Friday, December 23, 2005

The fault is in our stars...not in ourselves



Adaptive Preference (pdf file)

I am now finishing the 9th or so revision of a paper on "adaptive preference" in response to comments from half a dozen referees which has morphed from a snappy little APA number to a 29 page monster. The original short version is linked.

I argue against Martha Nussbaum and others who cite cases where, allegedly, deprived individuals' adapt their preferences to their circumstances such that satisfying them does not benefit them as counterexamples to informed preference accounts of wellbeing. But leave the details aside--what vexes me at the gut level about Nussbaum's argument is the idea--which figures in a variety of contexts--that we do ourselves in: that we miss out on getting what is best for us because we are brainwashed, psychologically damaged, neurotic, self-defeating or simply confused, that correcting the external conditions of our lives will not by itself make things better, that we need consciousness-raising and therapy.

This is a pernicious lie. It is a lie because it suggests that a relatively rare pathology is the norm. There are some people whose problems are psychological--schizophrenics who are too flipped out to hold down a job or function socially and mental defectives who are just too dumb. But they can't be helped by talk therapy or consciousness raising anyway. For the rest of us, all that's required for the good life are the externals--money, leisure and entertainment.

However we have been bamboozled by the literati and the therapy industry, and convinced that the externals are not enough--that money can't buy happiness, that getting what we want will turn into dust in our mouths, that human beings by their nature are on a quest for Meaning and, perhaps most importantly, that the very idea that the simple, obvious material goods are either necessary or sufficient for the good life is hopelessly crude and naive. At the perfectly awful college for rich underachievers I attended we were constantly taught that divine discontent was noble, that crude materialism was bad, and that the goodies we had were "empty." We were encouraged to "find ourselves" rather than making decisions about further education and employment. We were coddled and petted, given extensions, incompletes and sympathy by faculty when we complained about broken relationships, writing blocks or identity crises, and taught to look down on blue collar kids going to state factory schools for mere job training.

Rhetoric aside, thinking about this as I revise my paper, rereading stories about illiterate, impoverished Indian women who would be delighted to have clean water, micro-credit loans to set up micro-businesses and primary school education for their children I am furious at the decadent rich kids I went to school with, striving after the wind, dissatisfied with goods beyond the wildest dreams of most of the human race, and worst of all, congratulating themselves on their dissatisfaction, on their superior virtue and discernment. And I'm furious at myself too because I was one of those kids--worrying about the Meaning of Life, whining for incompletes and congratulating myself.

I hope I know better now. I have everything I've ever wanted, everything that by my lights matters: a secure, interesting job; a beautiful house; leisure; the opportunity to travel; enough money to get pretty much anything I seriously want; a husband and children; and a really nice computer. That is it--that is all there is to life and it's good enough. The only serious moral problem in the universe is seeing to it that everyone gets that good stuff and the only tragedy is that we die and so can't enjoy it forever. The fault is in our stars: fix the external circumstances of peoples lives, get them that stuff and nothing else matters.

12 comments:

Scott said...

While I agree with you that the image of the miserable rich is a cliche that is propagated with the main purpose of allowing the poor to feel not quite so miserable about themselves as they otherwise might, and that yes, it's better to have a full belly than an empty one, it seems to me that you're too quickly pooh-poohing the possibility of anybody ever having a legitimate metaphysical hole as long as all their physical needs are being met.

Correct me if I'm misinterpreting your post, but you seem to be saying that any angst, malaise, ennui, regret, emptiness, etc. (plug in any term you'd like to stand in for that hole in the soul) felt by someone who has all of his or her physical needs met is a whiner, pure and simple, and they should shut up, suck it up, and stop bitching about it.

I can understand the impetus to look at those with silver spoons in their mouths and grumble. "You have everything and I have nothing," we say to ourselves. "How can you dare pretend to be unhappy? You've got to be lying." But true unhappiness can exist even in those with high bank balances, and it seems wrong to deny it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that "The very rich are different from you and me," to which Ernest Hemingway supposedly replied "Yes, they have more money." I agree.

