Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Preferences and happiness

I was talking earlier about how our liberal tradition largely drops the question of purpose, i.e. what we should aim for as individuals or a society. Left-liberals may aim for equality, but still have little to say about what equality is for, or what people should use it to achieve. It wants the race to be procedurally fair, but is not interested in what we are running towards.

Money too is value-neutral and does not presuppose any purpose. Pecunia non olet, money does not stink, the Emperor Vespasian is supposed to have said.

On the one hand, choosing one own's purpose is a mark of freedom. On the other we have a society with more drift, anomie and "bowling alone". Many people work dead-end jobs and then slump in front of the tv.

That is why all the recent discussion about happiness as an aim of public policy is so interesting, and something I will look at in future posts. It is concrete and empirical in a way "equality of opportunity " is not. You can measure it, certainly to some extent, or at least ask people directly about it. It will admit common facts of human nature. For example, poor relationships or alcoholism or divorce or loneliness are rarely good for happiness. That does not follow from looking at just income levels alone.

Happiness is also related to behavior and responsibilities for oneself and others - it has a behavioral content in a way "income" does not. It includes foresight and commitment and relationships.

Of course there are problems with looking at happiness. It is more subjective than monetary income. It is mushier from an economist's point of view, markedy squishier than a utility function or revealed preference in the marketplace.

People may have different proclivities for happiness. An extrovert may want to be the life of the party, while a neurotic or depressed person may find it hard to be happy at all.

There may be more or less refined happiness, as John Stuart Mill discussed long ago in Utilitarianism. Some may like Cosi fan tutti, some may prefer Jersey Shore.

All that said, happiness is a useful intermediate goal - not a specific end, but something which is half way there, and still gives individuals a lot of latitude to define their own path. We as a society have gone too far in public life in privileging choice over what to choose.

On one level that was because ends and purpose were considered the territory of the church or religion in general. But the split has left liberalism sundered from questions of purpose, mired in empty relativism, with a narrow view of human nature as a rational chooser homo economicus, and remote from consideration of the things which lead to human flourishing. That applies both to narrow market choice on the right, and seeing people as simply a dollar income or recipient of redistribution on the left.

We need a richer conception of human nature in our public discussions - with more complexity, aspiration, and recognition of shortcomings as well. It needs to be theater, story, drama not an empty vessel. It needs to be less about utility and more about older conceptions like virtue - which reminds me, I must read Alistair Macintyre's famous book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition before long.

The more we solve material prosperity, the larger these questions will loom.

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