.44 per hour.

“I have so much going on in my life right now,” Braxton said. “I'm helping a friend start up a little Cajun food stand, I've gotten way into this Russian poet Mayakovsky, I've been hanging out with this really cool girl I met when my band, Sophie Drillteam, did a show with hers. Honestly, I just don't have the time or energy to put into some job.”

In spite of his happiness, Braxton said he makes sure always to project an air of dissatisfaction, in both facial expression and posture, while in the office.

Income and position in the office hierarchy are far from the only dimensions of satisfying status. And don't miss the larger lesson: Braxton's ability to live a deeply engaging, self-directed, creative, relatively low-income lifestyle is a side-effect of overall abundance. He is, in effect, free-riding off the miserable productivity of his co-workers and people like them. Liberal arts degrees, obscure Russian poets, and vanity bands are for rich people. Being rich and personally having a large income are completely different things.     

Against Patriotism

Independence Day generally involves an outpouring of emotion usually described as “patriotism.” In the U.S., this generally involves a characteristic confusion between love of country and love of the principles the country is supposed to embody. I've just read George Kateb's brilliant essay, “Is Patriotism a Mistake?,” from his collection of essays Patriotism and Other Mistakes (the lead essay alone is worth the price of the whole book.) What better time to cast aspersion on unthinking patriotism?

A country is not a discernible collection of discernible individuals like a team or a faculty or a local chapter of a voluntary association. Of course a country is a delimited territory. It is also a place, a setting, a geography; it has a landscape, cityscapes, perhaps seascapes; it has old buildings as well as new ones; it has historical sights; it has a light, an air, an atmosphere; it has a special look. But it is also constructed out of transmitted memories true and false; a history usually mostly falsely sanitized or falsely heroized; a sense of kinship of a largely invented purity; and social ties that are largely invisible or impersonal, indeed, abstract, yet by an act of insistent or of dream-like imagination made visible and personal. 

What, then, is patriotism really? It is a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction: nothing you can see all of, or feel as you feel the presence of another person, or comprehend. Patriotism, then, is a readiness to die and to kill for what is largely a figment of the imagination. For this figment, one commits oneself to a militarized and continuously politicized conception of life, a conception that is entirely masculinist.


I ask us to notice that an abstraction of the sort I say patriotism is, is not the same thing as a principle. There is a very sharp contrast between a readiness to die and kill for an abstraction and a readiness to do the same for a principle. A principle must be universal, but an abstraction can have any scope. To embrace a principle, which is of course abstract in some sense, is to pledge oneself to a rule to guide one's perception of the world and, if one has sufficient integrity, to guide one's conduct in it. A moral principle … governs one's conduct toward others, and the expectations one had to the conduct of others. A moral principle must be conceived as universalist, and asks for consistent application; and it aims at respect for persons or individuals, not abstract entities of imagination. There is also a sharp contrast between an abstraction like patriotism and a tangible interest like being protected or preserved in one's rights of life, liberty, and property, for which purpose it may also sometimes be thought necessary to risk death and to kill.


The highest moral principles teach restraint of self-preference, whether the self is oneself or a group-self; while, on the other hand, a person's basic rights and tangible self-interest, in a tolerable society, are supposed to be practiced or achieved without morally cognizable harm to the same rights and interests of others. In contrast, patriotism is self-idealization; it is group narcissism without any self-restraint except for a frequently unreliable prudence, and carried to death-dealing lengths. Patriotism is one of the more radical forms of group-thinking, or group identity and affiliation. Being armed is what makes it radical.

We all are touched with what Yi-Fu Tuan calls “topophilia,” a sentimental connection to place, and cannot avoid indulging in it. But we can avoid making an overriding ideal of it. Indepedence Day ought not be a celebration of this place, America, its imaginary history, and the imaginary solidarity of its people. It ought to be a celebration of the universal ideal of a society in which all are equally without right to rule one another and equally invested with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — a celebration of the ideals of the Declaration. Yes, you will enjoy your potato salad, your apple pie. Perhaps you'll enjoy fireworks and tiny American flags. You may even catch yourself enjoying Lee Greenwood. But be sure to take a minute to enjoy the abundant happiness you have caught and the liberty that made it possible. And do consider how wonderful it would be if everyone, American and not, had it so good.  

Silver Foxes Dig the Green

I've got a new piece at The American on how money saves us from unhappiness in old age. A slice:

Easterlin, a pioneer of the study of happiness in the field of economics, set out to chart the trajectory of happiness over an ordinary person's life-span. He discovered that, on average, happiness rises slowly from our early twenties, peaks at about forty-five, and then declines as slowly as it rose. But the smooth arc of happiness over the life-cycle obscures dramatic action in average satisfaction within the main domains of life—family, work, health, and finances—that together compose the overall trend.

Easterlin, drawing on the massive General Social Survey, reports that health satisfaction heads steadily south from eighteen on, while family satisfaction peaks at about fifty then tails off determinedly. Job satisfaction hits a crescendo at about sixty and slopes off with retirement. Only financial satisfaction, like Matlock reruns, gets better with old age. Financial satisfaction, Easterlin finds, dips until the mid-thirties, levels off, then heads skyward, soaring ever higher each remaining year of life. If not for sharply rising financial satisfaction, the mild downward slide from midlife would be a sharp drop into a well of gray-haired despair. Money does make us happy in at least this one way: as a firewall against an otherwise soul-sapping senescence.

But Easterlin—a vocal critic of the money-happiness link—does not interpret his findings quite this way. Why not?

Why not find out?