Which is why I think it's wrong to say of material goods, as you did in the last line of your post, "Get them that stuff and nothing else matters." Well, get them that stuff and we will have cured them of certain ills and undoubtedly lengthened their lives, but some of them will still be cursed by the other ills that are common to us all, rich and poor -- nagging thoughts such as, "Am I loved?," "What's the point of it all?," "Is that all there is?," and so on. Material wealth doesn't exempt one from being unsettled by those questions. After all, they're the ones that philosophers have been wrestling with since the beginning of time.

H. E. said...

I'm not suggesting that rich malcontents are lying but that in most cases angst, malaise, ennui, etc. are iatrogenic--therapists, self-help authors, existentialist "philosophers," and others who cater for the idle rich promote the doctrine that the ordinary good things of life--not only or primarily material things in the narrow sense but even more importantly intellectual stimulation, the freedom to organize your day as you wish, etc.--aren't good enough. After all, if the idle rich shut up, sucked it up and stopped bitching the therapists and gurus would be out of a job.

It's the problem of expensive tastes. Intuitively, we think it's illegitimate, and crass, for a person to want vast wealth or to complain that he doesn't have have a stock of expensive luxury items. We certainly don't think it's meritorious to cultivate the taste for expensive consumer products. We don't say, "I thought that I was happy with my old Toyota but realize now that I was just unreflective and superficial--I realize that a person can only be truly happy with a Mercedes. And I have set myself to get one."

So why do we say this sort of thing for, e.g. love or "meaning" in ones life? You don't have people saying, "I'm ok with my relationship--it's not so hot but I'm not fussy." We don't congratulate people on their greed for material possessions but we do congratulate them on their greed for good relationships, the so-called virtues and the quest to make sense of things in the Big Picture. Why is greed for, e.g. good relationships, for "making a difference" in the world or for answers to the Big Questions meritorious while greed for expensive cars is crass?

It's just greed for things that most people can't get, some of which in fact may simply be ungetable, and it's just as objectionable as greed for material goods way beyond what most people can get. And the gurus, therapists, and literati who suggest that the ordinary good things--money, material possessions, the avoidance of drudgery, etc. isn't good enough but that people should search for Meaning, want to "make a difference," have good relationships, etc. are in the same game as advertisers who create bogus needs by telling people that their ok stuff isn't good enough and selling them on glitzy gadgets and expensive luxuries.

John Wilkins said...

Are you arguing that we should understand the set of objects [house, car, palm pilot] as the same set of psychological / spiritual / personal needs when we are establishing criteria for what is properly desired. We can't get everything we want materially, so we can't get everything emotionally.

It seems to me that there are three sets of desires here. One is a desire for everything to be perfect, complete, or finished, or just so. Then there is a desire for more. And there is a desire to make things better. It seems that you are saying that there is some point where it is proper to say "enough."

H. E. said...

I'm saying that we overestimate people's needs for "psychological" and "spiritual" goods. Moreover on the the account of wellbeing I assume there is no such thing as "properly" desired--there are no standards for the propriety or impropriety of desires. What's good for you is satisfying your (informed) desires--whatever they are.

My guess is that as a matter of empirical fact most people don't want or need much by the way "psychological" or "spiritual" intangibles. Material things are all most people want or need to be completely happy, and the few people who have enough money, leisure, opportunities for recreation, and fancy gadgets to play with but still aren't satisfied are whining spoiled brats who need a kick in the pants or neurotics who should be medicated.

Harry B said...

Hey, can we see the new monster version? I'd like to read it.

H. E. said...

Here is the monster version--draft, in progress, comments much appreciated.

H. E. said...

Oh--the substantively new part starts on p. 15, at "The Ruined Maid"

Boofykatz said...

