Sunday, May 04, 2008

Can we make it up?

The late Pamela Bone wrote an article some years ago summing up her life beliefs. In the final paragraph she tells us:

I don't know the meaning of life. I believe it has the meaning we give to it.

Pamela Bone was an independent-minded feminist who didn't always endorse the latest left-wing position. The above quote, though, shows her to be an orthodox liberal modern in terms of her basic life philosophy.

She is assuming that there is nothing to reality (or nothing that can be known) which represents a significant good in life which might anchor our life's meaning. In the absence of a meaning grounded in reality, it is left up to us as individuals to create a meaning.

Little wonder that those who hold this view believe that autonomy is such a key principle: if it's true that we each create our own meaning then we must be left to do this unimpeded and we must give equal respect to what each creates as their meaning as none can be more objectively true than others.

Isn't there, though, a basic problem with all this? If my life can only have the meaning I make up for it then it is meaningless. The whole project is therefore misconceived. Either there is a meaning to life which transcends individual will or we must set aside the whole question of meaning. One or the other.

Which leads me to happiness studies. A researcher in this field, Arthur Brooks, has recently found that conservatives are happier, by a large margin, than liberals:

In 2004 Americans who called themselves “conservative” or “very conservative” were nearly twice as likely to tell pollsters they were “very happy” as those who considered themselves “liberal” or “very liberal” (44% versus 25%).

Why might this be? It's not because conservatives are wealthier (they're not) and not because there was a Republican President in 2004 (conservatives were also happier than liberals when Bill Clinton was President).

Statistically three factors appear to be important, namely marriage, children and church:

Mr Brooks thinks three factors are important. Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to be married and twice as likely to attend church every week. Married, religious people are more likely than secular singles to be happy. They are also more likely to have children, which makes Mr Brooks confident that the next generation will be at least as happy as the current one.

When religious and political differences are combined, the results are striking. Secular liberals are as likely to say they are “not too happy” as to say they are very happy (22% to 22%). Religious conservatives are ten times more likely to report being very happy than not too happy (50% to 5%). Religious liberals are about as happy as secular conservatives.

So conservatives are more likely to find an externally grounded life meaning outside of autonomous will: in a commitment to marriage, to parenthood and to church.

Brooks makes clear in explaining his findings that marriage and parenthood aren't of benefit because they bring comfort or pleasure, but because they contribute in the long term to a sense of life meaning. I was reminded when reading this of the complaint of Australian journalist Virginia Haussegger that feminism had left her with "a nice caffe-latte kind of life" but that "the lifestyle trappings are joyless ... and the point of it all seems, well, pointless ... I am childless and I am angry."

I was reminded too of what D.H. Lawrence wrote on this issue; he believed that the autonomy of unimpeded will undercut a purpose in life and therefore was not experienced as a true freedom:

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief ... Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose ...

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

Hat tip: reader George for the happiness studies article.


  1. I read once that people are happiest when involved and totally engaged in a task. So raising children, taking care of the home, working a job, helping others, learning a lesson can all be equally enjoyable as long as the person is fully engaged.

    Happiness is not like a target that you can aim for, more a side product of a life well lived. That would explain why people who spend most of their lives caring more about other's needs, as parents or otherwise, are happier than those left to look only after themselves.

  2. I think conservatives are less prone to philosophise and ask awkward, unanswerable questions.

    Life - well its just life.

    Not sure this is a positive or negative but I think true.

    This is consistent with views of Anon - you are happy when occupied.

  3. Yes Mr Clarke. I think that if one spends too much time dwelling on how they feel or wondering what is the meaning of it all, they may begin to feel small and confused.

    This is probably the root of 'therapy culture." If you aren't occupied by either trying to survive or helping another, you may fall prey to your own dark thoughts and need someone to help sort them out (as religion does for many.)

  4. The purpose of this site isn't to delve deeply into religious matters. There is an argument against liberal modernism which doesn't require this.

    However, since the topic has been touched on in my post and then in the following comments, I will say this much: that I don't agree that the "stay occupied and don't think about things" strategy is the best we can aim for.

    Most religious traditions aim to supplant a more superficial, egoistic state of mind with a mind which is receptive to the spiritual in life.

    We might experience the spiritual in our response to nature; in our love for women and our appreciation of feminine beauty; in our sense of manhood; in response to art; or more generally as a heightened sense of the art of living.

    You will find an expression of this within traditional Western culture; it is there in painting and poetry and in the understanding of individual virtue and character..

  5. "I don't agree that the "stay occupied and don't think about things" strategy is the best we can aim for."

