Happiness Is the Wrong Metric
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People are motivated not only by a quest for satisfaction but also by an ambition to live up to their sense of what is moral. This sense cannot be reduced to a form of satisfaction or pleasure maximization because, among other reasons, it often engenders pain and sacrifice. Further more, studies repeatedly show that income beyond a certain level does not make people happier, while “higher” sources, like spirituality, community involvement, intellectual activity, and family bonding, pay dividends with respect to individual happiness. Analysis and public policy are enriched when we realize that people take moral commitments seriously and will sometimes eschew their own pleasure to pursue them. This conception of well-being, which crucially incorporates moral affirmation, is a step forward in a deep-rooted dialogue in the social sciences and philosophy about human motivation, behavior, ethics, and how one goes about living “the good life.”
Competing social science theories, the policies based on them, and public discourses about improving society draw on different meta-conceptions of human nature. To start with a simple example, if one assumes people are by nature brutish and boorish, we shall look for ways to control them, for a strong authority. If one assumes that they are benign beings, naturally at peace with each other, we shall look for ways to remove forces that distort their good nature. Other such meta-conceptions assume that people seek to maximize pleasure or—are inherently flawed but redeemable. This essay examines recently popular conceptions about human nature and suggests refocusing on a different one.
Among the popular meta-conceptions is the thesis that people are seeking and entitled to seek happiness. The concern with what makes people happy arises within the liberal democratic context. Liberalism, with its focus on individual rights, liberty, and dignity can be viewed as a belief system that was shaped and embraced by people seeking to curb the power of the rulers (feudal lords, monarchs, and later the states) and religious authorities. This is reflected in the question what makes people happy rather than, say, the lord of the manor or the Lord of the world.
One widely-shared and powerful interpretation of happiness views individuals as seeking to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. (And that pleasure was associated with command of material goods, needed to gain what is pleasurable.) Related meta-conceptions of human nature have sought to enrich and expand the meaning of happiness by including the gratification a person gains from the happiness of others (e.g. their children) or even from carrying out moral acts (Dunn et al. 2011). Note, though, that in all these expansions of happiness, the happiness of others or service to the common good are achieved by making the person happy. If the children are happy, say about a move overseas, but this does not make the parent happy—the move does not count as contributing to happiness. If making a major donation to a good cause makes the recipients happy, but the contributing person is not satisfied by the recognition he got or the use of the funds, there is no net happiness gained. Of course, utilitarianism includes concern for the happiness of the greatest number, but this is merely a sum of individual happiness! (Attempts to modify this assumption are discussed below.)
I shall refer to all these various meta-conceptions as those of “satisfiers.” They all hold that the individual seeks satisfaction and is self-centered. These approaches also tend to be amoral. Satisfiers do not judge whether some satisfactions or preferences are morally superior to others, nor do they, as utilitarians are wont to do, equate satisfaction with being moral.
The main thesis of this chapter is that sound analysis, good public policies, and proper public discourse assume a rather different meta-conception of human nature. I shall refer to this type of person as a moral wrestler. This views the person as subject to an irreconcilable conflict between the quest for happiness (of one kind or another) and—the quest to live up to their moral values; the latter’s completion results in a sense of affirmation.1 Much of the dynamic of human behavior reflects this conflict between the quest for pleasure and the quest for affirmation. For now, it suffices to illustrate this point with the simple statement, “I would like to go and see a movie, but I ought to visit my friend in the hospital.” To “like” something denotes the pursuit of satisfaction, while “ought” denotes affirming motivation.
Second, this chapter shows that societal structure and culture considerably influence the lifelong struggle between the pursuit of happiness and the quest for affirmation. These collective forces, rather than individuals’ preferences and actions, greatly affect whether the quest for affirmation or the pursuit of satisfaction, or a carefully-crafted balance between the two, guides individuals’ conduct and societal dynamics. That is, individuals have much less agency than several influential social scientific theories, major ideologies, and the general public assume. It follows that those who seek to understand the components of, and attempt to, form a good life and a good society should grant greater importance to social action, in which individuals act in unison and draw on shared norms and institutions, than to individual agency.
This chapter first briefly outlines the reasons that these age-old issues now deserve special attention, especially in societies with developed economies (Part I). It then reviews the evidence about the growing disconnect between income and happiness, as well as the implications of this trend for the definition of the good life (Part II). The discussion then turns to “higher” sources of satisfaction and their historical relevance (Part III). It then explores the most important reason to reject happiness as a measure of the good life: the good life has a major moral component. It furthermore studies affirmation and the connection between moral behavior and pain and sacrifice (Part IV). The chapter then highlights that preferences are social products that can be collectively modified, for better or for worse (Part V). It closes by discussing the measurements with which to assess the communitarian state of the union, or the balance between the pursuit of pleasure and affirming motivation (Part VI).
1.2 Within History
Many of these age-old deliberations on what makes people happy are ahistorical and asociological in the sense that they examine the motivations of individuals as if it matters not whether they lived in ancient Greece or live in contemporary Rome—or, for that matter, in today’s New York City, the Swat Valley, or the Amazon River Basin. These deliberations have their place because, indeed, basic human nature is universal; all human beings are motivated by the pursuit of happiness (in part driven by their biological base, although it affects them via cultural filters) and, with the possible exception of psychopaths, all have an “affirming sense” of what they ought to do. However, examining the particularistic, historical, and sociological contexts in which the tension between the quests for satisfaction and affirmation is worked out greatly enriches the analysis. Thus, to urge that people should serve as best they can in whatever position into which they have been cast—as Aristotle (Kraut 2014) argued was ideal—has different implications for the slave than it has for the lord of the manor, and for others who live in different ages and societies.
Since the Great Recession, economic growth, especially in economically developed countries, has been anemic. Unemployment has been high, especially if measures of unemployment include the many people who have ceased to look for work or who work less than they prefer. Wages have stagnated. These conditions have contributed to rising political alienation; a greater variety of extreme and violent expressions such as xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism; support for radical right-wing parties and politicians; and some—albeit much less—support for the radical left (UNESCO 2009). Some scholars have posited the existence of a general link between low rates of economic growth and support for right-wing politicians and nationalism (Brückner and Grüner 2010).
It is possible that rates of economic growth will rise again and that the “legitimacy of affluence” (Etzioni 2014) might be restored. However, several leading economists hold that it may well be impossible to return to a high-growth economy (Gordon 2012; Fernald and Jones 2014). Particularly compelling are predictions that account for the fact that the new “industrial revolution” is driven by artificial intelligence—that is, by advanced computers that can replace not only manual labor, but also skilled labor in fields such as medicine and law and education (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2012; Frey and Osborne 2013). Many lawyers are finding their jobs replaced by computers (Markoff 2011). Industrial jobs currently performed by manufacturing labor, often of the kind protected by unions that offered a gateway into the middle class, will be cut by 22% by 2025 as a result of increased reliance on cheap but technologically advanced robots (Associated Press 2015). Bank tellers are replaced by ATMs; travel agents have been replaced by websites; and large numbers of clerical and other white-collar jobs “once thought to require people” have been lost to improving technologies (Rotman 2013). This trend is now extending to middle class jobs, especially in education and medicine.
Another particularly telling example is the robots that are replacing anesthesiologists. This is a very tedious job, given that 99% of the time the tasks that must be done are routine and boring, but rare failures can be very damaging. Robots do not mind checking the patient’s vital signs every split second; they can remain fully mindful of the situation even if the surgery lasts many hours, they do not get distracted, and controlled substances or alcohol do not affect them. In short, robots are ideally suited to replace most anesthesiologists, which would largely eliminate a very well-paying job. (One would expect a human anesthesiologist to supervise several robots, to set their dials, and to deal with alarms in the event that they sound.)
Similar fears of, and opposition to, new technologies arose during previous industrial revolutions, the classic example being the Luddites. However, in earlier cases in which technological advances destroyed old jobs, these novel technologies also created a similar number of new, better-paying and less menial jobs. However, nothing in economic theory suggests that there is an iron law or an identifiable mechanism to ensure these new jobs will materialize following any and all major technological breakthroughs. This time, advanced computers are replacing human labor and eliminating well-paying, desirable jobs, while generating few new ones. Recall that Kodak once employed more than 145,000 people to manufacture its film and camera products and to develop photos at various retail establishments; in 2010, a team of merely 15 individuals created Instagram, which facilitates the exchange of digital photographs (Leslie 2014).
If predictions are correct that new, developed nations will face persistent and growing unemployment, this will affect not merely people’s income but also their sense of self, a major source of meaning and structure. This would lead either to massive alienation and social and political upheaval—or to new characterizations of what makes people happy.
Moreover, even if economic developments in the foreseeable future do allow for ever higher income and consumption, data suggest that increasing income—above a certain threshold—tends not to increase happiness significantly. For this reason, even if the world could find its way back to high economic growth rates, one must still answer the question whether alternate sources of satisfaction can be found that are not derived from ever-higher levels of income and material consumption. Does affluence provide a satisfactory response to basic questions of the meaning of life, human existence, and purpose? Are humans cast into this world to make and consume products? Or do they aspire to find meaning for their actions in the service of higher purposes, once their basic needs are sated? Religious fundamentalism has offered a highly troubling answer to these questions. What other visions of the good life are compelling and compatible with human nature as that of a moral wrester?
