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The Practice of Euphemism

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Powerful, generally undetected euphemistic processes in language give us a falsely optimistic model of the world.


The Origin of Euphemistic Distortions

The formation and use of euphemism is a powerful, inevitable process in human language. Every day, subjects must be discussed or alluded to that could cause discomfort in the parties to the conversation, detracting from both the informative purpose of the conversation and the (generally more important) social bonding function. To avoid the discomfort, taboo subjects are discussed in a circuitous manner, removed as much as possible from the disturbing aspect of the topic. Disturbing aspects are ignored, reframed, treated symbolically, or otherwise elided.

On the level of diction, words and phrases are found to bring to mind the relevant aspects of a topic, while minimizing the disturbing or irrelevant aspects. Metaphor and metonymy are common mechanisms for euphemism, but there are many such methods, with not just new euphemisms, but new euphemistic mechanisms, being invented all the time.

But euphemism does not only happen on the level of word choice. From micro- to macro-, from the foundational narrative/legend of a society to the way social relationships are cognized, human language users and language-using communities and even nature (via evolution) are acting on language to orient human thought in euphemistic directions. How our brains conceive of the world (including language) is not related to what’s actually important in a universal sense, but to what was important to organisms’ fitness goals in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. We do not perceive all wavelengths of light or sound, but only those that (a) were relevant to survival in the EEA and (b) for which a perceptive apparatus was evolutionarily available. (And we do not perceive things like X-rays at all.) Similarly, language does not give us a picture of what is, but only a picture of what was relevant to survival in the EEA.

Artists Explode Euphemism

The project of artists (and of phenomenology) is often to explode euphemistic ways of thinking. In “Dulce et Decorum est,” Wilfred Owen does so for the romantic idea of glorious death in combat. Patriotism and a euphemized conception of those fighting may be more comfortable and politically expedient for the folks back home, but here’s how it really is, says Owen, here is what is elided: the boy who doesn’t get his gas mask on in time, “guttering, choking, drowning,” “the white eyes writhing in his…hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,” at every jolt of the wagon they “flung him in,” the “blood/come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs.” Happy Memorial Day.

No Counter-Process

What does this tell us about the accuracy of the model of the world we have from language? Is our conception accurate? Too rosy? Too negative?

We might expect our visual picture of the world to be “too rosy” if we found that our instrument for detecting red light (eyes, brain) were set too high compared to the mechanism for detecting other kinds of light. Analogously, an understanding of the linguistic phenomenon of euphemism might lead us to suspect that our conception of the world may be too optimistic – unless, of course, there were a countervailing, dysphemistic process. However, a moment’s reflection shows us that the effect of any dysphemistic process is only a tiny fraction of that of euphemism, at best.

A main function of euphemism is to avoid social discomfort. The idea of suffering is always socially uncomfortable – we should expect it to be edited out. There is rarely any reason to add pain (or social awkwardness) to already-comfortable language – this is the task of the artist and the philosopher alone.

The Mistaken Notion of Pure Language

Less subtle thinkers than Wilfred Owen have hoped for a world of clean language, without euphemism. This is a mistaken hope.

All language has connotation as well as denotation – an emotional message as well as an informative one, even if that emotional message is one of blank neutrality. We do not think without emotion; in a practical sense, we are incapable of doing so. Without the swift functioning of our emotions, we are crippled at such “simple” cognitive tasks as making decisions (see, e.g., “The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage,” by Antoine Bechara, Brain and Cognition 55 (2004) 30–40). Why should language not take advantage of this fast system of cognition whose output is chemicals?

Language “cleaned of its emotional message” is not purer or realer or truer language – it is systematically distorted language. Making a project of eradicating euphemism immediately begs the question of the objectively correct word or conception for a given thing or act. “Crack baby” or “drug-exposed infant”? “Crack baby” one might call politically incorrect, vernacular, plainspoken, suggesting that “drug-exposed infant” is the euphemism. The latter, though, is the term used by child welfare professionals (nurses, social workers) to indicate that a horrible violation happened to this innocent infant child, emphasizing the wrong done to the child. Can you hear the screams more from “crack baby” or “drug-exposed infant”? See the tubes and the shaking and the tiny hands? And which better expresses that the mother of said infant used drugs to ease her pain from having been viciously sexually abused during her childhood?

All words are euphemisms. All language is euphemism – selection of relevant, comfortable aspects, and elision of pangs of empathetic pain so far as possible.

