Friday, April 22, 2011

The rhetoric of happiness

Photo src.

Evan Osnos has a good post on the new happiness drive in China, which is naturally faintly ludicrous:

Beijing Trade Union has arranged for forty thousand screens on buses and subway trains, as well as jumbotrons in city train stations and shopping malls, to play “happy testimonials” from workers, farmers, and teachers. A crew called the “Happy Blossom” is also making short films about the happy lives led by factory workers, to be shown on Beijing television. (Global Times includes a qualifying paragraph: “However, not every laborer appears to lead a happy life. ‘I am not happy at all to be a teacher. I majored in bel canto and I have to teach pupils because I don’t have better job opportunities,’ a 25-year old music teacher” told the paper.) 
Silliness aside, the Chinese govt. is playing a rhetorical game with happiness -- using it as a catch-all justification for policies that don't have easily measurable implications, or as a synonym for "intangibles" -- that has lately become ubiquitous. I find the "happiness" idea quite unambiguously worthwhile in its purely destructive uses: consider, e.g., the old Krugman point about French GDP per head being lower than American GDP per head because the French take more time off. It is intuitively clear that this weakens arguments of the form, "the French are poorer than the Americans, therefore they should adopt policies that make them more like the Americans" -- there clearly is a trade-off, and (at least at the intuitive level) a trade-off corresponds to a set of points that are not "well-ordered" in terms of utility.

With the constructive agenda based on happiness, however, I am almost entirely out of sympathy. No doubt this is partly stylistic -- like Ian Leslie, I dislike the "Trendy Vicar tone" of the happiness movement, all the "stop to think about it" / "hectic pace of life" crap -- and partly based on skepticism about self-reported happiness (largely dispositional, heavily socially influenced, inflected by signaling: I approve of people who respond to "how are you" with a grunt). But it also seems trivial to come up with situations that are the exact inverse of that Krugman argument: cases in which it is intuitively sensible to trade happiness for other things, like knowledge or responsibilities. For instance most works of art, and perhaps the large majority of scientific inventions -- e.g., the spinning jenny -- probably can't be justified through their impact on gross human happiness, but are worthwhile in some fairly obvious sense. (One can wriggle out of this through redefining "happiness" to include every possibly valuable thing, have higher/lower forms, etc. but this is a stupid semantic game.)

Anyway, the point about "happiness" is that it is the latest buzzword for scientism in the humanities; it is what "progress" was in the era after Herbert Spencer, and (perhaps) what growth was for a while in the mid-20th. (Perhaps the era of Lagrange and Gauss, ca. 1800, was obsessed with voting systems for a similar reason.) There is an enduring tendency for the latest scientific fad -- preferably something that is a little amorphous, though this seems not to be essential -- to be applied to human affairs by implicitly adopting a self-serving value system according to which the one thing the new science is about is precisely the thing that's to be maximized. Thus with psychology -- evolutionary and otherwise -- and happiness.

Of course, these scientistic fads have their political implications (Evolutionary Progress, of course, goes with racism; happiness, with a sort of goofy Chestertonian conservatism). There is a chicken-and-egg puzzle here that I'd like to understand better: to what extent are these political tendencies autonomous attributes of the sciences, and to what extent are they derivatives of the "class interests" of scientists? For instance, it seems clear to me that the discovery of large innate racial differences would delight Steven Pinker, although I doubt that he's a racist; it would just be a dramatic vindication of the kind of biological determinism his research is based on. At the other extreme, a lot of people, like Richard Posner, seem to have pre-existing views that they garnish with faddish scientific examples. On the third hand, one becomes an evolutionary psychologist or neurobiologist by choice, and chooses, again, to work on topics that impinge on human affairs -- typically not the most intellectually interesting part of a discipline. To what extent is ideological self-selection important here?

Happiness is different from Progress because its intrinsic political tendency seems to me traditionalist and conservative, i.e., quite different from the pre-existing tendencies and the "class interests" of scientists, much closer to those of David Brooks and Ross Douthat. This makes the politics of happiness an interesting test case for one's meta-theories about the social sciences...


Unrelated but too short for a separate post: because Elisa Gabbert is Boston's best poet, you can now buy her book The French Exit for $6. Do yourself a favor and buy it even if you "don't like poetry": it's one of the more entertaining books I've read this year. (This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of its merits; the reviews focus on "cleverness" which is misleading; more accurate, I think, to see the wit as (a) part of the definition of a well-defined and appealing voice, (b) a way of crystallizing the mostly everyday subject matter.) Here is one of my favorite poems in the book, conveniently online.


PPS In the interests of full disclosure I should confess that I've been meaning to write a post on happiness ever since I saw the picture that heads this post.


Grobstein said...

Via your pal

Zed said...

OMG he knows SO MUCH about what we ought to do!!!