Communitarian philosophy provides such an alternate vision. The communitarian movement arose in the 1990s around two main principles. First, the West’s increasing focus on the individual had contributed to the neglect of the common good and to an imbalanced society. Second, there is a need to shore up social responsibilities and commitments to society, as well as to form new norms defining what society should expect of its people. Reexamining the role of happiness in crafting a good society reflects this need to restore balance between the self and society by enhancing the common good after centuries during which it was (properly) scaled back (Etzioni 1993, 1996). Most Western societies have yet to achieve this balance.
1.3 The Rising Disconnect Between Income and Happiness
The preponderance of the social scientific literature suggests that once income reaches a certain threshold, additional income creates little additional satisfaction. On the whole, social science’s findings, which have well-known limitations and do not all agree, seem to support this notion of diminishing happiness returns on income except for the poor and nearly-poor. Frank M. Andrews and Stephen B. Withey found that one’s socioeconomic status has a meager effect on one’s “sense of well-being” and no significant effect on one’s life satisfaction (Andrews and Withey 1976). A survey of over 1000 participants, who rated their sense of satisfaction and happiness on a 7-point scale and a 3-point scale, concluded that there was no correlation between socioeconomic status and happiness; in fact, the second-highest socioeconomic group was consistently among the least happy of all seven brackets measured. In addition, Jonathan Freedman discovered that levels of reported happiness do not vary greatly among the members of different economic classes, with the exception of the very poor, who tend to be less happy than others (Freedman 1978).
In a 1973 study, Richard Easterlin reported on a phenomenon that has since been labeled the “Easterlin Paradox” (Easterlin 1973, 1974). At any given time, an increase in income generates more happiness; however, in the longer run (10 years or more) happiness fails to increase. For example, between 1962 and 1987, the Japanese per capita income more than tripled, yet Japan’s overall happiness remained constant over that period (Easterlin 2005). Similarly, in 1970, the average American income could buy over 60% more than it could in the 1940s, yet average happiness did not increase (Easterlin 1973). A survey of those whose income had increased over a 10-year period revealed that these individuals were no happier than those whose incomes had stagnated (Myers and Diener 1996). Many social scientists have presented similar evidence. For example, David G. Myers and Ed Diener found that while Americans’ per-capita disposable (after-tax) income in inflation-adjusted dollars almost exactly doubled between 1960 and 1990, almost the same proportion of Americans reported that they were “very happy” in 1993 (32%) as they did in 1957 (35%)(Myers and Diener 1995). Although economic growth has slowed since the mid-1970s, Americans’ reported happiness has been remarkably stable (nearly always between 30% and 35%) across both high-growth and low-growth periods (Myers and Diener 1995).
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of scholarly articles called Easterlin’s findings into question. Some scholars, specifically Ruut Veenhoven and Michael Hagerty, argued that Easterlin’s methodology was flawed, having found that both happiness and income had increased in the second half of the twentieth century (Veenhoven and Hagerty 2006). A 2008 paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found a similar correlation between income growth and happiness (Stevenson and Wolfers 2008).
In 2010, Easterlin and his associates responded to Stevenson and Wolfers’ challenge by pointing out the short-term nature of the data and by citing the examples of China, South Korea, and Chile to contradict claims that a positive correlation exists between long-term GDP growth and happiness (Easterlin et al. 2010). All three countries have very high growth rates, but none of them showed a statistically significant increase in happiness. The authors wrote, “With incomes rising so rapidly in these three different countries, it seems extraordinary that there are no surveys that register the marked improvement in subjective well-being that mainstream economists and policy makers worldwide would expect to find” (Easterlin et al. 2010).
The one important exception to these findings is the evidence that increasing the incomes of the poor significantly enhances their happiness. The populations of countries with average annual incomes greater than $20,000 are significantly happier than those in countries with average annual incomes of less than $20,000, as Richard Layard’s 2005 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science shows2 (Layard 2005). A 2010 study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton identified the point after which there is less correlation between additional income and additional happiness: $75,000 (Kahneman and Deaton 2010). The study found that while a positive relationship existed between income and life evaluation,3 higher income did not improve emotional well-being4 (See Kahneman and Deaton 2010). Hence, whereas life evaluation rises steadily with increases in income, emotional well-being does not progress once an annual income of $75,000 is reached.5 Some authors continue to maintain that “absolute income has a large impact on happiness across the income spectrum” (Haybron 2011). However, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that income above a certain level does not buy much additional happiness. Thus, the legitimacy of affluence is questionable, regardless of whether high economic growth is achievable and sustainable. The data should not be understood to suggest that up to a given level of income, more income makes one more satisfied, and that after that level, income adds nothing to one’s satisfaction. It suggests that the higher one’s income, the less additional income adds to satisfaction, and that once it reaches the cutoff point, it may cease to add any further satisfaction.
One reason high wage-earners derive less happiness from additional income is that the goods that high income allows one to buy are reported not to have absolute value in terms of the happiness they provide. Rather, they are judged relative to other goods available. Indeed, this is the explanation Easterlin himself offers, namely that individual happiness seems to be determined by one’s income relative to others, rather than one’s absolute income. One interpretation of this claim is the familiar concept of “keeping up with the Joneses”—an expression that captures the use of goods in a status competition among members of the community. Goods are used as visible markers of one’s standing in this never-ending race. This explains why an increase in a nation’s collective wealth often fails to increase reported happiness. If practically everyone has three televisions and two cars, owning three televisions and two cars may buy little pride relative to others. Moreover, even very wealthy people can always find someone who earns more than they do. The same factor also seems to explain why people in small towns are happier than those in big cities. Daniel Gilbert writes of New York City, “No matter how hard you try, you really can’t avoid walking by restaurants where people drop your monthly rent on a bottle of wine and store windows where shoes sit like museum pieces on gold pedestals. You can’t help but feel trumped” (Gilbert 2006).
The argument so far has been that technological and economic changes are challenging societies that have built their social contracts and legitimacy of their regimes on the pursuit of happiness defined mainly by gaining pleasure from material goods (“affluence”). Social and political upheavals will result from these societies’ inability to provide their citizens with ever-higher levels of command of material goods.
Even if high rates of economic growth returned, the diminishing correlation between additional income and additional satisfaction at high incomes means that they would be unlikely to produce the kind of satisfaction that people seek and that supports a harmonious society and stable polity. Whether other sources of non-material, non-income sources of satisfaction can fulfill this role is addressed in the next section.
1.4 Maslow and “Higher” Satisfactions
1.4.1 The Hierarchy Revisited
Among the social scientists that draw on a richer theory of human nature than the one embraced by hedonists, Abraham Maslow and his theory about a hierarchy of human needs stand out. Maslow holds that a set of needs motivates all human behavior; these needs exist in a hierarchy, such that the most “prepotent” need that remains unsatisfied is most active, or most strongly drives behavior (Heylighen 1992). As more prepotent needs are gratified, higher needs exercise greater influence over the individual’s behavior (Lollar 1974, p. 40), although it is not necessary for a prepotent need to be fully gratified before higher order needs affect behavior (Sengupta 2011, p. 103).
Maslow identified five fundamental categories of needs. Ranked from most basic to highest-order, these are physiological needs, safety-security, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (Lester 1990, p. 1187). Physiological needs include the “chemicals, nutrients, or internal (e.g. exercise/health) or environmental (e.g. temperatures) conditions necessary for the body to survive” (Taormina and Gao 2013, p. 157). This need is satisfied as long as the individual is not so physiologically deprived as to be in bodily danger; the underlying imperative of physiological needs is biological survival (Groves et al. 1975, p. 65). Safety-security needs are the absence of threatening stimuli—including but not limited to “wild animals, criminal assault, disease, war, anarchy, natural catastrophes, […] the lack of such things as job security, financial security, [and] medical insurance” (Taormina and Gao 2013, p. 157). The need for love and belonging is predicated on the finding that the absence of affective bonds with other human beings causes stress responses that people experience as loneliness and depression (Taormina and Gao 2013, p. 158). Esteem involves the need to be valued by others and to feel intrinsically that one has contributed to the world. The highest need is self-actualization.6
Self-actualization, considered the highest need, is defined as achieving the fullest use of one’s talents and interests—the need “to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Hagerty 1999, p. 250). As implied by its name, self-actualization is highly individualistic and reflects Maslow’s premise that the self is “sovereign and inviolable” and entitled to “his or her own tastes, opinions, values, etc”(Aron 1977, p. 13). That is, self-actualization refers to an individual need for fulfillment (Hagerty 1999, p. 250). The particular form self-actualization takes varies greatly from person to person. In some individuals “it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions” (Koltko-Rivera 2006, p. 303). Indeed, some have characterized self-actualization as “healthy narcissism” (Pauchant and Dumas 1991, p. 58).
Some of the characteristics of a self-actualized individual outlined by Maslow in latter writings include references to moral considerations. Maslow acknowledges that for some people, self-actualization may include, for example, being a good mother (Maslow 1943, p. 382). However, Maslow’s first and commonly-cited definition of self-actualization does not contain a moral imperative.
For the purpose of the following discussion, it suffices to group Maslow’s needs into three main “layers” or categories. Physiological needs and security comprise basic creature comfort needs, which are closest to inborn biological urges; the second layer is made up of love and belonging and esteem; and the third layer, the pinnacle, of self-actualization.