“Rape” is a euphemism. “Prison” is a euphemism. Even “prison rape” is a euphemism. Words indicate concepts, but cannot ever express how bad these experiences are for those who suffer them.

Memento Mori. (Population and Reproduction: A Modern Euphemistic Process)


Check this out: the writer of erosblog.com discusses my article Living in the Epilogue: Social Policy as Palliative Care in his piece Porn and Not Being Cheery. It’s dope. NSFW!!! There are pictures of nekkid people OMG!

Written by Sister Y

May 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm

The Two Main Ways In Which Evolution Is Not Our Friend

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With millions of years of evolution behind our species, and a billion behind life in general, we might expect – in a Panglossian frame of mind – to function very well, and to be free from unnecessary misery. Wouldn’t the ruthless process of selection have removed causes for fitness-draining suffering and poor well-being in general?

There are two main reasons why we should expect a great deal of unnecessary suffering to be the product of evolution.

1. Adaptation Executors

A maxim of evolutionary biology is that organisms (like us) are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. Evolutionary processes create organisms that execute biologically-mediated strategies – it does not create rational beings that maximize fitness in all instances.

In many cases, the detection mechanism is “too sensitive” for our own good – our pain response and our startle response, for example, both generate lots of “false positives” in terms of fitness threats we may respond productively to. This is because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the cost of tons of false positives was outweighed by the benefit of being “right” that one time that counts.

Our social ostracism detection system has also been posited to be hypersensitive, for the above evolutionary reasons. Social belonging has such a high survival value that any potential threat must be addressed immediately. This is true even if it means 100 “false positives” – instances of social ostracism with no actual fitness threat – must be suffered by the individual organism.

What’s a good idea for evolution is not necessarily a good idea for you. Evolution works fine – it just doesn’t give a fuck about the well-being of individual organisms.

2. Failures

In other cases, complex systems interact in such a way that the detection system is “broken.” This may be because the EEA doesn’t match current conditions, as may be the case with asthma, allergies, diabetes, and obesity. In other cases, it may be because organisms aren’t created perfectly every time, and are not perfectly matched even to EEA conditions. Evolution can only act on the mutations it’s given. The pain of a migraine, for instance, is not an indication of a necessary response the way the pain from a burn is. Problems may not reflect any adaptation at all – it might be a defect in the system, or in the organism.

Written in response to this comment by The Plague Doctor.

Written by Sister Y

May 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Maslow Be Damned: How Social Belonging Trumps Everything

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The need for social belonging is the primal human need – and failure to have it satisfied is subjectively worse than death.


Social Pain Causes Suicide

People don’t commit suicide out of just any sorrow.

What suffering, specifically, is bad enough to cause people to want to pull the plug on existence itself? It is only and exclusively social pain.

The most modern, scientific model of the causes of suicide that we have is that articulated by Thomas Joiner in his 2005 book Why People Die By Suicide (my review here). Joiner’s model, supported by a large body of empirical evidence, posits three conditions that reliably predict suicide: a failure of social belonging, the perception of oneself as a burden on others, and the development of competence in actually carrying out the difficult act of suicide. Only the competence factor is not a direct function of social belonging.

Other kinds of pain aren’t sufficient to cause suicide – not hunger, not remorse, not even extreme physical pain. The research suggests that being a valued member of a social group, with a role to play in supporting others, is the most basic human need – not just on par with, but frequently surpassing other human needs such as those for food, shelter, sleep, and sex.

For example, the misery of prison is primarily one of failed social belonging. In the general population, marriage is protective against suicide, as is employment. But married prisoners and prisoners who were employed prior to incarceration are more likely to commit suicide than unmarried, unemployed prisoners. For the first group, incarceration represents a severance of important social bonds and a failure of belonging. For the second group, prison may merely be a continuation of previous social belonging experiences.

The fear of death itself may be, when reduced to its essence, primarily a fear of the ultimate social cutting-off, the final ostracism. The data on suicide and social belonging support the idea of suicide as revealed preference – that the value of life is not as high as the negative value of complete social ostracism. This is in contrast to the idea of suicide as necessarily irrational and a product of mental illness.

Hunger and Sympathy

The United Nations reported in 2009 that over one billion people are hungry in the world; that number currently grows by about a hundred million a year. The suffering of physical hunger is the easiest form of suffering to empathize with; indeed, a recent Foreign Policy article noted that the statistic of a billion hungry “grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did.”

