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.