To reiterate, these are merely a few of the many findings about the satisfying effects of gratifying higher order needs. These sources of satisfaction have several common attributes. First, they take place within the third, communal sector. Much public discourse has focused for the last two centuries on the merits of the private sector versus the public sector—of the role of markets versus the role of the government. As a result, much less attention has been paid to the role of the third sector—the one that encompasses nuclear and extended families; friendships; educational, religious, and political activities; volunteerism; many thousands of not-for-profit organizations, and much more. Much of social life—everything from bringing up children to supporting those who have lost a loved one—takes place in this third sector. It is here that norms are formed and often reinforced through informal social controls rather than formal incentives or legal coercion. In this sense, the three sources of satisfaction examined in the preceding paragraphs are all communitarian.
Another common attribute is that all these examples are basically not capital intensive, and hence are not based on one’s income or job. People who have lasting, meaningful, and affective relationships find them to be a major source of mutual satisfaction, which can be achieved with very little material costs. Chess played with plastic pieces is as enjoyable as chess played with figures carved out of ivory; there is no evidence that the Lord better hears prayers from a leather-bound prayer book than from one made of recycled paper; and one does not need a BMW to drive to a picnic. One can spend time with one’s spouse and children, attend religious services, or volunteer without spending much money.
True, all these activities can be corrupted. One can try to achieve love by seeking more income to buy ever-more expensive goods, or one can ground one’s esteem in one’s ability to out-earn another. But there is no inherent connection between income and the ability to engage in higher pursuits the way income is needed for creature comforts. Unless prevented by a commercial culture, people love spending time with their parents more than they love expensive toys, prefer spousal intimacy over objects, and would rather participate in community public service instead of donating. (None of this should be read to suggest that people up to a certain income threshold are preoccupied with addressing their basic creature needs, but that after that threshold they turn to pursuing higher satisfactions. Maslow’s theory indicated that gradually, as basic needs are more sated, people invest more of themselves in serving their higher needs.)
Finally, most importantly for all that follows, the activities that serve higher needs may be pro social but nevertheless tend to be amoral. Because this distinction is crucial and often overlooked, it deserves some elaboration. The reason that these communitarian activities are a source of satisfaction lies in human nature, which craves affective bonding (what Maslow calls “love”), positive approval (“esteem”), and meaning (a key element of “self-actualization”). Hence, people for whom the social structures and cultural and political regimes in which they function allow them to have more opportunities to meet these cravings tend to be less alienated and more satisfied (as well as have healthier and longer lives). This is the reason that numerous observers assume that communities are good in the moral sense of the term, and that societies in which communities are intact are better than societies in which communities have been undermined and people are atomized (Kornhauser 1960). These “mass societies” are held to be full of rebellious, violent, and mentally maladjusted people (Kornhauser 1960).
All of these observations ignore that communities that provide all of these higher sources of satisfaction can coalesce around very negative values. A gang, a Nazi community, or a community of card-carrying KKK members can provide similar satisfaction to their members as do the Rotary Club, a branch of the Fabian Society, or a community of violinists. One must determine whether the activity from which a person draws higher satisfactions is a moral one. Just as people with strong muscle tone are healthier than those with weak muscle tone but this does not determine whether these muscles are used to kill someone or build a home for the homeless—so too are those who are members of communities better off than those who are isolated, but their communities may promote values observers would consider anathema. The same point applies to the “social capital” that some use to refer to bonding and communal relationships. People who have social capital are more satisfied than those who lack it (Putnam 2000), but one should not ignore the uses of this capital. Another way to express this fundamental point is the statement that behavior that is prosocial is not necessary moral.
It follows that some social structures and political regimes may make people happier but not better. Satisfaction is the wrong metric if it is not coupled with an assessment of the extent to which the structures and regime that satisfy also promote a good life and community. As far as individuals are concerned, there are happy criminals and singing nuns, miserable inmates and gloomy nurses. Contrary to what hedonists hold, their satisfactions should not be judged to be equal.
1.4.2 Within History: Capping Versus Denial
Showing that seeking higher satisfaction leads to greater satisfaction overall does not mean favoring an austere or ascetic life of denial. Asceticism, the practice of denying one’s physical or psychological needs in pursuit of higher-order goals, often spiritual in nature, has appeared in virtually all religions at one point or another (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online 2002). Examples of asceticism exist today, such as Christian and Jain monks and nuns. However, most sects that fully embraced asceticism as a basic tenant of their community either failed completely or became much less austere. For example, the Israeli kibbutzim, collective communities founded by Jews who emigrated from Russia in the early 1900s, originally emphasized that a life of simplicity, materially speaking, “would encourage the realization of the full potentialities of human nature” (Spiro 2004, p. 559). Members were instructed “to seek gratification only within a restricted range of personal needs” (Leviatan et al. 1998, p. 3). At their consumption peak, kibbutzim fully financed members’ trips abroad, and a growing basket of products (Ashkenazi and Katz 2009, p. 577). Similarly, the Amana community in Iowa traces its roots to German dissidents of Lutheranism known as Pietists, who sought to protest “the ceremony and pomp of the established churches” (Hoehnle 2001, p. 3). The community eventually established itself in the United States as a group that avoided all luxuries and decorative arts and held 11 church services per week (Abramitzky 2011). However, young members eventually resisted church restrictions on modern conveniences deemed “worldly” by elders and many left the church (Hoehnle 2001, p. 5). What remained changed drastically—epitomized by the incorporation of the Amana Society in 1932 (Hoehnle 2001, p. 16), a joint stock corporation that eventually owned, among other things, the very successful Amana Refrigeration, Inc.
People need to be able to attend to their basic creature comforts in order to be satisfied. Only once these lower-order needs are reasonably satisfied does investing more of oneself in higher pursuits lead to greater overall satisfaction. This important observation has been ignored to their peril by many communities in different societies and historical moments. These communities—including the Montanists and the Essenes—shortchanged their basic needs in favor of more strenuous dedication to higher pursuits, making asceticism the central feature of their culture. Most of them failed entirely or exist today in greatly diminished form.
Other sects changed their cultures to pay greater attention to basic needs. In the 1960s, the importance of attending to basic needs was demonstrated by the number of members of the “counter-culture”—who, in the United States and northwest Europe, tried to live on cheap wine and handouts, to sleep on mats, and otherwise follow a “simple” life—who soon gave up on the ascetic dimensions of their culture. There is no denying basic human needs or the quest for pleasure that comes from serving them adequately.
Serving these basic needs turns from a “healthy,” satisfying pursuit to an obsession, though, when consumption turns into what might be called consumerism—when people continue to invest themselves in seeking ever more material goods than they need to satisfy their basic needs, and when people employ material goods to gain love or esteem.
If developed societies could develop a culture of capping that would guarantee everyone sufficient income to provide for their basic creature needs—but otherwise would center life on higher pursuits—that culture would provide for less alienation and less anti-social behavior. This is particularly true if the predictions made above about the challenges posed by new technical developments turn out to be true. The more people who can make ends meet because the income they need is capped, the fewer who will seek second jobs or work overtime; all of this will leave work for those who have not yet reached their cap. And the people who spend more of their life in higher pursuits will feel not deprived, but rather satisfied, which will help societies adapt to the new technical reality of less demand for labor.
In addition, quite obviously, a life that combines a cap on consumption and greater dedication to higher pursuits would be much less taxing on the environment than consumerism and the level of work needed to pay for it. This is the case because higher pursuits require relatively few resources and cause less pollution. Much less obvious are the ways capped culture combined with increased focus on the pursuit of higher satisfactions would serve social justice. Social justice entails transferring wealth from the disproportionately wealthy to those who are underprivileged. Such reallocation of wealth has been limited in large part because those who command the extra assets tend also to be politically powerful. Promoting social justice by organizing those with less and forcing those in power to yield has had limited success in democratic countries and has led to massive bloodshed in others. However, one must expect if those in power were willing to embrace the capped culture, they would be more ready to share than otherwise. This thesis is supported by the behavior of middle-class people who are committed to the values of giving and tending to the “least among us”—a value prescribed by many religions and by left liberalism.
To review the argument so far: The current conditions in which developed countries find themselves whether pursuing ever-higher incomes and consumption of material goods will continue to be possible—and people be able to drive meaning out of those jobs to be available after robots take over many of the best ones. Data furthermore show that ever-higher incomes may not buy ever-higher levels of satisfaction, but people who have already met their basic needs can increase their overall satisfaction by pursuing higher needs (higher in Maslowian terms). This chapter shall next show that although this understanding of human nature and society is much more valid than one that centers exclusively on material consumption and pleasure-seeking, it still ignores one substantial motivator of human behavior—moral commitments. Without this dimension, the conceptual apparatus for understanding much of interpersonal and social dynamics is extremely deficient. Above all, it leads to giving the pursuit of happiness too much prominence and undermines the moral commitments that are essential for making a good life and a good society.