Here’s the fascinating thing about hunger, though: as bad as prolonged malnutrition is – and we all agree that it is very bad – poor, hungry people do not spend every extra cent on more calories.

When staples like wheat and rice are subsidized so that people may buy them at a cheaper price, in many cases they buy less of the staple, and more meat and shrimp. People suffering from severe malnutrition (wasting, growth stunting) still spend money on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Starving families still have televisions and cellular phones.

One response to this is to harden one’s heart: if they’re not hungry enough to spend every spare rupee on more calories, they must not be hungry enough to deserve our sympathy (much less our money).

A more productive response would be to view the data for what they are: evidence that some things are more painful than hunger. Specifically, the need for social belonging is more pressing than the need for food. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive substances, but a quick look at actual practices reveals that they are generally used socially (as in the fixed men’s social groups that smoke together late into the night, in the 600-person Indian village Christopher Alexander studies in the appendix to his Notes on the Synthesis of Form). Spending on “festivals” is by its nature social. Television, described by one interviewee in the Foreign Policy article as “more important than food,” functions both as a social focus for actual people, and a pleasant, comforting substitute for actual socialization. (Cellular phones need no explanation.) Even the “better tasting” food the poor seem to buy rather than more cheap, boring, nutritious food – the meat and shrimp from the China wheat study – is “high status” food, conveying a social message at least as important as its nutritional function.

As I have stated before, poverty doesn’t just suck – it hurts. I think it a valid hypothesis that poverty is actually dreadfully painful – not only physically, but emotionally and socially. There is only so much pain we can expect a being to endure before his attempts to relieve it through future-damaging means becomes perfectly understandable and, in fact, rational.

What We Know About Social Pain

Why and how do we perceive social pain and social belonging, and how do these perceptions affect us? A recent body of research has provided some surprising answers.

  1. Social pain hurts like physical pain. fMRI studies have demonstrated that the pain of perceived social rejection involves the same brain regions as physical pain. Social pain even responds to acetaminophen!
  2. Social pain is ubiquitous. Everyone experiences it, even if they don’t register it as such. People experience about one episode of social ostracism per day.
  3. Social pain is irrational. Subjects experience pain and lowered mood as a consequence of social ostracism even when they are explicitly told that it is merely a computer doing the “ostracizing.” The pain of exclusion affects even people playing a computer ball game who are told their computers are not yet connected to the other computers, making inclusion logically impossible! Even ostracism by a despised outgroup – say, the KKK – induces the same misery as ostracism by other groups.
  4. Social pain affects individuals differently. A normal individual will experience depressed mood after minor social exclusion, but will recover within 45 minutes. A person with social anxiety will not have recovered even from a minor social exclusion after 45 minutes. Repeated exposure to cues of social rejection may even sensitize individuals to these cues, resulting in even more needless pain.
  5. What about autists? A 2011 study found that the brains of adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder did not process cues of social rejection the same as neurotypical brains, but they were just as hurt and concerned after experiencing social rejection! Not even autistic folks are immune from the pain of failed social belonging.

(For more on this fascinating subject, here are lists of publications for Kip Williams and Naomi Eisenberger, two major researchers in the field of social pain and ostracism. Williams’ “Ostracism: The Kiss of Social Death” is an excellent introduction to the field.)

To sum up, social pain is more common, more painful, and less rational than is widely understood. Experiencing social pain is not optional; unfortunately, neither is causing social pain. By virtue of being born, each of us will cause innumerable incidents of social pain in others throughout our lives – most commonly without realizing it at all. But it’s actually much worse than that, because one of the most common, effective responses to experiencing social ostracism is aggression toward others, even others not involved in the original ostracism event. Negative ripples spread out from each incident of social pain – and all the while the proximate source of the social pain may be entirely unaware of having caused it.

Analysis of a Decision to Smile

To illustrate the problem, consider the following everyday decision: whether or not to smile at a passing stranger.

A conscientious actor with a passing familiarity with evolutionary psychology literature will know that smiling at a stranger is potentially damaging, especially if the actor is attractive. When a woman smiles and acts warmly toward a man, he becomes less satisfied with his current partner. So smiling at a stranger may damage his relationship – negatively affecting not just him, but those around him as well, such as his partner and children.

