What are your utils denominated in?

 

In the comment threads for the “Hey! I didn’t say Science Says!” post, there were a couple attempts to come up with metrics to check the impact of changes to marriage law.  Some of them are definitely quantifiable (suicide rate, reported domestic abuse) but don’t do a good job capturing the impact of a given marriage schema on the whole population.  Those kinds of outcomes are only tracking couples who hit a certain threshhold of dysfunction.  It’s like measuring the effectiveness of a vaccine by just tracking the incidence of Guillain–Barré syndrome. We care about the data, and we might tweak our intervention as a result, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture.  The purpose of marriage isn’t simply ‘lower the suicide rate’ after all.

There are ways to gather data for less extreme successes or failures.  One way to check data about subjective feelings is to give subject a beeper and have them answer some questions each time the beeper goes off (“How happy do you feel right now? How tired?  How calm” etc).  The trouble is that some of the studies of this type have turned up some counter-intuitive results (childless couples are happier than parents, etc), and we have to decide what we trust more: our expectations of the right answer or this methodology’s ability to reflect reality.

You can pull out a Kahneman-type solution and draw a distinction between your experiencing self and your remembering self, and choose which one to privilege.  But another solution is just not to care much about happiness as an outcome variable.  If contentedness was our highest goal, we’d never find ourselves saying “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” We’d just try to want what our actions told us we wanted instead.

That’s the difference between happiness and rightly-ordered happiness, but we can’t tell the difference between these two by asking ourselves how happy a choice makes us.  And that’s when we turn to teleology and ontology.  If we can’t tell higher pleasures from lower ones subjectively (or, at least, there’s an inconvenient time lag for epiphanies), then we try to reverse engineer ourselves.  Figure out what we are and we might be able to suss out what we need.

But that means that a fair amount of the time our needs are going to not track our wants or our happiness.  Parents might well be unhappier than non-parent couples, but happiness isn’t the result we’re most interested in.  And when enough of the world and culture have been optimized for happiness or contentedness, going along the other route will be more jarring.

 

Further reading: Rod Dreher riffs on a Greg Wolfe essay (of Beauty Will Save the World fame) on the Catholic “tragic sense of life.”

More further reading: Timothy Burke has a good essay on the difficulty of balancing even obviously valuable utils.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Ben

    I dunno, I find the fact that couples without children are happier to be entirely intuitive.

    • Ryan

      Agreed. After all, couples with children sadly is a group that includes couples with unwanted children, who I imagine are very unhappy indeed.

      • JohnH

        Even if the couple is happier without children that does not mean that the family unit is happier without children. Presumably the child has some level of happiness which it did not have before it was conceived which I imagine tips the happiness scale in favor of a unit with children then one without. If we assume that the child is zero before being born the it is a straight measuring the happiness of the child currently and adding that to the happiness of the couple.

        • Niemand

          Are you sure you want to go with this argument? Because the children also have levels of unhappiness, misery, and despair that they did not have before they were conceived and in a family where they are not welcome, that level is likely to outweigh the happiness they possess. If any.

        • Niemand

          Consider, for example, how much happiness this woman had growing up.

          • Ted Seeber

            What I find scary about her, is she not only wishes her mother would have aborted her. She’s a parent herself and wishes that she wasn’t- because if her mother would have aborted her, her own children would have never been born.

            Is it my autism, or do people really have that severe of a lack of perspective?

            I also would challenge that her mother, who had experienced some severe trauma *before* she got pregnant, would not be in poverty if she had been aborted. Seems to me being the child of liberal college professors with no sense of ethics is a darn good recipe for poverty to begin with. I don’t know many academic billionaires.

          • Niemand

            I don’t know many academic billionaires.

            Few billionaires, but the average income for a full professor is around $100K/year, higher in STEM fields. Hardly poverty.

          • Ray

            Ted Seeber:
            ” What I find scary about her, is she not only wishes her mother would have aborted her. She’s a parent herself and wishes that she wasn’t- because if her mother would have aborted her, her own children would have never been born.”