1.5 Affirmation, Living Up to Moral Commitments
This part of the chapter presents evidence that people are motivated in part by their quest to live up to their moral commitments. Lacking a better term, I shall refer to this kind of motivation as affirmation. We shall see that this motivation cannot be reconstituted as another source of satisfaction, most importantly because it typically entails pain. Moreover, if viewed as one source of satisfaction among many others, we shall lose major insights into the dynamics of human behavior that result from the conflict between satisfaction and affirmation. To illustrate first very briefly: if one states that “I would like to go to a movie but ought to visit a friend in the hospital”, and reads this as not different from “I would like to go a movie or a dinner”—one has lost much of what social science needs to study.
Compare two senses. One is the feeling one has after considerable pleasure—a great meal, a relaxing massage, listening to your favorite tune. Now compare this to the sense one has after doing something considered to be a moral duty—spending a long night with a very sick friend, spending a weekend with a colicky baby, fasting for 24 h. Nobody will doubt that the activity per se is not pleasurable, but many satisfiers argue that the second kind of act also results in pleasure: the pleasure of having done what one ought to do. However, if one compares the two kinds of satisfaction, those that arise from acts that are inherently pleasurable and those that arise from moral behavior—it becomes clear that these are very different kinds of satisfaction.
These differences stand out even more when the moral behavior is truly demanding. Giving bone marrow is a painful operation that can save another’s life; it is painful and exhausting to carry a cross up a steep mountain in the heat of the desert, as people do at Mount Sinai; and attending to a spouse who has a terminal illness is emotionally and mentally exhausting.
1.5.2 Affirmation Defined
Social science suffers from a surfeit of technical terms; I hence am reluctant to add one more. However, the current use of language is deceptive. By referring to both kinds of motivations and senses as “satisfaction,” the difference between the two disappears, and the wording, in effect, affirms the hedonistic reductionist assumption that all acts that seem moral are actually self-serving and motivated by the pursuit of pleasure. Even if one wishes to argue that there is no profound difference between the two kinds of acts—denoting the two kinds of motivations and acts under comparison is necessary before collapsing them. Referring to acts that are motivated by a sense that one should live up to one’s moral commitments as “affirmation” rather than as “satisfaction” enables this discussion. (A similar attempt is made when people discuss pure or authentic altruism [see May 2011] in contrast to inauthentic “altruistic” behavior motivated by self-interest [see Feigin et al. 2014]).
The term “obligation” should be avoided in this context, because obligations are externally-imposed commitments, while those that drive moral behavior are internally-derived; they are what the person holds he ought to do. Finally, one might be inclined to refer to this behavior as virtuous (see Schwartz 2010); however, to reiterate, the fact that someone is driven by what he considers his moral commitment does not mean that these acts are moral. A jihadist who labors to kill as many infidels one afternoon as he can may feel that he is engaging in moral behavior. The term “virtuous” should be reserved for those acts that serve incontestable values, those whose moral standing is self-evident (see Etzioni 1998, 2006).
For this chapter, I do not draw a distinction between the quest for affirmation as a source of motivation (“push”), and the sense of accomplishment (“pull”).
1.5.3 Affirming Behavior Is Painful, Not Pleasurable
In sharp contrast to the thesis that acts motivated by attempting to live up to moral commitments are but another source of satisfaction, one ought to note that practically all affirming behavior is in effect painful, or deprives one of pleasure. Fasting, donating an organ, attending to the sick, speaking truth to power, and so on are all cases in point. As Connie Rosati argues, moral behavior is “widely believed to conflict, frequently and sometimes severely, with what an agent most values or most prefers to do.” Even if one gains some amount of pleasure as a limited side effect when one lives up to one’s moral commitments, the main effect is pain. It is as if moral systems are built on the assumption that there is no reason to spend the limited moral capital that society commands on motivating people to take steps they are motivated to take anyhow because they are pleasurable, and that society should instead invest this limited capital in motivating people to do things they otherwise would not be inclined to do because they are not pleasurable.
One further notes that the pursuit of satisfaction tends to take care of itself (although society should take care to ensure that the pursuit of satisfaction is not perverted), while affirmation tends to decay if left to its own devices. Hence, there is a strong social interest in promoting the factors that reinforce and strengthen affirmation, which make people and societies more moral than they would be otherwise.
I find observations of the spouses of Alzheimer patients to be particularly illuminating. As far as I can determine through personal observation, most spouses stay with their afflicted partner instead of walking away or institutionalizing them early in the course of the disease. (There seems to be little quantitative data on this point.) Satisfier reasoning would assume the spouse acts according to an implicit “exchange of service” contract, in which the healthy spouse attends to their ill partner in the expectation that the favor will be repaid in kind. Hence no affirming is involved; merely a mutually beneficial exchange. However, this interpretation cannot be used in this case (or for many other terminal illnesses) because Alzheimer patients do not recover, and hence one knows that their care will not pay back. A satisfier may argue at this point that another reason people attend to their ill spouses is because of psychic income: the healthy spouse derives satisfaction from the gratitude of the ill spouse. However, Alzheimer’s patients often do not provide such income, and indeed after a while cease to recognize their caregiver. Finally, satisfiers may fall back on reputation or a “warm glow” as a payoff. However, given the very great challenges associated with caring for an Alzheimer’s patient, including the costs and pain that treating such patients engenders, reputation or a warm glow could hardly compensate for it to the extent that the act of care-giving could be considered “self-interested.” There seems no other explanation than the one several such spouses gave when asked: they felt strongly that staying with their ill partner was the right thing to do. Those who question whether moral commitment alone can motivate such self-sacrifice should note that such a sense leads mothers to run into burning houses to save their children, inspires people to volunteer to risk their lives and fight for the country, and encourages people to risk their health by donating organs. I am not arguing that they gain no benefits from such acts, but that these are small compared to the sacrifice, and that it is the quest for affirmation that makes up the difference. Indeed, as we have seen, the stronger one’s sense of affirmation, the more likely one is to do what one considers the right thing.
1.5.4 Self-Centered Reductionists
Satisfiers have gone to great lengths to argue that all that people seek is happiness, defined as pleasure, or some other source of satisfaction. The hedonistic version of utilitarianism forms the foundation of modern economic theory (Stigler 1987, p. 52). Economists often associate utility with conceptions of material goods and, hence, with income. For example, Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen define utility as the “satisfaction” that “people derive from the goods and services they consume and the activities they pursue,” which means that it is “ultimately” land, labor, and capital, the economy’s factors of production, that create utility (Rittenberg and Tregarthen 2011, p. 54). In a money economy, therefore, “every level of wealth provides a certain amount of utility” (Mankiw 2011, p. 285).
Economists argue that they moved away from this definition of utility. Some hold that it is being replaced with the notion that utility is whatever the person prefers; it does not have to have a particular content. Thus Gary Becker’s approach rebutted earlier economists’ “assumptions of self-interest,” he replaced them with the idea that “individuals maximize welfare, as they conceive it, whether they be selfish, altruistic, loyal, spiteful, or masochistic” (Wolfers 2014). What the theory requires is a common denominator so that the value of various items can be set in the terms of that “utility.” (In an early discussion of the subject I used the term P, I, and X utility to denote the difference (Etzioni 1988). They stand for Pleasure, Interdependency, and “empty” utilities.) However, in effect, many economists and other social scientists who hold to similar assumptions continue to rely on utility as happiness.
Satisfiers have gone to great lengths to defend their view of what drives people. Gift-giving, for example, seems to contradict psychological hedonism because it involves a voluntary reduction of one’s own utility in order to benefit another. Hedonists have responded by arguing that gift giving is often driven by “cooperative egoism,” with those who give gifts expecting reciprocal gifts, reputation, status, approval, or some future benefit (see Hammond 1975). And, they held, to the extent that gift giving occurs in the absence of expected rewards, for example in the case of anonymous gift giving, hedonists argue that the giver enjoys a “warm glow” from the act of gift giving itself (see Andreoni 1990). (Note that no evidence is presented that if a person donated say $100,000 to charity, he gained $100,000 worth of warm glow. It is assumed that the amount is the same—say the reductionists—because why would he have donated the money otherwise? This and thousands of other such statements illustrate how a theory can defend itself from reality and the extent people will go to assume all behavior is self-serving in one way or another.
An anecdote involving British philosopher Thomas Hobbes provides an early expression of this thesis: when asked why he had given money to a beggar, Hobbes replied that “he made his donation with the sole intent of relieving his own misery at the sight of the beggar” (Aubrey 1898, p. 352).
Likewise, given the fact that participation in religious activities cannot be explained merely by an “expected stream of ‘benefits’” over an individual’s lifetime, Corry Azzi and Ronald Ehrenberg introduced the ideas of a “salvation motive” to secure “afterlife consumption” (Azzi and Ehrenberg 1975). Put simply, reductionists claim, individuals spend money and time on religion in this life with the expectation that they will be rewarded handsomely after death. Needless to say, the evidence for the nature and size of these rewards is not extensive….
