Income, Satisfaction, and Empirical Data

So, Richard Carrier insists that we can settle moral questions objectively using empirical data and science, and that all moral questions ultimately boil down in some way to questions of personal satisfaction, with a number of riders to get around the fact that someone might think themselves satisfied with things that don’t seem very moral or substantial. So, ultimately, his overall view is that what is moral is what gives us the most satisfaction given that we have all of the right empirical facts, as determined by science. He is very … insistent on this, in fact. As is highlighted by a recent post, where he makes a callback to a post he made five years ago calling out Michael Shermer for citing a study that demonstrated that the higher income you have, the happier you are, and extending that claim to be true no matter how high an income you have. Carrier criticized the study then, and here is citing a new study that argues that there is an income beyond which your happiness does not increase, and in fact might even decrease. Carrier takes from this some rather strong “tentative” conclusions:

The only credible core goal in life is personal life satisfaction (satisfaction with yourself, who you are and have become; and with your life, as lived and achieved). Any objectively true moral system (relative or universal, it makes no difference) follows necessarily from what is the ultimate goal in any prospective moral agent’s life (as I’ve demonstrated formally in The End of Christianity; though I’ve briefed it many times on my blog, perhaps most succinctly in my amusing debate with Ray Comfort last year). So it’s of great significance that income levels beyond six figures are useless to that goal. That’s an empirical fact. We should aim our life goals then to the realization of no higher an outcome; and we should not treat those who acquire more, as morally equal to those who don’t. What that translates to in particulars, would require more empirical evidence and argument to reliably know. But it’s a data point we need to start working with from now on.

In the area of the political, I would tentatively suggest the following appears to be the case: our progressive tax system should be steeper for the wealthy; and indeed, I’d argue, in the U.S. our standard deduction on income taxes should simply be half our lowest average satiation income. Only people who earn more, should pay at all (of course they always still do pay, in sales and other taxes, regardless; but maybe those taxes shouldn’t even exist). The desire to attain happiness (and escape struggle) will continue motivating people to earn taxable incomes. And those well above satiation incomes literally don’t need their surplus, in the way those below satiation incomes do. Retaining it should therefore be treated as a privilege and not a right. The ultra-rich are hoarding, not sharing. Insofar as they can do external good with it (philanthropically and economically), I do not think it makes sense to tax all of it away—most of all to avoid over-centralization of power by having governments do all the hoarding instead, which is no better an outcome; and to remain competitive with other countries. But I suspect we could be retasking half of beyond-satiation surpluses to national welfare, security, research, and infrastructure, without folly. As many other nations do.

Thus, we get the common weaseling that Carrier constantly engages in when dealing with questions like these. He makes some strong recommendations that he claims follow from the empirical data, but then retreats to “But of course we’d need to scientifically study all of this to make sure we get it all right”. And yet he doesn’t really seem to have any desire to actually do that, and still, again, makes those very strong claims based on rather thin data. Especially since at least here he makes one big mistake: thinking that data can have meaning without being in the context of an explanatory theory. See, the interesting question here is: why is it that we have a satiation point — given as about $100000 — at all? He quotes the reasons suggested in the study:

Theoretically, it is presumably not the higher incomes themselves that drive reductions in [subjective well-being], but the costs associated with them. High incomes are usually accompanied by high demands (time, workload, responsibility and so on) that might also limit opportunities for positive experiences (for example, leisure activities). Additional factors may play a role as well, such as an increase in materialistic values, additional material aspirations that may go unfulfilled, increased social comparisons, or other life changes in reaction to greater income (for example, more children or living in more expensive neighbourhoods).

But even he says that these are speculations. And yet even though they give their theory as saying that it isn’t income but other things that probably cause the disparity, Carrier is rather insistent that people who earn more money than the satiation point should not be considered morally equal to those who earn less and insists that “being rich sucks”, reducing all of this down entirely to income. He does the same thing for education:

The only major outlier were people deprived of a high school diploma or equivalent, who experienced significantly lower maximum life satisfaction on all measures (life eval and emotionality), regardless of income, proving the importance of a secondary school education to human happiness. That’s not surprising, though. Similarly, college education produces a bump in achievable levels of life satisfaction as well.

But in examining this, we can start to see where this sort of simple analysis falters. Why would it be the case that simple education level would reduce life satisfaction regardless of income? The general theory is that the link between education and happiness is that on average people with less education make less of an income. While one can argue that people who don’t achieve a high school education could have deficiencies that prevent them from achieving a good life — although the fact that many people who haven’t often are better at organizing their lives than people who do have more education — this doesn’t really seem to apply when moving between high school level and college. It seems very odd to suggest that someone who was successful without a high school diploma would be less happy just because they don’t have that than someone who got it. Now, Carrier will likely insist that the data says what it says, and so we know that this is the case. The problem is, of course, that data in and of itself isn’t simply fact. Yes, there is a correlation here, but that doesn’t mean that the problem is, in fact, merely the lack of a high school education. For example, it’s possible that the reason that people without higher education have less life satisfaction has less to do with them, and more to do with how other people or how society treats them. If they feel or are made to feel inferior because they didn’t achieve that level of education, that has to impact their life satisfaction, but this has nothing to do with whether or not they should or should have gotten a high school diploma. And since this is the common argument used against using the data that gay and trans people are more depressed and therefore that those conditions are psychological problems, this isn’t an argument that Carrier can dismiss lightly. Another example in line with the theories above is that people who have less education have to, in general, work harder to achieve the same income as people with higher levels of education, which then drags on their life satisfaction.