So are you a closet determinist, or is 'the future in our stars' a sort of ironic crie du coeur?
Personally I struggle to reconcile the inevitability of the universe with the necessity of choice, but I don't prostitute my intellect, whatever that is, by thinking I can change the world. Silver spoon or starving frozen tent - I did not make it and can only presume to try and help, with no conviction that my cognition has any meaning at all. Pace Protagoras I suggest that man is the measure of nothing, and that the universe will do its stuff regardless of our emergent narcissism.

H. E. said...

Oh no closet about it atall--I'm a determinist: usually compatibalist but toy with hard determinism.

But this issue here isn't the freewill/determinism dispute but whether the most effective way to make people better off is by improving their attitudes/inner states or by improving the external circumstances of their lives. That's an empirical question. But the idea that how we do in life is largely or even to a significant degree determined by attitude or other inner states is a complete fantasy. If you're female there is a whole range of jobs that you just won't get, regardless of your attitude, regardless of your competence, regardless. And if you're an ugly female there are even more jobs you won't get--no matter how good you feel about yourself, how well you dress, how self-confident you are.

If you didn't go to the right schools, if you're a member of the wrong sex or race, or if you just weren't in the right place at the right time you will not do well. Some things can be fixed--you can get a suitable wardrobe and improve your accent. But what needs to be fixed are these externals--character means nothing. And there is just so much you can fix because we are stuck with our race, sex, height and basic appearance.

Jodi said...

Many people try to achieve goals. Most fail. Some strive, work hard and plan for all the details yet they achieve little or nothing at all. Others strive, work hard, plan and achieve huge success. Yet there are a few individuals who do little else than take small steps and seem to achieve a great deal with what seems like effortlessness. What is the difference between these people and which one would you like to be?
Most members of the human race fall into two categories - those who live in the past and those who live in the future. Most live in the past. Many of these are the people who achieve very little in their lives and are so fearful of the future that they dare not strike out to get anything. They are the under-achievers who hang onto bad episodes in their lives and either relive them time and again or look at new situations as similar potentialities. They say things like "all men are deceivers" or "all women are interested in is money" or "I can't do it. I tried before and it didn't work so why bother!". Due to bad experiences in the past they believe that all future events will turn out the same way if they dare to go after what they want.
The other type of person lives in the future. This type tends to create more of the things they want in life. They have a vision of where they want to go and exactly how they are going to get there. They work diligently at making concrete plans and they pursue those plans with a persistent ferocious appetite for success. These people are the high achievers - The Richard Branson and Bill Gates of the world. These people have much to teach us about setting and achieving goals.
However, there is a third type of person who almost goes unnoticed. They are the person who takes life in its stride and yet achieve most of what they want. I am sure you know of such a person in your life that just seems to saunter through life and yet they always come out on top. Or a person who you hear of that has decided to open a shop. You meet them a few months later and they have three shops all doing well! So what makes these people so successful and if they aren't living in the past and aren't living in the future where are they living?
I suppose you guessed it! Whether they are consciously aware of it or not they are living in the present. It is in the 'living' present that we have our greatest power. Everything happens in the present. You live your entire life there - even if your mind does not!
By becoming more aware of the present and by 'accepting' it as it is we are much more in control of our emotions and focus. When we live in the past we are fearful of making bad choices and/or getting hurt. We do not wish to recreate the past again! When we live in the future we can also be fearful of what might happen. But even if your future vision is full of power and worthy of working towards many people can, and often do, get stuck there. By constantly reaching for bigger and better goals they fail to enjoy what they have in the moment.
If you wish to start living a life that is almost effortless begin first by living in the present. Accept your situation the way it is and then you can enjoy what you have. Your focus changes from a memory of what was or a vision of what might be to a realization of what is. You become much more empowered to then see the beauty of life and also look at where you wish to make changes. But to make changes you must first accept the situation as it is. Trying to escape from your present only increases your focus on your problems by creating resistance to what is. Accept your life as it is now. Make no judgement, just accept it and then you will be free of doubt, worry, pain and fear. For you only experience these things when you live outside the 'moment'. subliminal messages

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