To dismiss the role of moral commitments in decision making, satisfiers go to great lengths to explain “surprising” behavior. One example is the prevalence of tipping at restaurants. Tipping does not make sense from a reductionist perspective, particularly given that it is not legally required and that people tip the same regardless whether they intend to return to the restaurant in the future (Kahneman et al. 1986). As a result, reductionists have tended to regard tipping as “mysterious or seemingly irrational behavior” (Lynn 2006). Michael Lynn and Andrea Grassman, for example, explain the prevalence of tipping at restaurants as a way to “to buy social approval and equitable relationships” (Lynn and Grassman 1990). Reductionist theories in the field of psychology similarly try to debunk moral behavior. Elliott Sober points out that it is “easy to invent egoistic explanations for even the most harrowing acts of self-sacrifice,” for while such arguments may seem “forced,” they are difficult to falsify without being able to read minds. For example, one “fixture” in the debate about egoism is the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades—though seemingly a purely selfless act, psychological egoists argue that the soldier “realizes in an instant” that acting with cowardice would condemn him to a lifetime of guilt and shame that would be worse than death (Sober 2000). In other words, the soldier acts in his own self-interest to achieve “a better life, in terms of welfare” or utility (Shaver 2014). However, this line of argument raises a host of difficulties for egoism. The soldier might insist he is acting morally or out of duty, in which case the egoist must argue that he is lying or deluded.
Similar reductionist arguments have proposed a “bequest motive” to explain “excessive” saving (Jurges 2001), as well as a “taste for altruism” on the part of nonprofit employees, who are said to “derive well-being from participating in the enterprise, and are thus willing to accept a lower wage” (McGinnis 2011). Some have even argued that suicide represents a utility-maximizing behavior for an individual whose “total discounted lifetime utility [...] reaches zero” (Hamermesh and Soss 1974; see also Becker 2012).
If one assumes that all acts are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, one can only conclude that saints “must be” masochistic, deriving net pleasure rather than pain from their sacrifices. If one abandons the reductionist assumption and allows for other factors to explain behavior, acts of self-sacrifice and altruistic behavior—of affirming value commitments in general—becomes much easier to explain: people are sometimes compelled by moral considerations to “do the right thing” even if they do not expect to derive any pleasure from such actions.
Much more important, most people, most of the time are pursuing both pleasure and affirmation. They differ a great deal in the extent that they are dedicating themselves to one kind of pursuit or the other, and the same person—and community and society—changes in that way over time. Understanding what makes some societies more self-oriented and pleasure-seeking, and others more dedicated to affirmation is a major subject for social science, personal deliberations, and public discourse and policy. Collapsing the two kind of pursuits into one means losing the conceptual tools this kind of analysis requires. One must abandon reductionist theories of human behavior in order to study why, having received training in medicine, for example, some people join Doctors without Borders, others become plastic surgeons, and still others work on biological weapons.
If there is no fundamental difference between “self-love” and love for others, Smith’s whole thesis vanishes. If people can derive pleasure directly from serving others, their community, and their values, there is no need for the invisible hand to direct individualistic pursuits to serve the common good. Even the distinction between profit and loss becomes unnecessary, as one man’s loss is often another’s gain. On the grounds of sound conceptualization, it seems best to separate the quests for self-satisfaction from efforts to adhere to one’s values, i.e. from affirming behavior.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages (Smith 1776, p. 14).
1.5.5 Evidence of Affirming Behavior
A considerable body of experimental data provides evidence of the power of affirmation. Experiments show that many people mail back “lost” wallets to strangers with cash intact (Homstein et al. 1968; see also Hunter 2013). Widely replicated studies found that more than 70% of people returned lost letters addressed to “Medical Research Associates” or a household address (Milgram et al. 1965; Curtis and Curtis 2011). While some might argue that such studies represent “trivial” forms of self-sacrifice, people have been shown to make much greater sacrifices for others. For example, Shalom Schwartz found that a “strikingly high proportion” of people (59%) expressed willingness to donate bone marrow to strangers, a more “costly” form of self-sacrificing behavior, whereas only 5% refused to at least have their blood tested for compatibility.
Research on altruism casts further light on the role affirmation plays in human behavior. Though most economic models make the reductionist satisfier assumption that all behavior derives from self-interest, prominent economists throughout history, including Adam Smith, Kenneth Arrow, Paul Samuelson, and Amartya Sen have acknowledged that in reality “people often do care for the well-being of others and that this may have important economic consequences” (Fehr and Schmidt 2006). Since the 1970s, a large body of work has investigated whether altruistic behavior is purely self-interested, and experiments have indicated, to the contrary, that genuine altruism does motivate some altruistic behavior. For example, John Dovidio et al. found, in an experiment designed to demonstrate egoistically motivated altruism, that “participants helped a person in need more when the helping act relieved the person's main problem than when it solved an unrelated problem,” leading them to change their minds and argue that altruistic motivation did exist (Dovido et al. 1990). Likewise, an experiment by Daniel Batson et al. showed that people’s tendency to help others in pain with whom they empathized was unaffected by the difficulty of helping, suggesting that altruistic rather than egoistic motivations were involved (Batson et al. 1981). As a result of such research, recent reviews of the literature conclude that reducing all motivation to rational self-interest is untenable: “Some people, some of the time, do help other people out of altruism” (Piliavin 2009; see also Jeffries et al. 2006; Feigin et al. 2014). Put another way, while individuals sometimes help others in the hope of winning long-term gains for themselves, at other times altruism is a form of affirmation that individuals pursue even at the expense of their own pleasure.
Critics argue that studies that merely ask people how they would behave do not provide firm predictions of behavior. However, studies of actual affirming behavior itself reach the same conclusion. For example, Latane and Darley and Piliavin et al. found that high proportions of people did assist researchers pretending to be in distress (Latane and Darley 1970; Piliavin et al. 1969). Even in poor urban areas, where a lack of social capital or physical resources is thought to discourage altruism, a vast majority of residents reported witnessing affirming behavior including “saving the life of someone who was in danger; taking permanent custody of, or providing temporary care for, the children of neighbors; providing housing for homeless individuals and families; intervening to protect others from crime or violence; and providing money, food, clothes, guidance, and encouragement to others” (Mattis et al. 2009).
Throughout history, we find people who risk their lives for others and for causes, from Christians who saved Jews in Nazi Germany to Freedom Riders who challenged segregation in the American South. Such behaviors are not adequately explained by self-satisfying motivation (Steele et al. 2008). Christopher J. Einolf and others have found that “people with extensive moral obligations are more likely than people with constricted obligations to engage in volunteer work and charitable giving” (Einolf 2010). Note that in such studies the value comments and the moral acts that affirm them are measured independently from one another, and the higher the level of commitment, the more likely one is to act morally. Some illustrative evidence follows.
1.5.6 Even in Economic Behavior
In addition to cases of altruism and self-sacrifice, affirming behavior is surprisingly evident in behaviors normally considered as self-satisfying. For example, economists explain the level of savings as an increasing function of one’s income and the value one places on consumption after retirement, as well as the interest rate. However, these factors explain only part of the variance in the amount saved, with a large part determined by “non-economic factors such as religion, geography, ideology, culture” (Kessler et al. 1993). For example, Guiso et al. demonstrate that religious belief correlates significantly with thriftiness (Guiso et al. 2003). Of such non-economic factors, relevant moral considerations include a moral aversion towards indebtedness, the sense that one ought to help one’s children “start off in life,” and the sense that saving is moral in and of itself. Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was that “worldly Protestant asceticism” valuing frugality and hard work was associated with the emergence of capitalism in Europe (Weber 1930, p. 115). Paul Webley and Ellen K. Nyhus likewise show that “saving and thrift have traditionally been valued greatly and have been seen as positive, indeed as highly moral” (Webley and Nyhus 1999).
In the United States, a decline in the sense of moral value of saving has coincided with a dramatic decline in the saving rate. Over the latter half of the twentieth century, thrift declined as a dominant value as advertising that promoted consumerism, and American culture increasingly “centered on spending and pleasure” (Tucker 1991; Yarrow 2014; see also Pate and Day 2015). This in part manifested in greater public acceptance of buying on credit. After “waves of financial innovation” began in the 1980s, “total consumer credit card debt rose from $211 billion to $876 billion” between 1989 and 2006, and “the proportion of indebted households carrying over $10,000 in credit card debt rose from 3% to 27%,” leading the savings rate in the U.S. to enter a “30-year decline” (Oxford Economics 2014; see also Carroll et al. 2012; Sweet et al. 2013).
Since the 1970s, a high negative value has been attributed to public debt, or the deficit. While the actual effects of the deficit on economic performance is a complicated one, the public accepted that it is a violation of moral commitments to children, and a sign of living above one’s means. These moral values have a great effect on voting and were used to justify the curtailing of numerous social programs and in some years, defense spending.
Along the same lines, the “standard economic model of rational and selfish human behavior” predicts that people will act with honesty or dishonesty “only to the extent that the planned trade-off favors a particular action” (Mazar et al. 2008; see also Hechter 1990). In this view, people behave honestly only when “trust is enforced in the marketplace through retaliation and reputation.” However, a study by Jeremy Frimer and Lawrence Walker found that “communal values” did in fact predict honest behavior (in this case returning the difference of an overpayment), while “self-interested” values predicted dishonest behavior, except in cases where the two motives could be reconciled (Frimer and Walker 2009).