We can see that the same sorts of questions apply to income overall. The general theory that people like Shermer appeal to here is that if you have a higher income, then you have less barriers to getting the things you want to increase your happiness and also have less worries to deal with. For example, you wouldn’t have to worry as much about financial security or sudden bills because you’d have more savings, and if something came up it would be far easier for you to pay to make it go away. Of course, that assumes that you have more savings; if you have a higher income and yet still don’t have significant savings, that’s going to add a lot of stress to you, more than it would for someone who has a lower income but less savings, since they have an excuse. It’s also reasonable to think that people who are making very high incomes work or feel the pressure to work harder because of those incomes; the more you’re being paid for a job, the more likely you are to feel that you need to produce to maintain it, and the more you’ll worry about losing it since it’s maintaining your lifestyle. It’s also possible that people who earn that high an income deliberately choose jobs to maximize income rather than personal happiness, meaning that maybe those specific people just need to take a different job, while others who like or are better suited personally for those jobs should take them.

Which leads to the big flaw in his conclusions. What he has are statistical averages, but what he hasn’t show is that if you took the same people and replaced that condition with the other condition that their life satisfaction would increase. It’s entirely possible that those people who didn’t get that high school diploma would not have been happier if they had achieved it. After all, they may have hated school and not been at all suited for it, and doing so would have not only made them a lot less happy, but it might have impacted the success they did have, because they couldn’t have started working when they did. This, then, would leave them with less life satisfaction from the schooling and less income and less of a satisfying career, and so would leave them, as individuals, worse off than they would have been otherwise. The same thing applies to people with higher incomes. They may not be quite as happy as people at the satiation point, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t at their maximum happiness. They might have more expensive tastes and preferences than others, and so are deliberately trading off the sacrifices required for a higher income because if they didn’t have that income they wouldn’t be able to do the things they want. As an example, some people might really like to travel, and you need a good income for that. Some people, however, don’t care about traveling at all. So it would be easier for the latter people to not pursue income as much as the former people, because they don’t need that extra money to travel. But if the people who really liked traveling simply abandoned that extra income, they might find that they can’t travel as much as they’d like — because they can’t afford it — and so find that they aren’t as satisfied with their life as they would be with a higher income even taking the detriments of that job or life into account. Just because their job makes them slightly less happy, that doesn’t mean that without that job and that income they’d be overall happier.

Now, I don’t know that this is the case, although all the arguments seem reasonable. But it’s certainly something to consider. And if Carrier is really interested in using data to do this, he’s going to have to sit down and at least come up with these sorts of potential confounds, and figure out how to deal with them. And that is the big mistake he makes here, as he never bothers to ask those questions or look for those confounds, but instead comes to the shallow conclusion that income over six figures doesn’t make someone happier, even though it actually might. This also causes issues for any scientific approach to life satisfaction, because those in general can deal with statistical averages but individual people might not fit those averages. What method does Carrier propose for allowing someone as an individual to determine what it is best for them? Statistics will almost certainly say that having a group of friends or more socialization will make people’s lives better … except very strong introverts will need far less of that than the average, while strong extroverts will need much more. Carrier’s whole approach is to take the statistical average and insist that that’s as much or is in fact all that anyone would need, but the mean and the median never take into account the extremes. If everyone tried to accomplish the averages, there would be many people who would end up less happy. No, we shouldn’t want too much “empirical data”, but instead the ability to critically self-examine ourselves to determine what we, ourselves, want given who we are. To be fair, Carrier tends to call for that as well, and scientific and psychological data can help, but Carrier tends to insist that the averages just are determinate facts, especially in this article. And that’s simply not true.

3 Responses to “Income, Satisfaction, and Empirical Data”

  1. Carrier On Moral Reasoning … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] determine what the empirical data means. If he sticks to the simple idea of satisfaction — as he usually does when citing empirical data — then these problems arise. And if he tries to expand it — as he usually does when […]

  2. Spoilers and Plot Twists and Enjoyment | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] those stories more in general and those cases skewed the results. This is more minor than it was when I used it against Richard Carrier’s argument that higher incomes lead to lower levels of … because it seems that the random assignment should cover these cases while insisting that we start […]

  3. Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 5 – 7 | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] comparing those who pray to those who do not and looking at whose life is better. Like I noted when talking about whether money makes people more happy, you need to compare them to how their lives would be without that factor. For the example […]

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