However, the actor must also be aware that failing to smile may induce feelings of social ostracism in the stranger. This will not only cause the stranger suffering (especially if he happens to have social anxiety), but may cause him to act aggressively toward others to recover from the social pain.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the idea of the hedonic treadmill – the fact that an increase in welfare (say, from winning the lottery) does not lead to greater happiness, but causes one to reset one’s expectations at a higher level. A benefit may only make the same level of happiness more expensive. I hope that this example illustrates that there is also an altruistic treadmill. It is impossible to do good for someone, because his expectations will reset to account for the deed. Unfortunately, others – even strangers – already depend on our altruistic inputs to them, and will feel their absence even while their provision would not make them any happier. It’s a Giant’s Drink situation: the only winning move is not to play.

But we’ve already all been forced to play.

The Lonely Modern

In learning about social pain, we have discovered a new Civilization and Its Discontents issue. Philippe Rochat, in a postscript to his excellent Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, presents a picture of the kind of social life we evolved to experience:

Walking around in South Pacific island traditional villages, during the
day or in the pitch dark of moonless nights, it is almost impossible to cross paths with someone, young or old, woman or man, familiar or absolute stranger, without some greeting, without some acknowledgment of your existence, either called by your name or being asked what you are doing and where you are going, even if the response is very obvious. For individuals like me who grew up in rich postindustrial regions of the world, who struggle for their career and place in society, constantly under the spell of a panic fear of failure, of having failed, or of being an impostor, such simple, yet constant social acknowledgment amounts to the experience of tremendous relief. Finally one experiences the peace of being effortlessly recognized by others, the absolute sense of being socially substantial, as opposed to socially transparent.

This kind of small village experience lifts the curse of social transparency. One rediscovers what might be a long-lost intimacy and bonding with others, something like the absolute trust and acknowledgment we might have experienced once in love or with our mother in the long-lost high-dependence state of infancy. Who knows? What I am convinced of, however, and have tried to convince the reader of this book is that this kind of intimacy and bonding with others that is the wealth of small traditional society is what we all strive for, regardless of where we live and where we grew up. It is the force that leads us toward self-consciousness, probably more forcefully if we grow up in an industrial region of the world. If there is such a thing as a universal criterion for ‘‘the good life,’’ a comfort we would all aspire to, then it must be the sense of social proximity. It must be the sense of being acknowledged and recognized, of being included and intimate with others, no matter what. It is being safe, the ultimate prize and the ultimate refuge. [Emphasis mine.]

Rochat provides a glimpse of the alternative to our modern experience of daily social ostracism and consequent social pain: small village organization. Of course, this is not a real alternative; it is not possible for our enormous, complex modern society to operate in this way. Most of us would not even wish to live in this way, with its concomitant social control and extreme conservatism. I certainly would not. But it demonstrates that we are adapted to something very different than the environment in which we live. And this necessary mismatch – which, in fact, defines us as moderns – ensures that we will all suffer, and make each other suffer, interminably.

Written by Sister Y

May 18, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Suicide and Justice

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Is a potential suicide a “flight risk”?

Woman charged with causing fatal I-95 crash put on suicide watch

STAMFORD — A Superior Court judge on Monday set bond at $35,000 for the Hartford woman accused of causing a crash that killed two people over the weekend on Interstate 95 in Darien.

Yadira Torres, 26, of 100 Benton St., Hartford, was put on suicide watch after her arraignment at state Superior Court in Stamford, where she faces two counts of second-degree manslaughter and single charges of reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol. Around 6 a.m. Saturday she was driving a rented 2010 Dodge Caliber SXT north on I-95 when she tried to pass a tractor-trailer but lost control and hit it, according to a State Police accident report. (ctpost.com)

The most interesting thing is that the prosecutor argued that the defendant is a flight risk in large part based on her being “distraught” over what happened:

Before the ruling Assistant State’s Attorney David Applegate argued Torres was a flight-risk.

“The defendant does pose a flight risk due to the serious charges and the anxiety that attorney Crosland has pointed out,” Applegate said, referring to earlier remarks from Crosland that detailed his client’s distraught state of mind over the fatal crash.

Is killing yourself the same as flight from justice?

In response to an article describing a particularly spectacular suicide, that is, a leap from the world’s tallest building, one commenter asserts:

The man surely needed psychological help. Sane people do not commit suicide unless they’re evading public humiliation & arrest (avoiding justice).

The commenter implicitly accepts a dichotomy: suicide is either the result of insanity, or a moral wrong.

