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Holier and happier than thou?

Are ethical people happier? Many philosophers have claimed this, from Plato and Aristotle onwards. A new study claims it is empirically true, or more exactly that ethical people are more satisfied with life.

The 2009 study looked at cross-country data from the World Values Survey from the US, Canada, Mexico and Brazil. It looked at  people who agreed with the view that it is never justifiable to engage in ethically questionable behaviours like avoiding fares on public transports, cheating on taxes or taking bribes (35%) compared the rest. Controlling for things like gender, income, age, health, being married etc. the study found being ‘ethical’ by this standard increased the likeliehood of being very satisfied with life fairly significantly. The effect size is like a modest increase in income. A good reason to try to become a better person, or (as the paper suggests) for governments that are trying to increase subjective well being to do it by improving moral conduct… or is it?

There is a fundamental problem with the definition of ‘ethical’ used in the study. A respondent is ‘ethical’ if they respond that it is never justifiable (the most extreme answer on a ten step scale) to claim benefits one is not entitled to, avoiding bus fares, cheating on taxes or taking bribes. Somebody giving strict answers to the other three questions but thinking it might be occasionally justifiable to avoid a bus fare (perhaps imagining, for example, a situation where they normally pay but today lack money and really need to get to hospital) would not be regarded as ‘ethical’.

It hence seems that the ethical variable denotes more holding a rigid moral stance than actually doing ethical consideration (thinking about why something is moral or not), would correlate most strongly with strict deontology while regarding utilitarians as not ethical, and might of course miss cultural differences in values – the morality of cheating on tax strongly depends on whether you think your government is legitimate or will be using the money for good.

And there is no way of checking whether the ‘ethical’ respondents actually follow their statements (in fact, we can be fairly confident that the majority of them do not live up to their own claimed standards). If 40-50% of people actually believed these acts were harmful to the extent claimed, we should likely not see the high degree of corruption and tax evasion in Mexico and Brazil, especially given that respondents in these countries were not much more forgiving than those in the US and Canada. The ‘ethical’ variable may still tell us something, but it is not a measure of the justness of the respondents.

The author argued that “However, the four statements have a common, underlying ethical construct, which is that each of them expresses an action that could either directly or indirectly harm others, or society generally.” But this harm principle is not very strong – my bus to the hospital example shows a case where almost any ethical system will say ‘go for it!’ (you might be able to pay back the fare tomorrow, somehow) Conversely, it is easy to imagine that ‘nice’ actions like telling the truth or giving to charity could also have indirect harms (revealing sensitive information, fostering dependence). If there is an underlying construct, it sounds more like being law-abiding or doing one’s formal duties.

My suspicion is that what is actually is being measured is some personality trait. Personality traits can strongly influence subjective well being. In fact, a meta-review of the big five personality factors and subjective well-being found that Conscientiousness was the strongest positive correlate with life satisfaction. This might be a direct effect (people become happy due to their conscientious personality) or an indirect effect (conscientious people engage in goal-directed activity and exert control over themselves, enhancing their quality of life). But conscientiousness is also strongly linked to socially accepted impulse control, something that might show up in a survey as answering the “right” way to moral questions.

Maybe trying to become a better person or do good can make you happy. But it is likely that personality and outlook filter it: you might get sad because you cannot reach your (overly) high standards, you might follow an ethics that doesn’t care about personal happiness, or you might find being moral easy because you already have a mindset that values following the right kind of rules.

There is also the cognitive bias aspect. The study by Epley and Dunning mentioned above showed that people overestimate their own altruism while being realistic about other’s; this self-serving bias might be very good for feeling ‘holier than thou’ and hence improve subjective well-being – in a quite unjustified way.

So, being ‘ethical’ is unlikely to make you ethical, even if it correlates with happiness.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for the interesting article, Anders. I'll use the studies you quoted in my dissertation, but I would appreciate if you had more to recommend.

    I'm currently writing my PhD and a large part of it deals with the Stoic concept of happiness. One thing I almost invariably have to deal with while presenting at non-specialized conferences is how the Stoic idea of a "happy life" differs from our Western one (or even from their contemporary Epicurean one).

    I mention this only to highlight that, just as "ethical" is a complex word that requires definition, so is "happiness". So, the question is : by "happy", do you mean here "the subjective feeling of well being"?. This may seem self-evident, but I think Buthan's GHP has a different perspective, and I suppose the GHP is a better tool for statistical studies of this kind. I'm not a specialist in it, though. I can't really confirm this.

    1. Theo, I think when we look at Stoicism, we quite often wear today's ethical lens. If we go back in Stoic times, we can see that they were mostly concerned with living a "good life." This notion of the 'good life" had no "built-in" ethical calculus of right or wrong. They taught 'indifference," which even in our modern times, can be applied very effectively. If we take the theoretical aspect out of Stoicism, then its practical applicability will provide us with tools that can be utilized on a social level. We must also keep in mind that originally, what the Stoics taught, was practical in nature. When the 'philosophy' was taken over from the Cynics, who were on the streets teaching people how to live a "good life," it actually lost its practical nature and til today, remains in the realm of theory. I often use Stoic thought when I 'teach' young folks, but I take the Cynic route, which, to me, is more of a dynamic and practical nature.

  2. Theo: yes, I was sloppy with the happiness definition, largely because I was mainly dealing with the ethics definition in the study.

    The life satisfaction account used in the study is based on the World Values Survey approach, which may or may not be useful. But it seems to be a fairly widely used approach, even if it lacks detail. There are plenty of methodologies and views on how to measure happiness. Just like personality it might be problematic to boil these complex subjective states down to a few numbers. But handled the right way they might give rise to comparisons that make some sense (like Bhutan comparing its GHP with itself over time, or the WVS observations of falls in happiness in Eastern Europe).

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