Pondering Plasticity

Tyler recently praised (cultural) anthropologists, and with good reason. I’ve learned a great deal from reading them. Yes, economists often look down on other social scientists (who often complain loudly back), and yes anthropologists are one of the most liberal academic disciplines (e.g. high Democrat to Republican ratio), while economists (including Tyler and I) are less so. But maybe Tyler and I are more broad minded than you think.

Just as supply and demand is the crown jewel of econ insight, the crown jewel of anthropology insight is cultural plasticity. This is the idea that humans are pretty flexible – we can be okay in and with few reservations accept the practices of a wide range of cultures, if we grow up there. Not to say humans are infinitely flexible, but just more flexible that we tend to think.

I usually hear people talk of cultural plasticity as favoring a liberal point of view. For example, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict Of Visions and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate both describe liberals as seeing human plasticity as supporting the feasibility of ambitious social engineering. That is, liberals imagine they can change cultural rules as they wish, then teach people to accept their new rules, and after a transition period it will all stick.

Conservatives, in contrast, are seen as fearing that because human nature can’t bend much, only certain cultures will work, and so they fear that liberal changes will break everything. E.g., if culture doesn’t support marriage, kids won’t get needed support. Or if culture doesn’t support military virtues, we’ll be enslaved by foreign invaders.

It seems to me that in fact cultural plasticity tends more to favor the conservative position. Yes more plasticity means reduced fears that change will break us. But more plasticity also gives less reason to bother. Why make everyone pay big costs of change if most people are pretty happy no matter what the culture?

The driving emotion of liberal reform seems to me to be a strong feeling that most people are not truly happy in typical non-liberal cultures, and that they’d be more truly happy in liberal cultures. Without liberalism they suffer crushing conformity, excess work, and limited vistas, and they lack authenticity, self-expression, autonomy, self-discovery, variety of experience, blah blah blah. Which is why we must struggle to change culture to be more liberal. This seems to me a rather non-plastic point of view.

In contrast, the driving emotion of conservative reluctance to reform is a sense that things are good and ok just as they have long been. Oh they aren’t perfect, but if it was good enough for grandpa, its good enough for me. What we have binds us together; who do you think you are to demand more? We like who we are, so why take a chance changing to be like some strangers, or like something imaginary? Change might break precious things; what is worth that risk?

We can distinguish two kinds of cultural plasticity – plasticity of happiness and plasticity of function. Plasticity of happiness says that people can be happy in a wide range of cultures. In contrast, plasticity of function says that a wide range of cultures result in similar levels of production, security, innovation, etc.

We economists are pretty confident that there is in fact only a limited plasticity of function. That is, different cultures in fact produce quite different levels of production, security, innovation, etc. In contrast, plasticity of happiness seems a far more plausible position. In fact, the main reason that cultures vary in happiness seems to be because they vary in function. That is, cultures that produce more (or are more secure) are happier, but most other cultural dimensions don’t matter much for happiness.

An emphasis on cultures that just produce well, as opposed to cultures that fit some more direct idea of human flourishing, seems to me a conservative emphasis. It is conservatives who worry more about losing cultural pressures to work, to have kids, or to fight hard against enemies. And it is liberals who focus more on imagining people who suffer because of specific features of existing culture, and wanting to change culture to help those victims.

In the em future that I’ve been exploring, there would be a vast increase in total production and security, but practices and values would move away from typical liberal ideals. This horrifies many with strong liberal inclinations. But I’m more okay with it, as I expect most people will adapt just fine, and be nearly as happy there once it is the world they grow up in. Especially since this world would select strongly for folks who are okay with it. So I guess this means I lean conservative in this respect.

It seems that anthropologists have discovered that human happiness is surprisingly robust to cultural changes, and that economists have discovered that production, security, innovation, etc. vary a lot more with cultures. And overall this seems to favor a conservative emphasis on accepting the culture you were born with, and mainly only considering changes to make your society physically stronger. Spiritual fulfillment will mostly take care of itself.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Lord

    Those at the top of the heap rarely see any reason to change, everything works great from their point of view. This doesn’t mean others can’t be happy, but it does mean they probably aren’t as productive as they could be. Yet, allowing them to be more productive will probably mean those on top may end up less productive, at least for a while, so conservatives exert pressure to maintain the status quo, not to maintain productivity but to maintain their own position.