Seemingly sane people commit suicide all the time in order to avoid “public humiliation & arrest” or other forms of social death. It is impossible to maintain the conviction that only insane people commit suicide when the plain evidence is to the contrary: sane people frequently commit suicide for completely understandable reasons.

People who commit certain actions must suffer the socially-imposed consequences we deem appropriate. We chase them down if they run away. We lock them up. We force them to participate in our reality.

For the good of whom, though? Certainly not their own. The good of the victims, perhaps – if any remain – although it must be an ambivalent and diffuse sort of “good,” in that case.

Perhaps it is for the good of the future victims of similar actions. If people knew they could just commit suicide instantly and painlessly at any moment – like switching a computer game off – would that be incredibly dangerous? Would people commit massively antisocial acts knowing they can always unplug if shit gets too real?

I think they might. And I think this shows us something very important about existence:

In actual, real-life decisions that we can observe, people do seem to choose death over negative social consequences.

This demonstrates that life is inherently less valuable, to individuals, than avoiding social pain.

It puts an upper bound on the value of the so-called precious gift of life.

Written by Sister Y

May 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm

New Abortion

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A thought experiment about creating and valuing lives


Roe v. Wade does not say what you may think it says. Yes, it creates a right to abortion that cannot be unduly interfered with by the states. But it explicitly states that there are two interests that must be balanced: the woman’s privacy interest, and the state’s interest in protecting the “potentiality of human life.” If this “potentiality” for life could somehow be protected without unduly interfering with the woman’s right to end her time as involuntary host organism, it would seem that this would be completely constitutional (not to mention wildly politically popular).

How would that work?

Step 1. Technology is developed such that an implanted embryo may be removed and transplanted to a different woman’s uterus.

Step 2. Such technology becomes cheaply available.

Step 3. Lots of wombs in poverty-stricken slums are available for rent. (Check.)

Step 4. New Abortion: for the same price and the same intrusiveness of a standard termination, your uterus is scraped and the embryo harvested, shipped to Nairobi, and implanted in a starving woman’s uterus, and after gestation, the child is raised until age 6, when he or she is sold to a factory or a brothel.

This procedure could give the precious gift of life to over a million babies a year from the United States alone.

To those who object on sentimental grounds, I direct them to Robin Hanson: do not slum children sold into prostitution also smile? Isn’t the only relevant ethical question whether those children would themselves find their lives to be worthwhile?

Written by Sister Y

May 5, 2011 at 9:31 pm

No Life Is Good

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David Benatar, in The Philosopher’s Magazine:

One common and instant response to [the claim that no lives are good] is indignation. How dare one claim that no lives are good when there are billions of people who say otherwise about their own lives? I dare to make such a claim partly because there is excellent empirical evidence for the conclusion that people’s judgements [sic] cannot be trusted as a reliable indicator of how good their lives really are. For example, research psychologists have shown that people are prone to optimism and to optimistic (that is, inaccurately positive) assessments of their own lives. There are many manifestations of this phenomenon. People are more prone to remember good experiences than bad ones; they have exaggerated views of how well things will go for them in the future; and most people think that the quality of their lives is above average. When it comes to assessing their own moral goodness, people also tend to be overly optimistic. Very few people think of themselves as bad. If we were to trust self-assessments, we would have to conclude that there are very few bad people and evil actions, which is patently false.

Cheery people – those who think that life is, or at least, can be good – invariably attempt to reconcile the many bad things in life with the possibility of a good life. That is to say, they offer what might be called a “secular theodicy”. But, like conventional theodicies, which attempt to reconcile the vast amount of evil in the world with God’s existence, the secular theodicy of optimists puts the conclusion before the evidence. [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Read the entire piece here.

Thanks Rob Sica!

Written by Sister Y

May 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Born Obligated: A Place for Quantitative Methods in Ethics

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Behavioral economics methods may be more reliable than unsupported, sweeping assumptions in understanding the degree to which being born is okay.


Obviousness

That being born is a good thing is treated as axiomatic by the majority of thinkers who consider the issue.

Thomas Nagel, for instance, states that “All of us, I believe, are fortunate to have been born,” even while affirming that not having been born is no misfortune (Mortal Questions, “Death,” p. 7). Bryan Caplan has said, regarding IVF, “How can I neglect the welfare of the children created by artificial means? But I’m not ‘neglecting’ children’s welfare. I just find it painfully obvious that being alive is good for them [emphasis in original].”

There are two elements to this kind of thinking. First, it represents a judgment that life is, on the whole, worth getting and having; but second, all the talk of “obviousness” also implies that there is something wrong with even asking the question.

