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In which I beat a dead horse

This was a comment that I left on this post over at Marginal Revolution. For those too lazy to follow the link, Tyler Cowen has this conceit that he has an evil twin called Tyrone. Tyrone provides Mr. Cowen with an opportunity to argue against his own positions just for the fun of it.

Tyrone makes some good arguments, but he still loses the debate. It is impossible for the majority of people to be truly unhappy in a country as filthy rich as ours.

Sure, your average blue collar dude may get disgusted by how much money a hedge fund manager makes. But your average blue collar dude can also afford all the food he wants. He lives in a house that has heating and air conditioning. He has cable TV. He can buy all the beer he wants. He can afford to smoke even with the high taxes imposed on cigarettes.

So if our average blue collar dude should ever feel unhappy he can drown his mind with sensations. He can watch porn. If that does not work he can drink beer. Or he can stuff his face with food. Or he can buy a motorcycle and let the thrill of speed wash his troubles away. You can get high without ever needing to resort to illegal drugs. It is as if even the low class blue collar workers have free access to soma (and this is why increasing numbers of young males don’t see the point of bettering themselves).

But if Tyrone was truly as evil as he pretends to be, he never would accept the premise that lies behind the debate. He would argue that just as people can become grossly obese in the effort to satisfy their appetite for food so, too, they can become disgusting through their efforts to become happy.

For example, my understanding of happiness research is that people are made unhappy by being in the presence of people who are clearly better off than they are no matter how well off they are in absolute terms. On the other hand, you can make people feel happier by making them feel clearly superior to someone else. Thus you can raise the net happiness of a group by making a small part of that group a clearly marked out and despised sub group. By enabling the vast majority to say “whatever my problems, at least I am not them” you raise net happiness.

If you really want people to be happy, you can take a small part of the sub group that is perceived to be more successful than the rest and grind them into the dust. Then there will be dancing in the streets.

Obviously this is a little extreme. But as I argued (albeit poorly) happiness is overrated. It is not a moral state. You should always be asking, “Why are they happy?” as well as “are they happy?” And like all sensations, happiness should be experienced in moderation.

And yes, this is just a variation on the argument that I made in Aesthetic of Despair. But I can’t help myself. All humans occasionally betray their similarities to turntables when the record gets stuck.

2 Responses to “In which I beat a dead horse”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About In which I beat a dead horse By Ape Man | November 13, 2007 – 7:53 pm Posted in Category: Knowledge This was a comment that I left on this post over at Marginal Revolution. For those too lazy to follow the link, Tyler Cowen has this conceit that he has the evil twin Tyrone. Tyrone provides Mr. Cowen with an opportunity to argue against his own positions just for the fun of it. Tyrone makes Click Here to continue reading. […]

  2. on 25 Nov 2007 at 2:32 pmTyler M

    Hey there,
    Interesting point about raising the net happiness by putting down others. That’s what older brothers and others in heirarchically higher positions will tend to do naturally, knowing that they are lower than still others. It results in everyone being unhappy and feeling shitty about themselves except the person at the very top.

    You contend that we can make ourselves happier by comparing ourselves favourably to someone else, but what about the opposite? Have you considered spreading happiness through humility? If you make yourself look equal to or worse than your neighbour, you’re spreading that same happiness.

    Maybe America just lacks humility.

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