  • MikeB

    Perhaps liberals should focus reform efforts on areas where cultural plasticity seems likely to fail to be sufficient for happiness. Two examples might be tolerance/acceptance of other sexual orientations (where culturally induced shame/discrimination would conflict with love/sex drives) and abortion rights (where raising an unwanted child will have real emotional and economic costs). In both of these cases, cultural plasticity seems to suggest that opponents of change would be just as capable of being happy after change occurred, while people discriminated against/raising unwanted children may not be.

    • IMASBA

      That is actually what mainstream liberalism already focuses on when you hear people say things like “in 50 years everyone will deny they were ever against gay marriage and no one would want to go back to pre-Obamacare health care”. People who say liberals inherently champion cultural plasticity in every direction severely misunderstand the whole thing.

  • lump1

    Yes, liberals have tended to view human nature as socially malleable. But this is an empirical question, not an ideological question. When we liberals discover the limits of human malleability, we don’t become conservative. We simply realize that achieving liberal ends will require different means.

    Take an extreme case, where genes determine something like 80% of the variance in social class, achievement, motivation, etc. The liberal in a world like this would favor policies that enable everyone to live a maximally worthwhile and dignified life at every social station. This would require surrendering an aspect of our cherished belief in meritocracy, but that was always meant as a means and not an end. Even the people who haven’t “earned” happiness *deserve* it. If human nature is really very inelastic, then merely dangling opportunities to earn happiness in front of people who will not seize these opportunities does considerable harm and little good. In such a case, we shouldn’t be forcing these people to jump through hoops that their nature prevents them from jumping through. We should just give them for free whatever the jumping would have earned them. It’s the only compassionate thing to do.

    This kind of “handout” attitude mortifies the conservative, and reveals that conservatives too are committed to a perhaps unrealistically malleable view of human nature. It frightens conservatives (and economists) that *incentives* for pro-social behavior might be undermined. Why? Because deep down, they picture humans as being blank slates who have no internal motor, but simply float on the tide of incentives. This conservative dogma would also have to go if we discover that human nature plays a larger role in outcomes than the socially imposed incentive structure environment. Maybe some (many?) people are born to be productive, and even if they have opportunity to live on a comfortable and dignified welfare, they will refuse it. This is the other side of an inelastic human nature. If it makes social *pro*motion difficult to engineer, it will also make demotion unlikely to be the result of any meddling.

    In any case, liberalism – whatever that is – is an ideology. It’s not a commitment to an empirical thesis about human malleability.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      What good is an ideology that can’t be disproven by any facts?

      • lump1

        You know about how you can’t derive “oughts” from “is-es”, right? What facts would disprove your ideology?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I’m a communist. If I were convinced of Robin’s claims about plasticity, I would consider my ideology refuted. [I would then cease to be interested in politics, which I really think would be a good thing.]

        Ideology isn’t morality–at least not necessarily. My personal morality has little connection with my ideology. My ideological claims are factual and grounded in consequentialism; I don’t consider my personal morality “true,” whereas I at least am inclined to think my ideology is more likely true than its competitors.

        [As to what morality is based on, see “Why do what you “ought”?—A habit theory of explicit morality” — http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2011/12/14-why-do-what-oughta-habit-theory-of.html ]

      • lump1

        I took “ideology” to be the sum of of what someone takes as ethical primitives – the ultimate goods, the correct ends of action. A part of my point is that liberals and conservatives may agree on facts but still disagree on “oughts”, because they aim at different goals.

        I suspect that you have a thicker notion of ideology than mine. Marxist-Leninist Communism probably does include some commitments about facts as well as values, in which case it can be refuted through the factual parts being falsified. I was thinking of ideology as pure values, and only the primitive ones.

        Regarding the link, that seems to defend an error theory of value, on which all ethical claims are false. That doesn’t help me understand how ethical claims are to be refuted, but at least it does acknowledge the impermeability of the fact-value distinction.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Liberals and conservatives may agree on facts but still disagree on “oughts”, because they aim at different goals.

        No doubt that’s true, as Jonathan Haidt has shown. But whatever the real reasons for political positions, their presentation in public debate in a formal democracy seems inevitably to take place on a (limited) utilitarian basis. It’s pretty much the only way to convince someone who disagrees with you.

  • stevesailer

    Well said.

