What is Freedom? (18): Freedom is a Happiness Pump

Several studies have shown a correlation between happiness and freedom. How can we explain this relationship? If we assume that there is some form of causation going on here – and that, in other words, there isn’t a third element which causes similar evolutions of the levels of both freedom and happiness – then it’s reasonable to conclude that freedom causes happiness.

The other way around would only make sense if we adopt a somewhat self-defeating notion of freedom: if we’re happy we don’t need anything more, and hence we don’t need to be able to choose; being free means being free from want.

However, if freedom makes us happy, how exactly does it perform this magic? One possible story is that freedom means, in part, economic freedom. And it does seem to be the case that economic freedom makes us wealthier. Wealth, in turn, makes us happier. There’s even less doubt about that.

Another explanation of the relationship: freedom means control, self-government and self-ownership. These states of being are intrinsically valuable but it’s not silly to argue that they should also make us happier. The life of a slave, a servant, a citizen of a dictatorship or a victim of psychological coercion can be a happy one but it’s not a happy one on average, at least given a definition of happiness that includes self-reflection and awareness of possible alternatives.

On the other hand, too much choice and responsibility for ourselves can make us worse off: it makes our lives more complicated and riskier, and increases the chances of regret or post-hoc dissatisfaction with certain choices. Regret obviously doesn’t make us happier. Neither does self-criticism, and self-criticism is another likely outcome of more freedom. If the results of our actions are caused by our free choices, then we can’t blame someone or something else if these results turn out bad. Buddhism can be understood as a reaction to the possibility of regret: freedom for Buddhism is not the ability to choose – and regret your choice afterwards – but is instead the freedom from want. This, however, is akin to defining freedom away, as I’ve argued above.

There are indeed measurable drops in self-reported well-being associated with the process of acquiring agency (see for example this source). Which may be related to the possibility of regret, the burden of responsibility for oneself, or the fact that increased choice and opportunity often entails an increased expectation that the choices we make and opportunities we get result in success of some sort. After all, if we don’t get what we choose why bother with the freedom to choose in the first place? And as we all know, success is rare. Sour grapes and adaptive preferences may then be seen as a reaction of the free against life’s many long shots. We are free to choose the grapes and even to attempt to get them – and our culture of freedom can even persuade us to choose a lot and choose things that we may never get – but instead of damning our overpromising freedom when we can’t get them we convince ourselves that we don’t want a choice in the matter. Once again, freedom is reduced to freedom from want.

In sum: the causal effects of freedom on happiness are complicated, if there is an effect at all. Maybe we should consider the possibility that freedom is worth having irrespective of or even despite of its impact on happiness. And is worth having even if the effect on happiness is negative.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (31): Adaptive Preferences and False Consciousness

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.” (source)

Human rights violations persist not only because governments continue to oppress. When people are faced with oppression or a reasonable assessment of the risk of oppression they adapt their preferences so as not to run foul of the government. For example, they convince themselves that speaking freely in public or publicly practicing their religion is not really what is most important to them. They settle for second best, and often in such a way that they forget about the first best and kid themselves that second really is first. It’s a form of false consciousness induced by an oppressive government.

This pliability of human preferences is well-known – advertising depends on it – but it’s also disturbing because it means that human rights violators just have to push harder and be a more credible threat in order to get people where they want them. In fact, it allows oppressors to make allies of the oppressed: the oppressed assist the oppressors in the act of oppression.

Now, it’s obviously true that preference adaptation can also be a good thing, and even a force for liberty. The Buddhist claim that we should rid ourselves from desires – an extreme form of preference adaptation – is motivated in part by the fact that unfulfilled desires are a cause of unhappiness. And that claim is particularly salient in our age of consumerism and extravagant attention to a vast array of often fabricated and imposed desires.

Preference adaptation can be liberating. Character building is important for freedom: when people manage to restrain some of their preferences and tell themselves that heroine use for example isn’t really what they want, then they open up other options for themselves, options that would have been closed had they indulged in their drug addiction.

However, in these two examples (the Buddhist and the junkie), preference adaptation is not a response to outside oppression determining the feasible, but rather a response to inner values and second order preferences such as happiness, freedom, self-government and choice. Still, notwithstanding the differences, preference adaptation resulting from inner motives is just as much self-delusion as preference adaptation resulting from oppression. It’s just a liberating rather than debilitating form of self-delusion. When self-delusion is a reaction to oppression, then it reinforces oppression; when, on the other hand, it’s a reaction to inner motives or second-order preferences, then it makes us more free. See here for an argument that false consciousness can be beneficial to human rights.

It’s obvious that oppressive governments do not only depend on adaptive preference formation as a means to change preferences. Indoctrination is another method. And neither do they depend on changes of preferences, whatever the method. Violence, pay-offs etc. are other weapons in their arsenal. Conversely, adaptive preference formation is not only a reaction to oppressive rights violations: poverty is a rights violation that’s not necessarily a correlate of oppression, and poor people also adapt their preferences in order to escape some of the effects of poverty, much like a religious minority in a theocratic dictatorship adapts its preference for public worship.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.