            By this logic, she would equally be a monster if she wished that she had followed her counterfactual dream to join a Catholic convent instead of choosing motherhood, or indeed if she merely wished her mother had never been raped.

            Welcome to straw Catholic territory.

          • JohnH

            Is misery negative happiness or a level of happiness below some certain threshold?

          • Ted Seeber

            I’m not afraid of straw Catholic territory. I too wonder why a woman would give up husband and family to become an aging social worker with a bad haircut (as somebody on a Catholic blog recently refereed to LCWR nuns as).

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      I find the result intuitive too. I have 6 kids and I don’t envy childless couples at all. I love living in a house full of life. But would we do well on a test that measures the happiness of randomly chosen moments? I doubt it. A big family means you are always compromising. You are always trying not to let someone get under your skin. You are always immersed in the struggle to love. Before we had children we would have done way better on the beeper test. So what? If I wanted to maximize the beeper test I would sit in my basement all day and eat junk food and play with my computer. You minimize the challenges and you maximize the superficial happiness. I would still prefer to try and accomplish something.

  • Niemand

    One way to check data about subjective feelings is to give subject a beeper and have them answer some questions each time the beeper goes off (“How happy do you feel right now? How tired? How calm” etc).

    Unfortunately, that’s a classic example of the method interfering with the results…because pretty soon the answer to “how do you feel right now?” is going to be “pretty annoyed at this beeping beeper.” That should be kept in mind when interpreting the results of any study that uses this method.

    The trouble is that some of the studies of this type have turned up some counter-intuitive results (childless couples are happier than parents, etc), and we have to decide what we trust more: our expectations of the right answer or this methodology’s ability to reflect reality.

    Somewhat in contradiction to the above…the more surprising a result is, the more likely it is to be right. You can assume that the investigators’ biases will come into play in pretty much any study so it’s probably accurate to say that childless couples are happier than parents. However, there may be subtler issues involved and the conclusion “children make people unhappy” isn’t necessarily warranted from that piece of data. For example, one might look at whether parents who became parents after a planned pregnancy (or adoption) were as happy or happier than non-parents versus people who became parents accidentally. Alternately, are non-parents more likely to be married or in a relationship for a shorter period of time? Newlyweds are likely to be happier than people who have been married for 10 years, simply because of the euphoria of a new relationship and thus if 5% of childless couples were newlyweds, that might bias the results. These are only potential objections-I’d need to see the actual study to know whether they or other objections made any sense.

  • Alex Godofsky

    You neglected to mention one of our most powerful tools to measure (comparative) happiness: revealed preferences. Of course, those are anathema to paternalists :P

    • anodognosic

      The idea that revealed preferences are our true preferences assumes that we are homo economicus. Even the existence of time-inconsistent preferences throw a wrench in the works of that theory, because you have to ask yourself, “preference when? Often enough my revealed preference is that I like to gorge myself at all-you-can-eat establishments, but later I dearly wish that I hadn’t. Would you kindly tell me which is my true preference, and why?

      • Alex Godofsky

        You don’t have to be a straw economist to think that revealed preferences are useful tools.

  • http://ohsomethingarty.wordpress.com ArdenRB

    There’s a strong argument along these lines in Mark Rowlands’ “The Philosopher and the Wolf” — that we mislead ourselves by putting “feelings” at a higher premium than e.g. loyalty, truth, understanding.

    Rowlands describes a stretch of time during which his wolf was slowly dying of colon cancer and he (Rowlands) had to administer painful rectal injections to help the wolf survive. All of his feelings surrounding this were horrible, from the basic physical revulsion to the guilt and the fear that he was losing his wolf’s love by torturing it with the needles. And yet it is the time in his life he is most proud of.

    There’s a possible counter that really this pride is just a higher, longer-term feeling, but I wonder. Certainly as Rowlands describes it, it’s not a “good vibe” (“Woo, I’m so proud!”) so much as a determined groundedness in Doing What Needed To Be Done. Is this determination or groundedness just a feeling? I don’t know. I don’t…quite…think so, but I’m not sure.