  • IMASBA

    It seems important to point out that liberals don’t just want to push any kind of change: mainstream liberalism (in the American sense of the word) pushes for a specific culture (more or less prehistoric forager culture adapted to a technologically advanced world). It never claimed to champion cultural plasticity in general, just cultural plasticity in a certain direction. Does cultural plasticity favor conservatism? Perhaps in general, but it actually opposes individual forms of conservatism: American conservatives don’t seem very keen on accepting Arab or Indian conservative culture, and vice versa.

    Claiming that “most people were doing ok” in old cultures isn’t telling the whole story: liberals believe the suffering of a minority can weigh so heavily that whatever bonus the majority gains versus a liberal society doesn’t make up for it and they correctly argue that such conservative societies are usually ripe with potential conflict and in deep denial about their own values (eg: claiming to be “the land of the free” while having millions of slaves). And when women are oppressed or everyone is forced to partake in arranged marriages the suffering minority may actually be a pretty large segment of society, perhaps even a majority.

    I guess it could even be argued that conservative societies being upturned by liberals or getting passed by by more liberal societies is a sign that conservative societies aren’t that secure, stable or happy. Forager values simply are very attractive to humans, so much so that even conservative societies often claim to support them in some way and have to invent foreign threats or angry gods to explain why they can’t practice those values more. And of course once a liberal society has been established mainstream liberals become conservative in the sense of resisting cultural change, so it’s important to use precise definitions here: someone who acts conservatively because they fear change and are more predisposed to feel fear (such a person may actually be a communist if they were born in a communist society) is not the same as someone who acts conservatively because they feel that society is near some optimum culture that is best for as many people as possible.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      “When … everyone is forced to partake in arranged marriages the suffering minority may actually be a pretty large segment”. That is good example of the sort of thing liberals think causes huge suffering, but that anthropologists say no, mostly it doesn’t. In societies with arranged marriages in fact most people are okay with them and enjoy them.

      • stevesailer

        Liberals only reason these days in terms of “Who? Whom?”

      • IMASBA

        Really? Then what about all the Indian tv-shows about mothers-in-law from hell and the fact that when given the choice most young people in the world prefer free choice of partners (apart from a minority that knows they’d do worse on a “free” dating market, I’m the last person to deny that even a liberal society has its losers).

        I agree with Stephen Diamond that whatever I’ve read from modern anthropology does say some societies are happier than others (I’m not sure how seriously we should take the non-anthropologist yearly happiness rankings, but they also, predictively always have wealthy, liberal countries with comfortable welfare states at the top and the differences seem statistically significant: the rankings don’t just jump around randomly). Of course people can cope with a lot of things (even in prison most people aren’t constantly depressed), but when they have knowledge of other cultures and get the choice there are definite patterns that emerge: almost all of us like forager values when given the choice, but a small number of us are afraid they’ll lose some form of privilege in such a society and therefore oppose forager values in their acts.

      • Peter David Jones

        There is probably a divide between happy, qua not depressed, and happy, qua would not have wanted things different. There seems to .ge a certain homeostasis to emotional happiness.

      • IMASBA

        I think people partly answer questions about happiness through the idea of “do I have a right to complain compared to other people around me”. This is why people are less happy in more inequal societies and why even people women who get beat up everyday by their husband still say they can’t complain when they know all the other women in the neighborhood constantly get beaten too. Access to knowledge of other cultures (ie. learning that the social elite in your own culture are lying through their teeth when they say things can only work in one certain way) then quickly brings downward changes to the happyness levels of such people. Social pariahs also show us what happens when people don’t have the affirmation that others have it just as bad as them: LGBTs (2-5% of a population), atheists/agnostics (percentage of population depending on accessibility of scientific knowledge, etc… but always above zero) untouchables and slaves outright say they are unhappy in their traditional conservative societies.

      • IMASBA

        Note that true forced marriage is actually pretty rare and has been relatively rare in history outside of the elites (who could often have extramarital lovers). Veto-forced marriage is more common and even replacing true forced marriage in countries that used to have the latter. In vet-forced marriage the person about to be married-off can veto the marriage, effectively ensuring access to a pool of potential partners that’s about equa in size to the pool most hunter-gatherers had access to or people in rural areas in liberal societies have access to (though both groups had/have the option of a relatively easy divorce, which people in conservative societies usually don’t). This is enough for a mjaority of people, but certainly not everyone.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I wouldn’t expect that, in a traditional society, folks would be aware of the cultural causes of their experienced unhappiness. Humans are plastic in other way: they are malleable about what they perceive as the cause of their misery. (Displacement.)

