Monday, December 08, 2008

BB3: Eudemonia Panel: Happiness

This is the eighth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Even though the first session at the Beyond Belief conference had to do with Eudemonia, the panel discussion at the end of the session was mostly concerned with happiness. (See Panel Human Flourishing / Eudaimonics)

I mentioned how the conference members all seemed to share a common culture and a common language. As a result, they all seemed to be aware of and agree with a number of findings that showed that there are two major determinants to whether one is happy: (1) low expectations, and (2) religious convictions.


I have often said – often as a source of humor – that, contrary to public opinion, pessimists are the happiest people in the world, while optimists are the most glum. This is because the pessimist experiences a string of pleasant surprises as reality often turns out better than he feared it would. The optimist, on the other hand, faces a constant string of disappointments and unpleasant surprises.

It turns out, in following the panel discussion, that this might actually be true. Several speakers spoke to research that shows that people are happier in a society where things are turning out better than expected.

In other words, you can increase peoples’ happiness, not by changing the product, but by changing people’s expectations. If you can lower expectations first, and then give the people your product, they are happier than they would be with the same product received in an environment of high expectations.

In fact, even outside of this conference, I have heard a lot of discussion about the value of “managing expectations”. Consultants are now in the business of lowering expectations before they turn over a deliverable, so that the deliverable will exceed expectations. Presidential candidates before a debate adopt the policy of trying to lower expectations for their candidate and raise expectations for their opponent so that – without changing the quality of the presentation itself, they can raise or lower people’s evaluation of that presentation.

Currently, Presidential candidate Barak Obama is busy telling us that the economy is going to get worse before it gets better. Whenever I hear these comments, I have to ask myself if it is true, or if Obama is smart enough to know the value of managing expectations. If he tells us to expect a significant economic downturn, and it turns out to be less severe than people expect, he will be given credit. Yet, if Obama were to promise a rapid recovery with little pain, Obama would end up being seen as a failure, even though the economic conditions ended up identical to what they were under conditions of reduced expectations.

This is not a matter of valuing honesty. If we valued honesty, then we would prefer it if the President gave us an accurate assessment of the economy. Lowering expectations so that the economy can turn out “better than expected” would be condemned for its dishonesty. Yet, we seem to be wired so that we will reward the dishonest president or consultant who manipulates us by manipulating our expectations more than we reward the honest president or consultant.

In fact, we seem at risk of rewarding the person who lowers are expectations and gives us a product of quality Q more than we reward the person who gives us an honest appraisal and gives us a product of quality of Q + n. The first person has given us a product that “exceeds our expectations”, while the second merely “meets our expectations.” We then irrationally evaluate the first one as better than the second.

This is an example where the fact that we have a natural disposition to behave (or evaluate) something in a particular way does not imply that it actually makes sense to do so. This disposition to evaluate things as meeting or exceeding expectations is actually a disposition we should guard against – focusing more on the actual quality of the product on not the relationship between its quality and some set of easily manipulated expectations.

Happiness and Religious Experience

One of my objections to the idea that happiness is the most important (sole) value is that it fails to account for the low value of experience-machine happiness. This is the objection that Grayling made in his presentation. If happiness were the sole value than we can promote the good by feeding everybody a pill that gives them a feeling of happiness while they lie down and die – or hook them up to an experience machine that feeds them the illusion of being popular and successful while their body, in fact, lays in a puddle of goo and the agent does nothing real.

The problem with religious experience and happiness is not that religious experience fails to produce happiness. The problem is that religious experience produces experience-machine happiness; and empty and meaningless form of happiness where the agent only thinks (wrongly, as it turns out) that he has obtained something of value. It produces an illusion of success and accomplishment that is no more real than the success and accomplishments of the person hooked up to an experience machine.

In fact, many religious accomplishments are the opposite of what the agent thinks them to be. While they are made happy with the belief that they are doing good, they are actually doing harm.

Imagine being hooked up to an experience machine where you are fed images of being a successful doctor. You are made to believe that you are devoting your life to saving lives and promoting the health of others when, in fact, you are laying in a pool of goo being fed experiences by a machine. The machine makes you believe that you are the author of some miraculous cures and you are widely praised for your brilliance and success – with healthy patients more than happy to name their children after you.

However, in fact, you are hooked up to an experience machine that actually does harm to people proportional to the benefit that you are made to believe yourself to be providing. Whenever the machine makes you think you have saved a child’s life, it kills a child. Each time you are fed the belief that you have helped an injured or sick child, the machine injures or infects a real child. The harder you work to save lives and reduce suffering, the more death and suffering comes from your actions.

Meanwhile, you are kept blissfully ignorant of the harms that you are responsible for.

This is the situation that many people who find happiness in religion find themselves in.

For example, many of them cheer the “success” of passing Proposition 8 in California – the proposition that revoked the right of homosexuals to marriage. Their religion feeds them the belief that they have accomplished something meaningful and good – and they find personal happiness in their success. Instead, the real-world effect of their actions is to cause unnecessary and unjustified suffering.

. Their efforts and their success has made them happy. Yet, they merely believe that they have accomplished something meaningful. This is a belief that is fed to them by their religious experience machine, and it is a belief that produces great happiness.

However, the real-world effect of their actions has been to promote unnecessary, unjustified, real-world suffering – preventing real people from obtaining something that, to them, would have real value.


So, there are real dangers to focusing on happiness as the source and center of all value. Such a theory would actually justify the type of manipulation of expectations where we provide happiness, not by changing the actual facts of human existence, but by manipulating people’s expectations regarding those facts. It would justify the type of “experience machine” happiness where a person is made happy believing he is doing good when, in fact, he is doing great harm.

The alternative to both of these problems with a happiness theory of value is a theory that recognizes that truth has a certain amount of value. The facts of the matter of a given situation is more important than the expectations people have regarding those facts. The fact of the matter regarding the harms and benefits provided to people is more important than an agent’s beliefs about those facts.

In other words, the fact of the matter, in fact, matters.

1 comment:

BruceH said...

Thank you. You have managed to explain exactly what I have against supernatural belief, no matter how innocuous it seems to be. Such non-rational beliefs are always capable of great harm because they use false appraisals of objective reality, with exactly such consequences as you describe.

As is often said, great claims about the natural world require great evidence. That reality encompasses one or more supernatural aspects is a great claim for which no solid evidence has ever been provided. Therefore, one should discount all such claims, however attractive, on the basis that embracing them leads to a flawed view of reality where it becomes possible to justify great harm.

Have I missed anything? Unlike you, I am not a trained ethicist, but this conclusion does seem inescapable.