Science!: Who’s Happier – by Ideology, of Course

Adventures in Cargo Cult Science. The sometimes interesting website FiveThirtyEight has an article up titled Maybe Conservatives Just Think They’re Happier Than Liberals. Before we get into the laughable excuses for science – Science! – that the credential-hunting grad students will sink to in order to add a couple semi-lucrative letters to the ends of their names, (1) let’s look at the absurdity of the question and the curiously delicate selectivity and, well, hypocrisy in the way it is framed up.

Because, really, who, exactly, is so deeply interested in how ideology relates to human happiness? The Lover of Science, in his moments of pure desire for Knowledge? Or maybe more likely an ideologue who needs the world to conform to his ideology? Because that turns out to be the problem: survey data indicates, and has long indicated, that ‘conservatives’ are, as a group, more happy than liberals as a group.

And that Just Won’t Do. All the sudden, people who generally can’t be bothered to worry about petty details such as how survey data might not be the simple truth about things but is just what somebody who is willing to take a survey is willing to say under such and such conditions at such and such moments, or that ‘Conservative’ and ‘Liberal’ are not clearly understood or defined groups, or that ‘happiness’ is a pretty broad and vague term as well, find they urgently need to exercise their scientific training and ask some questions about all this. Of course, when we’re surveying about sexual behaviors or attitudes toward marriage or any of a million things where the results are easy to spin as suggesting that more of whatever we’re selling is exactly what is needed, none of these issues come up, but when survey results suggest that those insufferable closed-minded, bigoted people over there are *happy* in their ignorance – well, Something Must Be Wrong.

Thus, the irony of the title of the piece: Maybe conservatives just think they’re happy? What would that even mean to say that, under modern modes of thought? If I were to use the classical idea of happiness being the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, with activity, soul and virtue terms of the philosopher’s art, then at least theoretically you could maybe measure happiness somehow (2). But happiness in the modern sense seems to mean little more than freedom to exercise the will with as little constraint as possible. Happiness would then tend toward two polar opposites – a Libertarian version where happiness lies somewhere in the land where I get to do whatever I want as long as I stay out of your face, and a Totalitarian view where happiness is conformity to Right Thinking, which all good people by definition agree with, is imposed on all because it’s what they ought to want even if they don’t know it. That’s the fundamental idea behind every leftist reformation since the French Revolution.

The classical idea of happiness falls nowhere on the plane defined by the Libertarian/Totalitarian axes. Yet, even in these crepuscular times, the classical idea is the one that most corresponds to real happiness in the world, in so far as it appears that people doing good for others tend to be the most happy (3). Continue reading “Science!: Who’s Happier – by Ideology, of Course”