  • Zooey

    Funny thing you portray economists as leaning to consevatism. One of the fundamental attractions to economics to me has always been our emphasis of free exchange and personal liberties, the non-judgemental point of view to any bilaterally beneficial transactions, the use of any unspecified preferences as primitives, the appeareance of multiple equilibria etc.

    Or, maybe this is just a matter of definition? Am I being conservative if I pretty much accept the western cultural system as such but do not object, mind or care if someone wishes to express himself by choosing to slightly different life style, say different clothing, different hobbies, different emphasis of values in casual speech, different way of bringing up the kids etc.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Academic economists are less liberal than anthropologists, but still more liberal than the public.

  • HT

    This post assumes both liberals and conservatives agree that what matters is human happiness, and only disagree about the how. Not obvious to me.

    As for ems, the game will change drastically because they can literally change their minds and choose how much to suffer and what to value.

  • Peter David Jones

    Liberalism doesn’t have a failed consequentialist justification, because they have a deontological justification. They think that oppressing people is wrong because it is against their rights, and that the happiness the oppressors get out of the arrangement is irrelevant,

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      I tend associate consequentialism more with liberalism, and traditionalism with virtue ethics/deontology. Conservatives tend to rely on the wisdom of tradition, in which one might guess that ethical rules have reasoning behind them but we don’t need to relitigate the pros and cons.

      • Peter David Jones

        I see those differences as more about epistemology than metaethics. Liberals have a factual bias.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        Facts and ethics are different things. You can’t derive an ought from an is. An epistemological stance or “factual bias” is not enough to determine ethics.

      • Peter David Jones

        Then ethics is undetermined, since you need to .do some epistemology to justify anything.

        People keep telling me that you can’t derive oughts from ises, but there seem to be lots of facts mentioned in the typical object level debate.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        I agree ethics are undetermined; there are no objective normative truths. But that’s just my meta-ethical conclusion.

      • IMASBA

        “You can’t derive an ought from an is”

        You can if you don’t have to start with nothing. For a liberal to convince a conservative something “ought” to change the liberal merely has to find some common basis. Strictly speaking the universe doesn’t care: ethics are undetermined, but in practice both liberals and conservatives care about things like people’s happiness or the survival of mankind (“oughts” they pulled out of thin air, but that doesn’t matter since they both agree on them) and from there you can definitely derive other “oughts”.

      • J Storrs Hall

        You cannot actually derive an ought from anything, and it is a major category error to imagine that it is the kind of thing that you can. An ethic is an evolved mechanism like a backbone. It works, in a given environment, better or worse than some other mechanism. BTW cultural plasticity is a supporting lemma to this contention, but anthropologists have mostly stopped short of the big picture, IMHO. I think this supports Robin’s point — conservatism forms a better cultural DNA (supporting heritability and thus evolution) than anything the left has to offer.

      • IMASBA

        Evolution requires the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, that’s not very conservative…

      • Peter David Jones

        People do indeed keep telling me that there is an unbridgeable is-ought gap, and I do nonetheless keep noticing that if you go into a bookshop there are books on how you ought to cook, get dates, or write software.

        The idea that ethics fulfils a job is entirely compatible with the idea that there are ethical facts, ie facts about which ethics work, and you offer such a proposition in your argument about conservatism.

        …which is shallow. Liberals don’t have to reject the idea that ethics is social technology, and can even turn the tables on conservatives by arguing that their ethics is better adapted to modern conditions.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Conservatives tend to rely on the wisdom of tradition, in which one
        might guess that ethical rules have reasoning behind them but we don’t
        need to relitigate the pros and cons.

        It can be hard at the object level to distinguish rule utilitarianism from deontology.

        Although I don’t think the correlation between meta-ethics and politics is strong, conservative versus legal moral reasoning may be most transparent in the debate about torture, which Justice Scalia (an unquestionable conservative) refused in an interview to call “terrible,” averting to a Jack Bauer episode. That is, his justification was clearly utilitarian. The liberals, on the other hand, have tried to have it both ways: torture is wrong on principle, but the main investigation is whether it works.

  • Peter St Onge

    A propos: “Poor Kids in Baltimore Have It Worse Than Those in Nigeria”

    http://www.vocativ.com/culture/society/baltimore-poverty/

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Your most tendentious assumption is happiness plasticity. I don’t see it in the anthropology literature, except among the functionalists, who are languishing. You can see the position repudiated in the common view among anthropologists that hunter-gatherers were happier than we civilized folk.

