An article called at Slate.com called, “Desperate Feminist Wives: Why wanting equality makes women unhappy,” by Meghan O'Rourke pointed me to some research showing that traditional stay-at-home wives (or those women who accepted the traditional role of the stay-at-home wife) were happier than those who sought more progressive lifestyles.
As I read the study, I immediately imagined throngs of people who would not like this conclusion deciding that the research was obviously flawed and that any decent researcher would see that the data did not support these conclusions. At the same time, those who liked the conclusion would stretch the research beyond all reason and assert that we should re-establish the ideal of the traditional marriage.
This would be the counterpart to an article that I discussed earlier that showed a correlation between religiosity and social ills. Upon publication of that article, evangelicals started a campaign of personal attacks against Dr. Paul, making up claims about what the research said in order to criticize it. At the same time, critics of religiosity started to use this as proof that religiosity caused these social ills.
In fact, what Dr. Paul’s study accomplished was to criticize the claim that evangelicals had been making for decades that. "These ills are caused by the growth of liberalism" and "The reason that our society is in moral decline is because we have kicked God out of the public square."
That article showed that countries that have kicked God even further out of the public square than America has fewer social ills. Evangelicals hypocritically expressed deep contempt for those who expressed a causal relationship where the study only showed a correlation. Yet, at the same time they committed a moral crime worthy of greater condemnation. They asserted the opposite causation without even so much as a correlation to back it up. If they had sought to collect such evidence, they would have found it going the opposite direction. However, they had no interst in collecting data -- their hate was the only data they needed.
In the study mentioned in Slate.com, feminists who have been claiming that women would be better off asserting a more progressive and egalitarian marriage find themselves faced with a correlation that contradicts their assertions. We immediately find feminist progressives engaging in the same type of behavior they would have otherwise condemned. They condemn those who violate the logical principle, “correlation does not imply causation” when they have spent decades asserting causation without even offering evidence of correlation.
The Implications of Happiness
So, what does this study actually show? What conclusions can we draw?
First, if we had a study that showed that firefighters were happier than school teachers, this would not support the conclusion that everybody should be a firefighter. It does not even support the conclusion that school teachers would be happier if they were firefighters.
If there are women who are happy in a traditional stay-at-home marriage, and can find themselves such a marriage with a good husband who can also be happy in that type of relationship, there is no reason to condemn them. Indeed, we should be happy for them. However, this does not imply that everybody would be happy in that type of arrangement, or that we should condemn those who find their happiness living a more progressive lifestyle.
The same study did show that some women living a progressive lifestyle were happy, and their happiness should not be held in contempt because others are happy in a traditional marriage.
The Value of Happiness
Another issue to keep in mind is that happiness is not the only thing of value.
This can be shown using a thought experiment that is widely used in the area of value theory.
Let us assume that I have invented an experience machine. If I plug you into this machine, it will cause you to believe that you are in a situation where you would be very happy. In fact, I have programmed this machine to recognize when it was feeding you experiences that lit up the sections of your brain indicating happiness, and to seek experiences that activated this part of your brain. So, for example, if the machine discovered that your happiest moments were caused by believing that you were a doctor saving peoples’ lives on a daily basis, it would feed you experiences of being a doctor that was saving patients’ lives.
As long as you were in the machine, you would be happy.
Now, would you agree to enter into the experience machine?
Most people would not.
We can say of those who would enter the machine that they value happiness above other things. However, in order to explain those who would not enter the machine, we are forced to conclude that they value something other than happiness. They are willing to give up happiness in order to realize something else that has value to them, such as living in the real world.
Please note, the concept of a “desire” that I have been using as the foundation for these blog posts easily handles these types of thought experiments. This theory states that people seek the fulfillment of their desires. If they desired happiness, then they would choose to enter the experience machine because they would find happiness there.
However, if a person desires to help the needy, then he is only going to value situations that make the statement “I have helped those in need” a true statement. The experience machine cannot accomplish this, so he finds no value in the experience machine. Instead, he has to help real people who are really needy. The person who desires to help those in need would not enter the experience machine. He would consider the experience machine a fate as bad as death, because both will equally prevent him from accomplishing what he desires.
This view creates a problem for the happy evangelical housewife – the woman who enters a traditional marriage because she thinks she is pleasing God. This woman would be in the same position as the person who enters the experience machine where he thinks he is helping the needy. That person would be happy, but it would be a false happiness.
A worse situation is one in which the individual in the experience machine actually does harm to others. Let us take this person who wishes to help children in need, and offer him an experience machine that will feed him the experiences of helping children in need. However, each time the experience machine feeds him such an experience, a real-world child is made to suffer great harm.
A person with a genuine desire to help children would be adverse to allowing anybody to use such a machine. The false happiness of being in the machine saving virtual children would not tempt him in the slightest.
The evangelical lifestyle in some cases is much like this type of experience machine. The evangelical housewife in the traditional role may be happy, but her experience machine is one that causes misery and suffering for others. In the name of promoting God’s will, she not only confines herself to a traditional marriage. She also promotes laws and social institutions that are harmful to women who would not be happy in a traditional marriage, homosexuals, non-believers, women in the first months of pregnancy, patients who may benefit from stem cell research or other medical advances, and those prevented from learning about sex and biological sciences, to name a few.
These are the people who are being sacrificed by the evangelical’s desire to live in an experience machine that generates her false happiness.
Happiness is not the only thing that matters. True happiness – the marriage of truth and happiness – is better than false happiness, and false happiness that does harm to others is the worst form of happiness of all.
This world would enjoy a great benefit if we could reduce the number of people who attempt to fit the intelligence to their cherished beliefs. We need to promote an attitude of contempt for those who think in terms like, "This study says something that I do not like; therefore, it was poorly done and its conclusions are to be rejected."
It is an attitude that can also be found in an administration that says that, “This intelligence does not support the conclusion that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, so it must be flawed,” or “This study suggests that we will not be greeted as liberators who can establish a democracy in Iraq for 1.8 billion dollars, so its author must be an atheist liberal who cannot do good research.”
It is time to promote the idea of fitting one’s conclusions to the evidence, rather than the other way around.
If there are women who are happier in traditional marriages, and they can obtain this happiness in an environment that is not harmful to others, then they should be allowed to do so. There is no moral crime in admitting this.
At the same time, we need to pay attention to the fact that true happiness is better than false happiness, and better by far than a false happiness that requires an environment that does harm to others. An examination of the moral facts shows that happiness is not the only thing that matters.