Satisfiers do not merely claim that there is an element of pleasure (or self-interest) in all seemingly altruistic behavior, but also that such behavior is wholly self-interested. The Public Choice school, which emerged in the 1970s has had a “prevailing influence” on the discipline of public administration and much influence on several others (Baimyrzaeva 2012, p. 37). Public choice theory applied to politics the economist’s assumption that individuals are selfish rational actors (Shughart 2008; see also Mueller 1986). In other words, even collective action, according to satisfiers, is merely the result of individuals seeking to maximize their utility. Thus Public Choice predicts that voter turnout will be low, given that the minimal impact of any one vote makes voting “irrational” (Shughart 2008; see also Downs 1957a, b); that members of a community will “free ride” by neglecting to contribute to public goods (Kim and Walker 1984), and that politicians seek votes in order to acquire “the income, power, and prestige that go with office” (Downs 1957a) for themselves rather than the voters. In reality, a majority of eligible Americans do vote in presidential elections, and voting rates are highest among wealthy working age and educated people who should be most sensitive to the time cost and “irrationality” of voting (See Bipartisan Policy Center 2012). Behavioral experiments show that rather than “free ride,” individuals “allocate a large percentage,” typically “50% or more,” to public goods in early experimental rounds, and “still allocate a substantial percentage” in later rounds (Tresch 2008, p. 157), a finding borne out in the real world by contributions to public broadcasting, for example.
The reason for these failures is that Public Choice fails to take into account the role of affirmation. For example, despite experimental designs emphasizing “the monetary importance of the situation,” researchers found that “normative factors such as fairness” had a strong influence on people’s decision to contribute to public goods rather than free ride (Marwell and Ames 1979). Another study found that a “sense of civic duty based on affiliation with the society as a whole” to be the “key variable accounting for the participation of the many citizens” without strong partisan or interest group affiliations (Knack 1992).
In short, there is very considerable evidence, from different realms of social life, including in the private and public sector, (data based on experiments, attitude surveys, and statistics about actual behavior) that moral commitments are one significant factor that motivates people, which leads to affirming action—and entails pain.
The thesis that affirmation plays a key role in people’s choices and actions does not rule out the quest for satisfaction as a motivation, but rather holds that affirmation is another important source of motivation. This thesis holds (1) that both pleasure and moral commitments significantly influence human behavior, and (2) that the relative influence of the two kinds of motivation varies between historical and societal conditions, and between different individuals under the same conditions. It follows that theories of behavior and society, as well as measurements of collective well-being, must take into account the forces that shape both factors, and the relative strength of these factors.
One particularly illuminating study by Harold Grasmick and Donald Green shows the relative importance of deterrence and moral commitments in curbing crime (Grasmick and Green 1981). The authors asked respondents whether they had committed various criminal and immoral acts in the past and if they thought they would do so in the future. They then asked respondents to “estimate the chances you would be arrested by the police if you did each of these things,” in line “with the utilitarian perspective” that “measures of perceived certainty of punishment must be from the viewpoint of the respondent.” In order to account for the fact that the same punishment may have a different impact on different people, they also asked “how big a problem that punishment would create for your life.” Finally, in an effort to measure moral commitment the authors asked respondents to rank a series of criminal acts in order of how wrong they considered them to be (never, seldom, sometimes, usually, and always). All three independent variables correlated significantly. Moreover, moral commitment was correlated more strongly with reported past and estimated future criminal acts (−0.42 and −0.55, respectively) than were the perceived certainty of arrest (−0.34 and −0.24, respectively) or the perceived severity of punishment (−0.27 and −0.30, respectively). That is, both deterrence and moral commitments discouraged illegal acts. This finding supports highlights the importance of morality, in addition to material incentives and coercion, for a functioning society and economy (see Drakulich and Crutchfeild 2013; Arrow 2006; Phelps 1975, p. 5).
Along the same lines, the literature on tax compliance has found that people’s decision to pay (or evade) their taxes has as much to do with their moral obligation as a citizen as with the fear of punishment. However, this economic model in fact “greatly overpredicts noncompliance”—just as a purely egoistic individual would lie, cheat, and steal, he would also evade his taxes. Instead, studies of tax compliance found that “incorporating noneconomic motivations, such as a moral preference for honest reporting, does reduce predicted noncompliance” to more realistic levels (Andreoni et al. 1998). In particular, people’s “personal norms,” including “altruistic orientation,” community values, cooperation, honesty, and religious beliefs, as well as their “social norms,” the attitude of one’s “professional groups, friends and acquaintances” toward tax evasion, all have a significant influence on tax compliance. Likewise, the “perceived fairness of taxation,” including the both the “perceived balance of taxes paid and public goods received” and the “perceived justice” the enforcement regime, is strongly related to tax compliance (Hofmann et al. 2008).
Research has also found that “social interventions” based on “leveraging social concerns” can be more effective than material incentives in encouraging cooperative behavior. In trying to encourage water conservation in drought-affected California, the traditional economics-based approach of raising water prices did little to discourage water use. On the other hand, the simple act of emailing homeowners a comparison of their water use to that of their neighbors was as effective as a 10% price increase (Yoeli et al. 2015). This case, however, shows the continuing prevalence of reductionist assumptions.
1.6 Preferences Socially Made, Can Be Socially Reconstructed
Increasingly, a considerable number of social scientists, some say most, recognized the limits of psychological hedonism as a foundation for theories of choice—but not because they discovered the moral dimension. They were particularly concerned with the fact that statements about happiness were “based entirely on the internal subjective feelings of the individuals in question,” which “were not objectively observable” (Hands 2009, p. 635). This led to a focus on relative or “ordinal” measures of utility, which did not depend on hedonistic assumptions (Baumol 2002). Paul Samuelson, for example, put forward the theory of “revealed preferences,” according to which “consumers’ preferences can be revealed by what they purchase under […] different income and price circumstances” (Roper and Zin 2013). According to Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler, the concept of “utility as an aspect of experience,” in which “people choose the options that they will most enjoy,” “essentially disappeared from economic discourse” during the twentieth century, with economists moving to a model of “decision utility” focusing on whether preferences are “consistent with each other and with the axioms of rational choice” (Kahneman and Thaler 2006).
According to this approach, the person’s feelings are immaterial; only the fact that his or her preference guided their choice matters. An often cited example is the preference of a person who sought to climb a mountain and did so climb; it matters not, say those who follow this line of analysis, if having reached the top of the mountain he felt happy, satisfied, disappointed, or empty; he got what he chose. It is worth noting, however, that economics textbooks continue to use “pleasure” and “happiness” interchangeably with utility, suggesting that this conceptual shift is very far from complete (see Frank 2007, p. 6; Pindyck and Rubinfeld 2009).
In response, one notes that it surely matters; the climbers who are unhappy, one would predict, are less likely to climb again. Moreover, the theory still does not encompass moral preferences, or if it does, it treats them as one kind of preference among many others, and thus collapses a distinction that is crucial to many sound analyses of human behavior.
The theory is also tautological, because researchers determine both what the subject’s actions and preferences are from the same observation. To say that, “if he climbed the mountain, it must be because he preferred it,” adds nothing to our understanding of the subjects. It is like multiplying every number by one. Philip Murkowski adds that revealed preference theory is “either a tautology if defined at a point in time,” or “entirely toothless if time is allowed to pass,” since “violations could be discounted as changes in tastes” (Mirowski 2006). Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue that assuming people “make choices that are in their best interest” is “either tautological, and therefore uninteresting, or testable,” but if one does try to test it, the assumption is shown to be “false—indeed, obviously false” (Thaler and Sunstein 2003). And Amartya Sen faults revealed preference theory for neglecting “the fact that man is a social animal and his choices are not rigidly bound to his own preferences only” (Sen 1982, p. 66).
One further notes that the theory of revealed preferences, like much of mainstream Western (so called neoclassical) economic theory and related fields (such as law and economics and Public Choice political science), is isometric with liberal-libertarian assumptions. They hold liberty to be the prime value, and that the individual should be free to make choices which should be interfered with only if they seriously harm others. (Some would add, harm the common good; others deny that there is such a thing). This idea is of course at the foundation of democratic theory (according to which voters drive public policy) and consumer sovereignty (according to which customers drive the economy by voting with their dollars). The reason I say “isometric” is because many who base their academic or policy analysis on the preference theory do not personally subscribe to the liberal-libertarian ideology or are even aware that their world draws on its assumption. Nevertheless, these strong normative assumptions are part and parcel of the preference theory, because its core assumption is that what does and should drive a good economy, polity, and society is what people prefer. All this is greatly undermined once one finds out that people’s preferences are largely not theirs but implanted.
This is the case because if the personal preferences did not reflect the true, inner person but were introduced or implanted by some external agent into the person, then that agent would in effect control their behavior. If this were the case, there would be no reason to treat these preferences as an expression of free will, and one would have to evaluate the values of the particular pursuits that an agent made people prefer.
I move next to show, for those who do not take it for granted, that much of what people prefer is implanted. True, most, if not all people, can eke out a measure of freedom and choice, but it is much less than satisfiers and followers of the preference theory assume. There is hence nothing immoral about limiting the pursuit of pleasure (e.g. speeding, driving while drunk) in order to make room for affirming action, especially in periods and societies where it is neglected.
The assumption concerning autonomous preferences conflicts with the empirical findings of the study of persuasion through advertising and other forms of manipulation by marketing. This has led defenders of the theory to argue that advertising serves merely an informative function. In reality, advertising often focuses more on influencing its audience subconsciously7 than on providing information (Lee 1997). Advertisements often appeal to emotions, irrational fears, and cognitive biases as a way of “manufacturing need, (Phillips 2011)” inducing preferences for the goods they seek to market rather than merely producing goods to satisfy existing preferences. Women did not feel that they had to pay for a painful procedure to remove hair from their private parts until the industry convinced them that a ‘bush’ was embarrassing (Herzig 2015). Consumers felt no need to purchase mouthwash until they were convinced that without it their dental hygiene routine was incomplete.