    Certainly a vast array of social forms are humanly possible, this demonstrated by cultural anthropology, but that they are equally productive of happiness is incredible for the reason that the unhappiness people experience in different cultures takes very different forms: material scarcity here, anxiety neurosis there, constant humiliation further over there, etc. It would require a belief in something like a conservation law of amount of human misery to think plausible that, despite the diversity of forms of unhappiness, quantitatively they cancel out.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The claim isn’t of course exact equality, but rather that the differences aren’t big, and so maybe not enough to get that worked up about.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        However, the question is whether social engineering can produce large differences.

        Imagine (as a simplification) that a culture consists of a large number of independent traits. Then you will find that the law of large numbers produces a degree of equality between cultures.

        But the differences between the forms of unhappiness provides a potential basis for redesigning society consciously.

      • stevesailer

        Happiness Plasticity destroys the case for allowing massive immigration.

      • HT

        Only if you assume that it’s true, relevant and the only argument for immigration. Debates about immigration are almost never about “true happiness”, but more about economic effects, national and religious identity, and xenophobia.

        Basically no one is trying to optimize “true happiness” in the world. They almost never talk about Munchkin ideas like hedonic enhancement or other happiness technologies, and if they do, they often do it with rejection. So maximizing “true happiness” is really not what any of these debates are about.

        Politics is not about (happiness maximizing) policy.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Could you elaborate?

      • Cahokia

        Yes, but it also destroys the case for closing our borders.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Unfortunately, we don’t know what the case is. There are various cases made. One is to improve the welfare of immigrants. That case is destroyed because the immigrants won’t be much happier and in the short to intermediate term, the extant culture will be disrupted.

        But another case is that the free movement of labor is economically efficient, which might remain defensible as making “our” society stronger.

  • Pingback: Assorted links | Homines Economici

  • stevenkopits

    Non-market transactions, guy. The transactor is the agent, not the principal. Rights and obligations accrue to the agent, not the principal.

    For example, when you yield your seat to an elderly person on the subway, that’s a non-market transaction. Neither party knows the other, nor is money or any other form of compensation exchanged. Personal merit is irrelevant. Often, the act is obligatory, not voluntary. (“Bobby, get up and give that elderly man your seat.”) The basis of the action is some aggregate descriptor (eg, young man, old woman). The exchange occurs because the two parties match the terms of agency (ie, because I am a young man and she is an old woman).

    Now, if rights and obligations accrue to the agent, then changing the terms of agency change the terms of deal for many, many people. Therefore, agency as defined by custom or as relating to a class (eg, social security recipients) tends to endure. For example, if all salesmen get a commission, and we change the system such that commissions are no longer paid, then all salesmen are affected by dint of the agency (salesman) role. Obviously, salesmen will tend to resist this change. Thus, agency–which corresponds to ‘conservative’–will tend to resist change.

    Just to clarify the difference with a market transaction in which the principal is the transactor: Suppose I am a salesmen with a custom-negotiated contract which grants me a sales commission of 1.25%, regardless of any other commission paid to any other salesman. Changing this one contract only involves a single negotiation, without impact on a class of persons. That is, I could lower my commission without any impact on other salesmen. These contracts can be flexible, because they have no broader impact.

    On the other hand, each contract must be negotiated and modified individually, which can make aggregate change quite difficult.

    Thus, a liberal contract is easy to change on an individual basis, but difficult on an aggregate basis; a conservative (agency-based) contract cannot be changed on an individual basis and will meet resistance on a political basis. On the other hand, once a change is agreed, a conservative contract affects all agents to which it applies–which gives it a greater kind of flexibility when public opinion changes.

    Does that make sense? Probably not, I imagine.

  • Pingback: Sentences to Ponder | relinquishment

  • stevesailer

    Plasticity is not the same as perfectibility. There exist numerous tradeoffs.

    • anon

      Yup. Most straightforwardly, it’s quite plausible that “functional plasticity” in the cultural anthropology sense might be limited to small societies, where individual groups are below Dunbar’s number, or 150 members. Loosely speaking, when “everyone knows each other”, you don’t need to worry much about incentives, dispute resolution or having accountable decision makers. All of this stuff can be left to informal mechanisms. When groups get larger, these things start to matter quite a bit, as most economists know.

  • Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Chaos Patch (#41)

  • Swami Cat

    Um… Haven’t you just used the hedonic treadmill to argue for

    I am not sure what “making your society physically stronger” means.

