Thursday, October 21, 2010

Happiness and Society

When we say we want to make a better society, how do we judge ourselves? A classic economic one is standard of living. If a nation's standard of living goes up over time relative to other nations, then it's doing a good job relative to other nations. Similarly, policies which would improve standard of living are good policies, and policies that would decrease standard of living are bad policies. Some economists choose to go with GDP, since it's simpler to understand and also buttresses notions of free enterprise. Still other people believe that a good society is a society with a high voting rate, or low inequality, or happy people. I'm not sure what we should judge our success based on, but I wanted to address for the moment the idea of trying to make a happy society.

On the one hand, the notion is tempting. It leaves open the idea that people can have their own ways of reaching happiness, allowing for acceptance of the idea that we are all individuals. On the other hand, it also allows us to note that there are some things that almost all human beings find make them happier, and there's some stuff that doesn't seem to be very effective at all at making us happy. It seems, for instance, that material acquisition doesn't really make us happy, and that love actually does. If these things are generally true, that would certainly seem that happiness is not necessarily going to be well served by improving general econometrics. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the burgeoning field of happiness research, but call me a skeptic with regards to using happiness as the important metric for a well run society.

A thought on the necessity of philosophies

Do we need to explain everything in order to explain something? I'm not sure if philosophers really consider this question often (possibly because in the end they tend to love explaining everything), but I imagine that most people don't think we do. For instance, you shouldn't need a metaphysical grounding to run the economy, right? You just need to study economics. Or you don't need a theory of epistemology in order to do science, you just need to know science. Maybe that's correct; we humans are common enough in our metaphysical beliefs that a lot of work can be done on our common assumptions without really hashing them out. Maybe not, though...

A brief note further

In some ways, I feel that this blog is becoming a heavy weight because I expect too much of myself. Most of my philosophy is done talking to people, where my opinions can change radically throughout the course of a conversation, and even over the passage of time. However, I've been treating each of these blog posts as an essay. Take the previous one on education and reality. I wrote that one for about two hours, editing it more than I did school papers. If anyone is a regular reader of this blog, they'll notice that my output is very small. I think that's in part because of the enormous amount of time and effort I put into writing them. It becomes chore like.

Another aspect is that I feel pressured to have an argument to hand. Maybe it's because of the lack of a conversation format where I'm just expostulating about some topic or another, but I feel like I haven't told you how to think by the end of a post, I've let you down. That's something I'm not used to, and I'm not sure if I like it. It doesn't fit with the way I think. I always aim for the conversation, not the answers. It helps that I don't think there are answers in the first place, so they're not worth shooting for. But either way, I always feel a little false when I come down with a firm opinion about some topic or another, because I don't feel certain. I never feel certain; that's the joy and wonder of philosophy. I don't know the answers, and I don't think I ever will. I revel in being able to argue with myself. To present a defense of utilitarianism while at the same time jumping in with reasons I think it's wrong, just to dive in again with reasons I think it's right. Or to do that with education, or happiness (a topic that'll be coming up soon). It's always my joy to be undecided, and I feel like my format heretofore has been robbing me of that delightful indecision.

I've been finding it to be the case that this blog isn't going to work well as a conversation (that's on me: I need to entice you guys here in order to talk in the first place before a conversation can start). So my original intent of using it to put forth and argument, and then join in on the feeding frenzy of people tearing it apart isn't going to fly in the near term. So I'm going to change the way I work with this blog. It's going to be less formal argumentation, more personal thought. I hope to not feel as obligated to present a coherent argument and more obligated to share more interesting questions.

This looser sort of mulling will require shorter posts, which will be hard on me (I'm the same way talking; I love to ramble). But shorter posts will keep me more on target, and prevent things from getting muddled in a jumble of thoughts falling on top of each other. I can't say I hope that you all enjoy the changes that shall come, as I don't know if I even have steady readers. But I hope that I will enjoy the different format, and I hope I can write more frequently in the near future.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Education and Reality

Imagine you're alive in medieval Europe. For centuries the Church has had a free hand in determining dogma in schools. It has taught that the Earth is the center of the universe because God values it and us so much. We are the most important part of creation, so of course we're the center. Imagine that there's this new theory bouncing around, championed by some Italian scientist that actually, the Sun is the center of the solar system, and you can see from various measures and tests that this is true. Do you not wish that you could at least get your side aired? At least give the solar-centric view a fair chance and let people decide for themselves?

Transport yourself to the present, and make a leap of imagination: let's pretend you believe in creationism. Or in Lost Cause theory of the Civil War, or something similarly thought you be false by the general academic establishment. You see around you a system devoted to teaching impressionable children a falsehood. In the case of the creationists, the system is teaching children a blasphemous falsehood; one that brings them farther away from the truth and from God. In the case of the Lost Causers, the system is teaching children to hate their heritage and the culture that you admire. Either way, the stakes are high. What do you do? Judging from current events and history, you get on the school board or textbook selection committees and campaign to get the truth into the schools. You look for textbooks or teachers or lesson plans that at the very least include your side with the mainstream stuff so that the kids can have a chance of forming their own opinions.

Certainly, if you assume that you believe in creationism, it's not hard to sympathize with someone trying to get it taught in schools. But we (I'm assuming a (American) liberal audience here, since that's my background and my inclination) feel very frustrated with those who try to push falsehoods or beliefs as possible facts in our school system. Why can't they just teach their kids what they like on their own time? Why do they have to spread their views to everyone else? My question is, why don't we ever ask that question of ourselves? Instead of thinking there's something wrong with the other side, maybe we should be asking if there's something wrong with a standardized, compulsory and public school system which forces us to decide on one thing as a culture to teach our children.