Faced with the preceding observations, economists argue that economic theory “needs” the assumption that preferences reflect the true inner self in order to assess the contribution of the economy to general welfare. The economy is assumed to function well when it provides the goods preferred by people at prices such that supply equals demand. Individuals are thought to vote with their purchasing dollars so as to guide the economy toward that blessed state of equilibrium, which is considered the “holy grail” of neoclassical economics (Berger 2009, p. xii). If preferences can be manipulated by social pressures or advertising, then an economy that satisfies those preferences would appear not to serve the people but, rather, the manipulators who affect the preferences. Such a revelation would require economists to study the relative power of persuasion and political power exercised by various elites.
True, acknowledging the reality of manipulation and the initial formation of preferences by a variety of social forces, as well as their continuous reshaping does not prevent one from noting that there are limits to the extent to which people can be manipulated. One telling example is that of the USSR. It tightly controlled its educational system and shaped cultural productions such as movies, television, and books in line with its ideology, while limiting access to other cultures. It further provided strong incentives for conformity and strongly disincentivized dissent. Nonetheless, after 70 years, the regime was unable to suppress religion, family loyalties, and aspirations for liberty, leading to its collapse. There have been many thousands of attempts in the West alone, from the Israeli Kibbutzim to American “hippie” communes to various religious orders, to form cultures and communities dedicated to an ascetic life. All of these, too, failed to maintain their culture of denial for most members. These failures demonstrate that the extent to which preferences can be shaped against basic underlying human needs is limited (Etzioni 1971). Indeed, if it were possible to manipulate people without limits, as suggested in 1984, it would be possible to make slaves sing in appreciation of their servitude. The historical record clearly demonstrates otherwise, but only over the longer run, and for basic human needs rather than for specific preferences. (And those must be studied to determine who and what shaped them rather than take them as given.) Once it has been established what these basic needs are, it becomes possible to assess the contributions of the economy to the general welfare without disregarding that preferences to a significant extent are inauthentic in the sense that they do not express the true, underlying needs of the person but rather mirror the manipulators. However, in the longer run, regarding basic human needs such as the quest for a measure of autonomy, for dignity, and for affective bonds—people do prevail (Etzioni 1968).
Although there are many variations (Maccoby 1992), the basic sociological and psychological understanding of the process of and factors influencing preference formation goes as follows: Children are born with biological urges but their mode of satisfaction is very open ended. They have basic needs to meet but are not born with a specific need for Cokes and french fries, or snails and red wine, or hummus, olives and nargila. These preferences reflect the particular cultures and communities they are born into and raised. In particular, children’s initial preferences are formed through complex processes of socialization involving identification, habituation, and explicit and implicit persuasion. Children acquire their preferences by imitating their parents and other adults; they are persuaded by them, and are influenced by their narratives. However, preference formation is not limited to the home; children learn from schools, peer groups, media, and other sources besides their parents. And these processes of socialization never end; thus colleges and professional schools play a role in the preference formation of their students, and after graduation, people continue to be influenced by peer groups and leaders and are averse to changing their preferences. Children gradually develop an ability to modify their preferences on their own, but when all is said and done, individuals’ preferences are, broadly speaking, largely the product of socialization, and only to some extent of individual reflection and desires.
In short, despite these many and important differences about how preferences are formed, the evidence is overwhelming that they are not inborn the way biological urges are, but rather reflect the particular cultures and subcultures in which the child is raised; that is, preferences are socially shaped. Research also shows that they are constantly reshaped through peer pressures, exposure to leadership, and advertising. Individuals have a degree of freedom, but it is much smaller than hedonists assume.
It follows that these preferences should not be granted the kind of strong normative standing to which they would be entitled if they truly reflected free will. It also stands to reason that, given that corporations and various interest groups and ideological camps constantly labor to reshape preferences, there is no reason for those who represent the common good or the public interest not to do the same, e.g. by discouraging people from smoking.
Above all, that those who seek to better the human condition by encouraging them to reduce their obsession with material consumption once their basic needs are well and securely met, to exercise more, and to share more, would be more effective if they focused not on changing individuals, but rather on changing cultures and social and political structures, which shape preferences. This in turn requires collective action, of those who seek changes to ally themselves with others, and above all form a social movement. History shows that movements such as the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, those of national liberation and many others—are the forces most able to withdraw the legitimacy of an old regime and invest the freed legitimation in the formation of a new one (see Etzioni 2013).
1.6.1 Well-Being: Much Better But Not Good Enough
There is a big difference in the idea of happiness/well-being as an object of policy (as, for example, Jeff Sachs and the Bhutanese espouse) and its usage as a metrics, as a tool of analysis to help us understand the intersection between income and non-income determinants of well-being (as well as their causal properties). Indeed, many of the most serious scholars in the field, like Danny Kahneman, Arthur Stone, and others who I served with on a National Academy of Sciences panel on well-being metrics and policy, shy away from the term happiness as it confounds momentary contentment with life satisfaction and other deeper dimensions of well-being.
There is also increasing consensus among scholars of well-being that there are two distinct dimensions: a. Hedonic or experienced well-being, which includes contentment, pain, pleasure, sadness, and so on. b. Evaluative well-being, which is more complex and captures individuals views of their lives as a whole. This latter dimension implicitly includes Aristotle’s eudemonia, which is individuals’ capacity to lead purposeful or meaningful lives (which includes a moral dimension.)8 (See also Graham and Nikolova 2015; Stone and Mackie 2013)
In response I draw on the difference in the literature between subjective well-being (as reported by those studied) and objective well-being. Subjective well-being is surely a much more meaningful and richer concept than that of happiness. Studies of happiness in the hedonic/experiences sense assess how satisfied a person is at a given moment by asking questions such as “how happy are you” and “did you smile frequently yesterday.” In contrast to those seeking to understand well-being, use questions such as “how satisfied are you with your life in general” and “do you feel that you have purpose or meaning in life” (with possible responses on a ten-point scale).
However, this concept raises two questions. First, a relatively minor one, whether all or even most people have a clear and stable conception of the purpose of their lives and its meaning—and to what extent they formulate such notions mainly in response to the questions asked, and whether when asked again, under different circumstances, they would not provide rather different answers. (By the way, this measurement would make young people come off as less well than older ones because many young ones are less clear about their purpose/meaning than older ones).
Second, there can be little doubt that people who state that they have a purpose and a meaningful life may be jihadists, gang leaders, produce ads to promote the purchase of cigarettes, or sell subprime mortgages. I see no correlation between being a good human being and leading a purposeful and meaningful life. To get at the moral dimension one would need to ask people what they did during the last weekend; what they would do if everyone in their group did free ride: how improper they consider keeping cash in a found wallet; how they rank inequality versus economic growth; and other such questions.
Objective well-being can include moral assessments—and anything else those who study the connection wish to include. Examining such studies shows that definitions of objective well-being reflect the values of the researchers, not their subjects. Thus, some students of objective well-being assume that people who live in a society that has a lower environmental footprint than others are more just, and are at peace with others who are better off. Others—if they have higher income, pay fewer taxes, and are freer from government regulations. That is, this concept moves us in the right direction but still faces two challenges: (a) it mixes moral and non-moral determinants of well-being, preventing us from measuring the moral factor, and (b) it ignores the moral positions of the subjects and instead draws on implicit, not accounted for, values of the researcher.
In short, studies of well-being move well beyond those of happiness but leave room for a distinct and explicit study of how moral people are by their lights and those of explicitly spelled out and accounted for values of others. And what determines how moral people are.
1.7 Say It with Figures
This chapter next turns to examining various measurements for assessing the state of individuals and societies—above all, how satisfied people are and how satisfying societies are. There is considerable literature on the subject. The goal of this section is not to review it, but rather to select a few key measurements, to suggest that some are preferable to others, and to hold that all of them lack a key element. The section begins with those measurements that are particularly deficient and compares them to those that are more satisfactory. However, this development is logical rather than historical; that is, no neat progression exists over time from poorer to better definitions and measurements, and all of them are still used.
1.7.1 Happiness: Asked and Answered
A very elementary measurement widely used to study happiness is to simply ask people whether they are happy. A typical survey of this kind asks, “Are you happy?” For example, an annual study of Europeans asks: “Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days—would you say you’re very happy, fairly happy, or not too happy these days” (Di Tella et al. 2003)? A similar study, conducted in the United States from 1972 to the present, asks: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy” (General happiness 2016; Frey and Stutzer 2002, p. 405; Di Tella et al. 2003)? Indeed, much of the economics literature on happiness relies on such self-reporting of happiness (Xefteris 2012, p. 291), as have other attempts to report on and analyze happiness, such as the Pew Research Center’s study of parenthood and happiness (Parker 2014).
Aside from assessing the state of individuals, measurements such as gross national happiness (GNH) have been introduced to assess various social groups and whole societies. Common to many of these attempts is an underlying philosophy of classical hedonistic utilitarianism, which holds that societies ought to maximize “the sum-total of happiness” (Tannsjo 2007, p. 81). These measurements are based on the number of individuals who state that they are happy, rather than on the basis of some collective or emergent property, such as the extent to which the environment is protected (Tella and MacCulloch 2006, p. 26).