    In the introduction to this story, Rowlands suggests that we are “addicted to feelings”. That phrase has stuck with me.

  • KL

    Whenever utils are mentioned, I laugh, because a couple of years ago I was at a summer philosophy seminar and we started debating what the objective amount of happiness a util denoted. Someone suggested “the amount of happiness derived from holding a puppy,” which we quickly had to amend as restricting util amounts to whole integers, since while someone holding two puppies would be happier than if she were holding one, someone holding one and a HALF puppies was likely experiencing an objective decrease in happiness.

    Anecdotes aside, I think the distinction between “happiness” (which has lost most objective meaning in our society) and concepts like “joy” or “flourishing” is extremely important. The “joy” criterion relies on subjective experience, while “flourishing” is clearly teleological. If we’re going to compare positive results across the board in such areas as marriage, childlessness vs. child-rearing, etc., there needs to be an agreement on the standard of judgment, and I think we’re remarkably fragmented as a society in terms of what we think individuals’ highest good entails.

    • Niemand

      Hmm…the puppy holding scale may have some problems besides being integer only. There’s also a number limit: A person holding (attempting to hold) 100 puppies is likely to be less happy than one holding a single puppy. Not to mention subjective impressions: A person who likes dogs will be happier holding a puppy than one who hates dogs. Not to mention what would happen to a person’s happiness if they’re allergic to dogs…

      I’m overthinking this, aren’t I?

  • Ted Seeber

    The trick to being happy with an unwanted child is rooted in both Catholicism and Buddhism- acceptance of what is, instead of the fantasy of the future you’ve painted in your own head.

    That said, I find an interesting util that I knew anecdotal, has been verified in the “New Family Structures Study”:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/blackwhiteandgray/2012/09/asexuality/
    There is a greater chance for the children of lesbians to not develop strong sexual orientation of any sort, when compared to the general population.

    I find the conclusion to be statistically insupportable- because the number of true asexuals is too low to be studied adequately. But it’s an interesting bit of data nonetheless- that 4% of girls raised by lesbians and 7% of boys raised by lesbians, will reject sex altogether, when compared with the .6% (though margin of error kicks this up to a likely 1%) of the rest of the general population.

    And the phenomenon *does* exist in the general population as well.

    I’d love to see somebody rework the numbers in this study to account for autism- as autistic individuals often develop a malformed sexuality (I know I did- and had to work hard to overcome it).

  • http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com Lara

    Hi, as a seeker of Truth with an evangelical Christian upbringing I have a question for you, but I don’t want my question to detract from your post. Do you give out an e-mail address that I can e-mail my question to? It’s a truly honest question about a disconnect I think I see between Catholicism and reality.

    • leahlibresco

      I’d prefer you ask here.

      • http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com lara

        okay. I’ll see if I can figure out how to condense it and/or simplify it. I also need to get over some of my fears of exposing myself to your incredibly intelligent readers and commenters! =)

  • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

    “If contentedness was our highest goal, we’d never find ourselves saying “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” We’d just try to want what our actions told us we wanted instead.”

    Sorry, what? What the f do you mean by “what our actions told us we wanted”? And how can you possibly think that there’s a clean connection between that (whatever it is) and “our highest goal” – or, for that matter, doing what we hate to do as opposed to what we want to do? None of this makes the slightest sense.

    • JohnH

      First, she is quoting St. Paul, that might clear up a little bit of the confusion.

      Second, one may feel the desire to spend all summer at the beach and all winter on the ski slopes (or whatever) but instead one goes to work possibly at a job that one despises. So ones actions show that what that one really wanted was to work all summer and all winter rather then wanting to spend all of ones time on the beach. Working may make one unhappy and discontent but one does it anyway showing that in reality it appears as though wants to work. If contentedness was the highest goal then instead of dreaming of the beach one would dream of work as that is what one actually does. Work and the beach are just examples and things like being faithful, not stealing, or whatever else may be substituted for work and a neighbors wife, a fancy car (if one is not worried consequences or likelihood of getting caught) or a candy bar (if one is worried about either or both), or whatever may be substituted for the beach.

      • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

        “First, she is quoting St. Paul, that might clear up a little bit of the confusion.”

        Nope :-/

        “[O]nes actions show that what that one really wanted was to work all summer and all winter rather then wanting to spend all of ones time on the beach. Working may make one unhappy and discontent but one does it anyway showing that in reality it appears as though wants to work.”

        No, but see, these are two different things. Which one do you mean? Do you mean that your actions *do* indicate what you want, or do you mean that your actions *apparently* indicate what you want? The difference is really significant.

        “If contentedness was the highest goal then instead of dreaming of the beach one would dream of work as that is what one actually does.”

        So this is sort of a “it’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you have” sort of deal? Is that right? Because I find that to be ludicrous, but I want to make sure that’s what you’re saying before I get into the reasons why. (And if you *do* mean this, then you sort of have to say that actions reveal what people *do* want, not just what they *apparently* want – which has its own really significant problems.)

        • JohnH

          I think you are missing the point that we don’t have contentedness as our highest goal as denoted by *if* and *was* and *then*. We all do things that we do not like doing because the net present value of our actions is such that we maximize our marginal utility by doing that action, meaning the expected utility of the action is greater then our perceived dislike of the action combined with the expected utility of the next best alternative.

          Our actions themselves do not necessarily reveal what it is we want (actually) as the actions may not be the goal towards which we are trying to maximize at the time we take the action and we may never act on the original goals towards which our actions were taken. However, they do reveal what we hold as having the highest net present value at the time that we act so that it is not contradictory to say that action reveal what we want (apparently); even though it could be possible that the action, without its perceived goal, may have negative utility for the actor.

          Of course, were we to want our actions that we currently dislike then we would reorder our preferences accordingly (and if we were to want all actions that we take then the ordering of preferences would not change).

          • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

            Sorry, but you’re completely wrong. There is no empirical evidence at all that our actions “reveal what we hold as having the highest net present value at the time that we act.” In fact, the more we learn about ourselves the more we learn that our actions depend on factors of which we aren’t even aware and to which we wouldn’t assign any value even if we were aware of them. So I simply cannot agree with your tinker-toy assessment of human psychology: reading an individual’s values off of that individual’s actions is a recipe for disaster. (And this is without going into the myriad problems with the idea that everybody has consciously, consistently, and exhaustively ordered their preferences, as you seem to assume.)

            Also, please remember to keep the normative and the descriptive separate. I understand what your tinker-toy psychology says, but Leah was making a claim about right and wrong, not just a predictive claim about how people act. If all you can offer me is a pseudoscientific theory of human action, then you haven’t given me any insight at all into what she’s saying about “rightly ordered happiness,” “higher” vs. “lower” pleasures, and so on – and so you’ve failed to address my very first question and you’ve been talking past me the whole time. So: can you tell me anything about what differentiates “rightly ordered” happiness from regular ol’ happiness, or what makes a pleasure “higher” or “lower”? Or is folk/pop psychology the sum of your answer?

          • JohnH

            Actually I was referencing my understanding of things based on economics (which I have a degree in) which on the micro-level of human activity does fairly well. I have no idea what psychology would have to say about anything as I haven’t studied that (nor studied anything that combines the two views). It is my understanding that neither psychology nor economics is exactly a science both produce moderately useful results though so I am not entirely sure it is accurate to call them psuedoscience.

            It doesn’t need to assume an exhaustive or even conscious ordering of preferences to work, especially since seeking information about the ordering of preferences is itself a preference which has an expected value to the individual; a partial search on imperfect information is all that is needed for economics to work. Also, consistency is only needed at the particular time a decision is made, time invariant preferences are not needed.

