Questions for liberals (and some libertarians)

Robin Hanson, citing the work of Arthur Brooks, asks:

  • Would you or I be happier if we let ourselves think more conservatively, such as by attending church more and believing we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?
  • Would society be happier if we encouraged more conservative thoughts?

Robin answers that he would rather "believe whatever is true even if that makes me unhappy."  But there is always adjustment on some truthful margin that can be made.  Robin could play up the relatively conservative thoughts he already believes in and do more of the church-like activities he already partakes in, even if he does not go to church per se.  So these results probably should influence our behavior even though of course we should reject the deliberate pursuit of untruth.

Here are Bryan Caplan’s thoughts on the Brooks book.


Or, would you jump in the experience machine knowing it was false, even though you know you'd be happier within it?

You haven't answered Robin's response, merely suggested there are certain behaviors Robin could perform that might make him happier--but Robin's point is about belief, not behavior. It's not clear what "play up conservative beliefs" means--act more conservatively? Or believe more conservatively? But Robin's already said he doesn't want the latter, and the former skirts his point.

A better response would point out that we make tradeoffs between truth and happiness all the time--at any moment you have a choice between, say, reading a book on theoretical physics or going out and playing pool. Clearly we give things besides truth weight, and Robin does the same. He presumably chooses happiness over truth from time to time, and if he does it sometimes, why not in the present instance?

At any rate, just to be helpful, I'll offer a libertarian data point:

Assuming we can choose to believe what we believe are falsehoods--which seems likely, though confusing--yes, we'd be happier if we believed conservatively.

Of course, happiness is far from a sufficient reason for an action.

Couple things ...

1. It's pretty funny how nobody sees the breathtaking arrogance in this discussion. But anyway ...

2. "Happiness" is a rather nebulous concept. It's not synonymous with "pleasure moment to moment".

These are almost non-questions. I'm not subscribing to fatalism here, but I don't think it is really possible to wholesale change thought processes like this. There are examples of conversions in the pundit class, Hitchens and Horowitz come to mind, but I don't see those as REAL switches. I think Hitchens comes close but Horowitz doesn't (Although I'm open to the argument that Hitchens has always been bombastic about thinks in a binary fashion, all or nothing vitriol directed at an opponent du jure).

I can't see myself shifting over philosophically. I've shifted, in my life, about the military, taxation and gun rights (all to the right, so to speak), but I find myself secure in a "liberal" frame of mind (Liberal as Eric Alterman has defined it in his book). I don't see things as black and white. I recoiled from the Bush administration's claim that the terrorists "hate us for our freedom". I can't accept a simplistic viewpoint of things in that respect. That eliminates some clarity, for sure. For example, I'm unhappy with the text of the 2nd amendment but I'm well aware of what the text actually says. That leaves me with the ambiguous position of limply defending gun rights while maintaining an awareness of the lethal consequences of those rights. In a sense this kind of position is non-negotiable, because I don't know how to go about changing it. I couldn't just go to church and be cured. I couldn't even come around to MARXISM, fer god's sake.

It isn't really the pursuit of truth that drives this ambivalence. I'm not so vain as to believe that I have a monopoly on truth (but, c'mon! we've got a commanding share of the market:)...). I'm literally just wired that way. Structuralist arguments about social/racial outcomes make more sense to me on face, just as cultural/personal arguments would make more sense to a conservative. I can tell you 100 reasons why he/she would be wrong about those arguments but that wouldn't make them come around. I can't even bring myself to behave like Hitchens does around theists, even though I know what he says is largely true (wrt God). Part of it is social niceties and part of it is the recognition that the functionalist part of religion is still very important and very powerful, like it or not.

Would I be happier if I flipped a switch and believed all this? Maybe. I might be happier if I believed that my stature in life had nothing to do with an accident of birth. I might be happier if I new that at the end of my life I would life forever with someone's god. I might be happier if I understood foreign policy as us (good) versus them (axis of evil). True or not true, I would probably be much happier. But I can't flip a switch like that.

This makes no sense to me. In what world are "by attending church more and believing we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?" conservative thoughts? Plenty of liberals attend church (Obama might be in better shape had he not). Also there's nothing particularly conservative about believing one can pull one's self up by one's bootstraps. There are plenty of liberal entrepreneurs and self-made people and plenty of whiny conservatives who think the world is conspiring against them. The difference is that liberal economic losers think the government owes them something, conservative economic losers think the government or some racial group is stealing from them, but both groups tend to adopt a self-fulfilling "I can't win" mindset.

..Robin says he would rather "believe whatever is true even if that makes me unhappy."

Did he say this because it is true, or because it makes him happy to believe such a noble thing about himself?

This question makes a rather reckless assumption and it's incredibly leading -- that, somehow, conservatism guarantees more of a venture to the path of happiness that liberalism or other schools of thought. I would imagine that conservatives who genuinely believe their principles are happy to abide by them. Those that do not, cannot. I'm of the latter persuasion.