  • Swami Cat

    Sorry, ipad user error.

    I am not sure what “making your society physically stronger” means. The concept of the hedonic treadmill reveals that people tend to be attracted to a genetic baseline of happiness which is resilient against change or environmental conditions. If they routinely lost half their kids to natural causes before the age of five, or were forced into arranged weddings or forced to wear burkas and remain in the house all day, overall or average happiness wouldn’t be all that different.

    This just points to the folly of putting too much emphasis on happiness measures to evaluate social outcomes. Said another way, even if one is a utilitarian, longer term happiness measures are terrible gauges because they are constantly reverting back to their baseline. It’s like using an accelerometer to measure latitude.

    Yes people are plastic, but not totally so (blank slates). Cultures and institutions aren’t totally plastic either. Path dependencies do exist and the past matters. But happiness isn’t that different between the average 1930s Nazi and the current average east coast progressive liberal. Yet they reside/resided in very different cultures with very different values, habits and outcomes.

    An accelerometer is useful. But only to an extent. In the end we need to discover where it is we want to go and figure out how it is to get there. This is a complex and greatly decentralized and emergent process which involves concepts which are both conservative and liberal.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Said another way, even if one is a utilitarian, longer term happiness measures are terrible gauges because they are constantly reverting back to their baseline.

      I think Robin would say they revert to baseline because happiness itself reverts. You seem to be suggesting that it’s a measurement artifact. What are your reasons?

      • Swami Cat

        No, I am suggesting using something which constantly recalibrates back toward the mean is a terrible gauge of social policy. It excuses great harm and negates great gains in human progress.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        But you’re ignoring the argument Robin Hanson presented. The argument is that all this apparently great cultural progress–except where it affects material well-being–is (not to put too fine a point on it) an ethnocentric conceit.

        If cultural “progress” doesn’t broadly serve human happiness, what’s the point?

        [My own doubt concerns that these reports of happiness may have little or nothing to do with happiness. New methods test happiness by asking about mood at random times, making the method closer to reality rather than—as with questions based on long-term assessments—rationalization. These methods aren’t commonly applied to different cultures. However, the anthropologists’ reports aren’t based, either, on long-term questionnaires.]

      • Swami Cat

        I guess my point is that happiness is a poor gauge of both economic/material advance and other types of cultural change. I would not justify the former based upon happiness, nor would I attempt to justify or measure the effectiveness of re-engineering society based upon happiness surveys.

        I would not use an accelerometer to measure latitude. I would use it as a procedural feedback mechanism as it reveals incremental movement in the desired direction.

        Said another way, what if people weren’t happier with economic progress either? Would this negate the value of prosperity?

        Q “Hmm. Here we are on the North Pole and the accelerometers still read zero on average. Remind me again why we went north?”

        A “Um, so half our babies would stop dying at birth, so we would not work 80 backbreaking hours a week, so we would not succumb to disease, so we could stay warm and secure, so we could pursue our own goals and aspirations, so we could…..”

      • IMASBA

        The gains in happiness from liberal freedoms may be relatively small (they’re quite large for individuals who remember living in a less free society, but that group will naturally die out), but they are definitely larger than the gains from increased wealth and ebb away more quickly as well. Liberalization of society is merely the result of a free market of ideas. It’s weird that some people think that is a worthless exercise while they practically worship economic progress.

  • Pingback: Does the concept of cultural plasticity support the liberal or conservative approach? | Matters Of The Day

  • Silent Cal

    I call citation needed on plasticity of happiness. The crown-jewel plasticity finding of anthropology is the variety of cultures that can stably exist at all. That doesn’t imply anything about equality of happiness.

  • Aleksandar

    Some people on the left acutally see non-plastic nature of human nature as supporting their ideology. Here’s Chomsky:

    “A vision of a future social order is … based on a concept of human nature. If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the “shaping of behavior” by the State authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement, and participation in a free community”

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    Happiness research has lots of suggestions about how to make people happy: for example, increase their relationship satisfaction, work satisfaction, health, social activity, religiosity, level of gratitude, etc. Seems like the culture a person lives in has the potential to impact some of these.

  • Pingback: Last Incredible Necessary Kenyan post of the year | taylortoowen

  • Pingback: End of Year Links « Healthcare Economist

  • Pingback: ZeeConomics | Is fear of immigration fueled by facts or ignorance?