            ” What the f do you mean by “what our actions told us we wanted”? ”
            Assuming this and not “what?” was your first question then I believe I have answered your first question. If “what?” was your first question then the only thing I can think of is to suggest that you reread the part that you quoted as otherwise I do not know what you are asking with “what?”. In terms of economics there isn’t much that can be said about rightly ordered preferences or any such thing, “there is no accounting for preferences”.

  • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

    “I have no idea what psychology would have to say about anything”

    !
    Then I have to wonder what you’re doing trying to talk about human patterns of behavior. That’s a bit incredible, that you think microeconomics (which you yourself admit is not perfectly accurate) would suffice. “Revealed preference” is a hoax, although I have to admit that I’m not at all surprised to see it invoked as a misbegotten defense of this whole goofy teleological enterprise; even if it’s what she meant, it’s not fit for use in this argument. As far as your continuing education goes, Leah talks about a guy named Daniel Kahneman in her post – go read his stuff, it’ll serve as a crash course.

    For the record, I also have to point out that your notion of consistency is misplaced here. Leah specifically talks about series of decisions that happen over long periods of time, so appealing to moment-by-moment consistency is pretty useless. Again, the sort of “revealed preference” stuff you find in economics might fit with like one phrase in this post, but it’s totally incongruous with the post as a whole.

    • JohnH

      “trying to talk about human patterns of behavior”
      Microecon actually does a pretty good job of modeling humans pattern of behavior. I am sorry you don’t have any respect for economics. Revealed preferences is not a hoax, data mining consumer data is quite accurate and built on the assumption of revealed preferences.

      What I have read of psychology leaves me with no respect for the field as a whole (it is not rigorous, suffers worse confirmation biases then any other field that I am aware of, and is less useful in modeling human behavior then microeconomics with the classical assumptions (perfect information, time invariant well ordered preferences, etc).

      It is not my fault that you did not ask the right question, I attempted to answer what you actually asked. Demonstrate that you are able to carry a civil conversation, make some sort of point, and show any respect for other viewpoints or fields of study and I might consider what you have to say or suggestions as to who to read (which I might read anyways as behavioral economics is something I haven’t studied).

      • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

        “Revealed preferences is not a hoax, data mining consumer data is quite accurate and built on the assumption of revealed preferences.”

        You’re missing the point: they aren’t *preferences.* It doesn’t matter how useful they are, they don’t belong in this conversation. Also, please don’t assume that I hate all of economics just because economists have come up with one very stupid idea. Pretty much every field has at least one very stupid idea.

        “I am sorry you don’t have any respect for economics…What I have read of psychology leaves me with no respect for the field as a whole”

        This speaks for itself.

        “It is not my fault that you did not ask the right question”

        And it’s not my fault that you can’t read. You can’t just take eight or ten words out of context and then assume that a plausible acontextual interpretation of those eight or ten words will work in the original context in which they were spoken (which you’ve done, so far, both with my question and with Leah’s article).

        “Demonstrate that you are able to carry a civil conversation…”

        I have a better idea: why don’t *you* demonstrate that you’re capable of comprehending what you read and appreciating relevant evidence. Civility is what you need at tea parties; reason is what you need in this sort of context.

        • JohnH

          Insults are not reason or evidence except that the other party is not civil.

          I gave reasons for my general lack of respect for psychology (confirmation bias problems, lack of any sort of rigor, lack of predictive power). You have not given any reasons as to why revealed preferences are not preferences just that it is a stupid idea.

          • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli
          • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

            Furthermore, you lying sophist, don’t tell me that I haven’t given you reasons when I very well have:

            “There is no empirical evidence at all that our actions “reveal what we hold as having the highest net present value at the time that we act.” In fact, the more we learn about ourselves the more we learn that our actions depend on factors of which we aren’t even aware and to which we wouldn’t assign any value even if we were aware of them.”

            Jackass.