Let me extend a bit. I suppose that I have made some conservative (re: conservation) choices in my life. I dress a certain way, keep a fairly tight leash of my money (since I need to relocate soon). Those individual choices make me happy. I can live with liberal political thoughts because I believe in them; in being authentic and practicing those choices, reading about them, staying interested in those causes, etc., I am happy.

Perhaps it's mentally easier by a show of metaphorical numbers to be a conservative or a libertarian. If you're only concerned with your own backyard or the health and well-being of your immediate family, AND you're that much less displaced in concern for people beyond that (fellow city dwellers, your county, or even the broad social justice swath), then, accounting-speaking, it's easier to handle. That many fewer to worry about. But again, it all goes back to how authentically one believes in their political and philosophical choices, left or right wing. If you do what you do and believe in it and care for it, that will make you happy.

The terms "conservative" and "liberal" have been rendered completely meaningless. What we have in modern times is really two different forms of popular fascism. The only difference is that "Conservatives" exploit culture-conflict, "Liberals" exploit class-conflict.

"Conservatives" are happier than "Liberals" because cultural identity is more personally fulfilling than class identity.

@ Matt. wut?

I'd say no to the first question.

I'd speculate that most people's beliefs are the ones that make them happiest. For example, it's always the loser who thinks the game was rigged and the winner who thinks it was fair.

If conservatives are more likely to believe that people control their own lives and are largely responsible for their own success or failure, it may explain why liberals always seem to take election results more personally than conservatives.


I'm going to have to disagree forcefully here. We cannot extrapolate general claims about people based on the last 16 years of politics. I could point to you plenty of conservatives furious about the 1960 election in their day. Likewise furious about the 1992 election. Or the 1988 choice of G.H.W. Bush as nominee. Or Johnson's victory in 1964.

The last 16 years (or really, 30 years) have seen in full force the backlash from the early 1970's (honestly, the sixties, as they started politically in 1968) and Watergate. To judge the character of the country based only on this recent and transitory swing is temporocentric and wrong.

Republicans are happier because they go to church and own guns (yes, I know this is a generalization). Rather than waste time trying to assign political beliefs to mental illness or whatever, think about useful analogues for these things. If it is your political beliefs and not your life situation that are causing you genuine existential angst...well, they make a pill for that.

Going to church makes you feel like part of a group and, by volunteering in church activities, that you're making a difference in the world. Owning a gun makes you feel safer at night. There's nothing stopping John Q Democrat from joining a social organization, volunteering for a worthy cause, and living somewhere safe, it's just that Democrats tend instead to go it alone, work for non-profits, and live in major cities (where you're never completely sure who's lurking behind that bush).

Conservatives believe in reason. Liberals believe in fantasy. Spirituality is conducive to reason as it contemplates the meaning of life. Atheism is closer to fantasy and believes in whatever.

Please put a little more effort into your trolling attemts. This forum deserves better than this C- try.

I'm not sure how you can "play up" certain thoughts without having your ming then give those thoughts more weight.

I don't know. I can think of some "liberal" things that make me happy...

What is happiness? There's the rub. If it's to be defined by a feel-good sensation that is characterized by its fleeting nature, it is likely that Robin could, briefly, increase his happiness if he were to engage in a few more church-like activities or increase his conservative beliefs a little more. However, if happiness is, as it was for centuries before sometime in the 1900s defined as fulfillment, we would be happier only if, by believing in our ability for self improvement we could progress and by doing more church-like (presumably good deeds toward others type stuff) activities we could be more fulfilled as a human person. Hm. Just got reasoned back into being conservative. Thank Goodness. Thanks for the juice.

Problem with attending church more often, you could be seduced by the redistributionary logic of Jesus. A fine "conservative" you'd be then!

Billy Bob,

Not elitist at all. I believe I'm the most qualified to make my decisions, and you're the most qualified to make yours.

Ralph - "Problem with attending church more often, you could be seduced by the redistributionary logic of Jesus. A fine "conservative" you'd be then!"

Conservatives already give more to charity than liberals.

Peter is a libertarian who supported Ron Paul in the recent Republican primary. We had some fun discussing why it is that supply-siders and libertarians tend to be optimistic types. How odd it is, Peter mused, that the U.S. is moving sharply away from libertarianism and toward statism, yet the most optimistic investors tend to be supply-siders and libertarians! It’s the Kudlow Conundrum, we agreed, named after that indefatigable optimist Larry Kudlow.

That's it in a nutshell.

Even so, academia is a very, very small portion of our population. The fact that this is the only example you can come up with is quite telling in itself.

one example is all that is needed to disprove your claim. conservatives as a whole obviously don't think the way you say they do...although they do like to say they think that way.

Nietzsche's words from the beginning of Beyond Good & Evil come to mind:

Granted that we want the truth: why not rather untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? The problem of the value of truth presented itself before us - or was it we who presented ourselves before the problem? Which of us is the Oedipus here? Which the Sphinx? It would seem to be a rendezvous of questions and notes of interrogation. And could it be believed that it at last seems to us as if the problem had never been propounded before, as if we were the first to discern it, get a sight of it, and risk raising it? For there is risk in raising it, perhaps there is no greater risk.

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