    Are you rather thinking of something like a renewed interest in culture and history? Teaching our children to feel more connected to the people who went before them and what they did to build civilization? I'm not referring to their specific ancestors, and it is not related to race, just achievement and inspiration.

    I like this but it will have to come entirely from people's homes. The media and schools and politicians are mysteriously not on board with this.

  6. Mark, you say "There is an argument against liberal modernism which doesn't require [delving into religion]." I agree with you here but often wonder what then is the anchor of traditionalism, of a virtuous culture in the Western sense? Where has it come from and how will it be maintained?

    Historically, the rational, reasoned discourse in these matters is uneven and is not a sustained feature of the general population. Christianity has played a critical role here and continues to do so, even as it ebbs in many urban centers.

    One of the "strengths" of modern liberalism is its apparent detachment from of the old ways, from religion in particular. So long as traditionalist argumentation is seen by liberals (i.e., the general population) as representing older systems with their definite religious undertones, the higher intellectual principles of conservative thought, exemplified by Oz Conservative, will be drowned out. It seems to me that the rejection of religion is a critical underpinning of modern liberalism and so it must be addressed at some level-- not by reinstating religious virtuosity but by building the case for a rational traditionalism, as you note.

    The twinning of religion and conservative thought does not worry me personally but I wonder how effective the latter can be in a world swamped in irreligious liberal materialism.

  7. hi there..interesting analysis..and yes..the spiritual void has left liberals..well............liberals!..:)

  8. "I think conservatives are less prone to philosophise and ask awkward, unanswerable questions."

    This is not only false, but obviously, demonstrably, and discreditably so. Being religiously conservative, and concerning oneself with the cosmic mysteries, entails not only a certain level of comfort with the mystery of the luminous, but it also entails an actual search for meaningful answers. To think that a Catholic who spends hours before the tabernacle is less searching and philosophical than the man whose keenest interest in life is easy sex and football is facially ridiculous.

    I have no idea how a person can cast the act of simply shrugging at the universe and saying, "Hell, who knows? Probably doesn't mean squat, and I don't care," with an act of philosophy. Secular liberalism entails a radical skepticism that the nature of reality can be positively known, and this is not an attitude that encourages curiosity. Moreover, liberals on the whole are deeply uninterested in both the philosophical roots of their own beliefs, and their implications. Religious people, especially those who come to their faith later in life, take explicit interest in the basic cosmological question, and are constantly challenged to explore the foundations of their belief. To be conservative, moreover, is to understand that while there is definite truth that is knowable and worth defending, reality cannot be immediately and finally apprehended--which is why they take such an interest in traditions which express the underlying realities with which we must all live, while satisfying themselves that a full accounting of all its moving parts and justifications can ever be wholly established by any particular generation.

    The modernist, liberal view of what constitutes real knowledge is extremely rigorous and constrained. Liberals thus tend to oscillate between believing that nothing can be known, and that anything which is true must be fully and finally knowable. Thus, if a complete and publicly certain rationale for opposition to same-sex marriage cannot be scientifically established by accredited experts (like themselves, naturally), then such opposition is totally irrational and must be tossed aside as a mere prejudice. This is hostile to both philosophy and the living mystery implied by it. But in the end, such an approach only leads one to despair and nihilism (and thus unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life), because reality simply is not like that, and we cannot each unto ourselves possess all the knowledge required for true, complete social autonomy. If we have to have a perfectly justifiable, certain, and scientifically-established reason for believing that the role of husband and father is a positive good in itself, then we are not only likely to delay the choice but find ourselves bereft of any satisfying reason to get up in ht e morning. So the fall-back position of the liberal is epistemological skepticism, moral relativism, and therefore the raw assertion of will as a substitute for reasoned debate ("I am a woman merely because I say so"). This is not conducive either to philosophy or even to meaningful debate.

    Besides, common experience directly contradicts your statement, in some obvious ways that can be reaffirmed by walking around a college campus. Conservatives will tend, as a group, to know how Rousseau leads to Napoleon. Secular liberals and those in thrall to them will tend, as a group, not to know or to care."Ideas have consequences" is a mantra on the right, and one simply never hears it said by men of the left. As Alan Bloom pointed out, if there is no meaning, no truth, no hierarchy of value, then the result will NOT be curiosity about other cultures or ways of thinking--it will be indifference, because they all ultimately lead nowhere, and are all equally worthless. Can we really say that our liberal, secular societies are more philosophical, searching, and at home with the mysterious than traditional cultures? I find the assertion baldly absurd, of the same order as a statement that the sky is green.