          • JohnH

            Still isn’t a reasoning, that people do not have complete information and work off of heuristics and have limited processing capability (or limiting processing capability that they are willing to devote to being completely rational) in no way demonstrates that their actions are not revealing their preferences.

          • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

            The hell it doesn’t! That’s precisely what it demonstrates: you just admitted that people make mistakes as well as bad decisions and, thus, that their actions don’t track their desires. Moreover, you’ve tacitly admitted that this happens with regularity and predictability, because we know which heuristics people are liable to employ (and thus where they’re liable to go wrong). The only possible way out of this is for you to pull the economist’s trick of defining preferences out of existence…which, I suspect, is what you’re about to do.

          • JohnH

            Which I already also said:
            “it doesn’t need to assume an exhaustive or even conscious ordering of preferences to work, especially since seeking information about the ordering of preferences is itself a preference which has an expected value to the individual; a partial search on imperfect information is all that is needed for economics to work. Also, consistency is only needed at the particular time a decision is made, time invariant preferences are not needed.”

          • leahlibresco
          • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

            Exactly: so you’re saying that their “real” “preference” in the moment is to make a sloppy decision. That’s absolute garbage, and – as I said – defines preferences out of existence. Your theory compels you to hypothesize that people “want” to do things like crash their cars and give themselves diabetes, which is absurd and plainly contradicted by enough evidence to fill a library. If you don’t see this on your own, I’m not capable of helping you – all you’re doing is blindly repeating economics dogma.

  • jose

    Um, are we deciding whether we should legalize gay marriage (replace that with whatever change you like about legislation related to a social cause; try with “black people owning land”) on the basis of suicide rate? I’m sorry what?

    Is the argument that if ten million christians decided to kill themselves when the president signs gay marriage into law, then gay marriage should not be legalized?

    I also have no idea what righly-ordered happiness means, though it sounds reminiscent of catholic teachings about the objective disorder of teh gay. Translating the rest of that part of the post into glibese, it would seem like you’re saying gay marriage would make people happy but that’s not what they need. Is that the case?

  • Erin

    “that’s the difference between happiness and rightly-ordered happiness.” To me, the key to the “problem” of happiness, or supposed lack thereof, lies within this quote. As a a Catholic mother of four, my happiness ranks lower than my desire to do as God wills, which is always to serve others before serving myself. (Right now, those others are my family, as opposed to a charity or job.) Knowing God’s desire for me to serve doesn’t mean I always do it well, or that I’m always happy doing it. And if that beeper went off at certain moments in my house, I’d be tempted to say, yes, please take them; they don’t make me happy. But luckily I remember that the value of the lives I serve is not dependent on my feelings toward them. And then I sense that there is, overall, a satisfaction and a joy, in the long view, that my happiness is as rightly-ordered as I can make it, and it is connected to my being more concerned for others than myself. As you say, happiness simply is not my main concern anymore. It’s fleeting, mercurial, and not a good predictor of what’s morally correct.

  • R.C.

    Eh.

    What’s the actual value of a human being?

    When that human being exists, that value is added…somewhere. Otherwise, there’s no value-add.

    And assuming that value has been added, but not to the parents (who, while getting some immediate benefits, are getting more immediate trials, and are net-unhappier in the short term), then to whom has it been added?

    Or is it a question of when the value is added? Is the whole thing supposed to be viewed from the perspective of 25 years or 50 years after the kid’s birth, from the point-of-view of a grandparent who spoils his/her grandkids and, now that the hassle of childrearing is no longer a vivid current reality, sees the whole thing with a hazy wash of nostalgia? Or even wishes that they’d had more kids, so as to have more grandkids?

    Do we need, after the fashion of economists calculating the future value of an investment or annuity, to calculate the future value of people?

    (In that case, the Catholic pro-life view makes a lot of sense: In their view, people are going to outlive the material universe, for good or ill. So you get a heckuva lot of future value out of that.)

    Until you have a metric for dealing with all those conundra, trying to evaluate the “wish I hadn’t had children” thing is trying to solve a complex equation with half the variables missing.


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