Because a considerable number of economists and quite a few other social scientists assume that pleasure is derived from the consumption of material goods, and because they are uncomfortable with subjective measurements such as self-reporting, they favored income or GDP as objective measurements of happiness for individuals and societies, respectively. This kind of measurement fails on the grounds already discussed—that is, higher levels of income are often not associated with increased happiness.
1.7.2 Life Satisfaction
Questions about happiness (e.g. “Did you smile today?”) have been criticized on the grounds that they are like snapshots that capture a person’s feelings at a single point in time. Others ask people questions about “life satisfaction.” They ask people to what extent their life so far measures up to their expectations and resembles their envisioned “ideal life” (Van Hoom 2007). The most widely-used standard set of questions is the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Alexandrova 2005 p. 303). Other standard surveys for measuring life satisfaction include the World Values Survey and the Eurobarometer Surveys (Frey and Stutzer 2002 p.405).
An often-cited study of life satisfaction is the OECD Better Life Index, which asks people to “evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings.” The countries with the highest life satisfaction in 2014 were Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland, while the countries with the lowest life satisfaction were Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, and Turkey (OECD n.d.). This particular index also tracks details about 11 dimensions that the study’s architects deemed “essential” to a good life: housing, income and wealth, jobs and earnings, education and skills, environmental quality, civic engagement, health, subjective well-being, social connections, work-life balance, and personal security (Gurría 2015).
In medicine, the term “well-being” is used to argue that physicians and other healers should not limit themselves to curing a person’s presenting illness, but rather should treat the person’s general condition. This general condition may include a person’s psychological state, or ability to carry out the activities that makes his life a satisfying one (see McLeod 2015). A similar concept is applied to societies by those who study satisfaction. Students of well-being hold that studies of people should not be limited to whether they are happy, but rather should include other factors. Data on subjective well-being is usually obtained through self-reports. A popular multi-item scale is the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) (Van Hoom 2007). This measurement of happiness has been published annually since 2012 by the World Happiness Report (Helliwell et al. 2015, p. 3).
Others measure well-being by using measurements that reflect various objective factors that the researchers hold correlate with well-being, including how well the environment is protected (Bevc et al. 2007), the level of inequality (Hajdu and Hajdu 2014), and so on. Objective measurements of well-being include national income as a baseline and incorporate adjustments to account for non-market factors such as income inequality or climate change (Sirgy et al. 2006, p. 381). The concept of gross national happiness (GNH) was applied in Bhutan in 1972 by then-king Jigme Singye Wangchuck; the concept was not initially conceived of as a metric, but rather as a general philosophy intended to “balance” the values of Western capitalism with “the historical foundations and tenets of Bhutan’s traditional culture and polity” (Givel 2015, p. 108). It refers to aggregate happiness of all human beings as a cohesive unit, happiness that specifically “take[s] into account the needs of others,” and is specifically anti-materialist; one president of the Center for Bhutan Studies held that the goal of GNH is to “create conducive conditions for happiness in which individual strivings can succeed” (Bates 2009, p. 4). GNH is defined as “the degree to which citizens in a country enjoy the life they live,” and is now measured in Happy Life Years (HLY) (Veenhoven 2004). Thirty-three qualitative indicators of GNH can broadly be broken into four “pillars” of “equitable economic development, culture and religious preservation, environmental protection, and good governance.” Happy Life Years for various countries range from 63 in Switzerland to 21 in Moldavia (Veenhoven 2004).
The concept of well-being allows those who measure it to pack it with whatever they value as a determinant of well-being. They tend though to take into account neither the level of moral behavior, nor the fact that citizens of societies such as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan at their peak were quite satisfied and that those in London during the Blitz were quite miserable.
1.7.4 Measuring Moral Behavior
Whatever measurement is used to assess people’s satisfaction, whether this is based on their own statements or divined from the factors researchers assume (ought to) make them happy, the communitarian approach here developed requires adding a major measurement—one that would assess the extent to which the members of a society live up to a set of values. Theoretically, one could measure the extent to which they live up to their particular society’s set of values. Such a score, however, would be of limited merit because it would be high for societies that set low standards for themselves or values that are considered to be of little virtue in the eye of the observer. Religious extremist societies, such as the ISIS caliphate, are one such example of a society that would score high on such a measurement of the extent to which a society lives up to its own values. Instead, such a measurement should be based on adherence to a universal set of values, such as measured by rates of child abuse, corruption, and volunteerism in a given society (Etzioni 2011). Because there is only moderate consensus about what these universal values should be, different observers might use different measurements. A value affirming index might be comprised of several already-available measurements, such as those next cited, augmented by some new ones if need be.
One element of the index would be the level of corruption. A review of efforts to develop such an indicator, by Paul M. Heywood and Jonathan Rose, finds that there is a “gap” between the conceptualization of corruption and its measurement (Heywood and Rose 2014, p. 528). Nonetheless, organizations such as Transparency International have striven to establish a ranking of countries based on self-reported perceptions of corruption (Corruption Perceptions Index) in among each country’s citizens. According to the 2014 index, Denmark has the lowest perceptions of corruption, while Somalia has the highest perceptions of corruption. (The United States falls seventeenth on the list.) (Corruption Perceptions Index 2014).
Another measurement is that of the level of child abuse in various countries. UNICEF ranked in 2013 the overall well-being of children in developed countries based on five indicators, of which some sub-indicators are exposure to violence, bullying, and national homicide rate; according to this ranking, the Netherlands has the best overall child well-being, while Romania has the worst (Adamson 2013). Germany had the least amount of physical fighting among children, while Spain had the most; Italy had the least bullying of children, while Lithuania had the most; and Iceland had the lowest homicide rate, while Lithuania had the highest (Adamson 2013). In 2006, the United Nations conducted a worldwide study of violence against children; although country-level data is not publicly available, the study found that millions of children are subjected to violence and homicide, forced labor, rape, sexual assault, and more annually. Homicide statistics for children are twice as high in low-income countries as in high-income countries, the study found, and many countries have failed to implement meaningful legislation that criminalizes violence against children in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child (United Nations 2006). The World Health Organization also keeps (non-comprehensive) statistics on what is officially called child maltreatment; according to statistics borrowed from the WorldSAFE Project, mothers reported that they hit their children with an object in the past 6 months at the rate of 4% in Chile, 26% in Egypt, 36% in India, 21% in the Philippines, and 4% in the United States (WHO n.d.).
Others measure the rate of domestic violence in countries worldwide. For example, the World Health Organization tracks violence against women, including intimate partner violence, on a regional basis; the lifetime prevalence of physical and sexual intimate partner violence against women was 36.6% in Africa, 29.8% in the Americas, 37.0% in the Eastern Mediterranean, 25.4% in Europe, 37.7% in South-East Asia, and 24.6% in the Western Pacific (WHO 2013).
Another metric is the degree to which the country’s tax code is “progressive”—that is, taxes the wealthy and corporations at higher rates than the poor, or, to use an alternate definition, at rates higher than their share of income.
These examples suffice to illustrate a few of the elements that might be included in a value affirming index that draws on the values observers consider to be universal. Some surely might add measurements of democratization and human rights as defined by the United Nations and measured by Freedom House, or other such assessments. Once such an index has been developed, it will be possible to score societies or communities as satisfied but morally deficient, or as austere but virtuous, or as austere and morally deficient, or as satisfied and virtuous and so on. Some more suitable labels may be found, but these do well as a first approximation. Such measurements had best grant greater weight to the value affirming index to measurements of satisfaction, because it does not take much effort to encourage people to seek self-satisfaction—but it requires a great deal of socialization, encouragement, and support to make them more virtuous. Above all, these measurements are best used to study development over time, to determine not only what makes people richer, happier, or more satisfied, but also more moral human beings living in more moral societies.
I first discussed this in my book. See Etzioni (1988).
Layard used happiness data from three major long-term public opinion surveys (the Eurobarometer for Western Europe, the General Social Survey for the United States, and the World Values Survey for Eastern Europe and developing nations) to calculate an average happiness measure for each country, which was compared to average income per capita.
That is, their thoughts about their life.
That is, “the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.”
The two figures ($20,000 per year and $75,000 per year) are not directly comparable. The first measures a nation’s average income; the second comments on individual income.
Maslow’s later work included a sixth need: self-transcendence, or “seek[ing] to further a cause beyond the self and to experience a communion beyond the boundaries of the self.” This sixth need involved a specific cognitive activity he called “being-cognition,” which was present in mystical, aesthetic, and other transcendental experiences in which the person “c[a]me to identify with something greater than the purely individual self” (Koltko-Rivera 2006).
“Advertising in contemporary society is generally regarded as having two central and correlative functions, that of informing and that of persuading consumers. The informative function is likely to be stressed by defenders of the advertising practice, for by providing information to consumers about products, services, and prices advertising allows the consumer to make reasoned choices about the things on which he/she will spend his/her money” (Santilli 1983, p. 27)
“The overwhelming bulk of advertising in American mass media is designed to promote the sale of products and services” (Pearlin and Rosenberg 1952, p.5).
Quoted with permission.
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