I want to address here how quantitative methods, rather than intuition and assumption, might be used to measure the downside of existence. I argue that there is a need to analyze quantitatively the obligations that we are all born with and the inherent pain of life, and that, if our lives are to be worth having on the whole, must be made up for with valuable experiences.

Work and Leisure

We might characterize the central unpleasant obligation in our lives as the obligation to “work” (broadly construed) in order to meet the salient and potentially misery-inducing needs we are born with or naturally develop. These needs include not only food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, but also status, love, sex, attention, and company.[1] We can even quantify these needs, by quantifying work done to satisfy these needs, for which we have a great deal of data.

Some of these needs, of course, may actually be satisfied by working – the need to belong, to feel valuable, to not be a burden. However, at the same time, some of these needs are actually increased by working – that is, work may create disutility as well as utility. How can you tell the difference between what people do to merely to ease the pain and discomfort of existence, and what people actually want to be doing?

Many economists have addressed the question of the difference between work and leisure, and how we may quantify and measure them. One crude-but-tempting measure of the value of leisure time is merely a person’s wage. But as Larson & Shaikh (2004) explain, this is much too crude to get at the true nature of work and leisure:

Assuming the average wage is the appropriate opportunity cost of time presumes that the individual faces no constraints on hours worked, derives no utility or disutility from work, and has a linear wage function…. This is unlikely to be true for many people….an individual’s average wage does not necessarily reveal anything about the shadow value of discretionary leisure time, either as an upper or lower bound.

The question of the value of leisure time is intimately related to the question of quantifying the unpleasant obligations placed on us by virtue of existence, so that we may have a starting point for a meaningful comparison of life’s costs and life’s benefits.

How do we characterize “work”? What is the difference between “work” and “leisure”?

Intuitively, we know the difference – or at least, there exist clear cases of “work” and clear cases of “leisure.” Operating a cash register is work. Washing dishes is work. Doing bong rips is leisure. Reading novels is leisure. Watching television and having sex are generally leisure (unless you’re in advertising or a prostitute). For most people, child care and lawn care qualify as work – whether paid or unpaid – but for some people, these may qualify as leisure some of the time.

These examples suggest that leisure is that which is done for the sake of the experience itself, whereas work is done with some goal in mind other than the experience itself, and is done only in service of that goal.[2] Running ten miles is leisure for me, because I do it for the pleasure of the experience; running those same ten miles might be work for someone else, because he does it to lose weight, not for the pleasure of running. A third person might run for both reasons, in which case the action has aspects of both leisure and work. We should not necessarily expect that every action and every hour can be neatly categorized as “work” or “leisure,” even for a particular individual.

This should give us pause when considering the definition of “leisure” preferred by Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst in their 2006 paper “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time Over Five Decades,” an hour-by-hour tally of time not spent in market or non-market work (e.g., at work, or doing unpaid work around the house or around town). In reality, a single hour may have substantial aspects of both work and leisure.

Aguiar and Hurst remark on a potentially definitional characteristic of leisure: the degree to which market inputs (money, technology) are consumed to reduce the amount of time spent in the activity. They say:

one definition of whether an activity is “leisure” may be the degree of substitutability between the market input and the time input in the production of the commodity. That is, the leisure content of an activity is a function of technology rather than preferences. In the examples above, one can use the market to reduce time spent cooking (by getting a microwave or ordering takeout food) but cannot use the market to reduce the time input into watching television (although innovations like VCRs and Tivo allow some substitution). [Emphasis mine.]

Let me give a definition of my own, to fit my question:

Work is any action (or omission, perhaps) that we undertake in order to prevent or remedy some unpleasant state, and that we would not undertake if the unpleasant potential state were not a factor. An activity has a strong work component if technology is demanded by individuals to reduce the amount of time they spend in the activity.

In other words, work is what you do only because you have to eat, and you spend as little time doing it as is possible to satisfy your (present and projected future) needs.

Many studies since the 1980s have found that physicians’ demand for leisure directly affects the prevalence of cesarean sections. Cesarean sections are highly correlated to time variables associated with doctors wanting to get the hell out of there, although (further strengthening the theory) this correlation is dependent on the type of insurance covering the patient.

Instead of relying on the “imaginary survey justification” to “prove” that coming into existence is a good thing, economists and ethicists could use more creative, quantitative methods to examine the question of how bad (and how good) life is. Specifically, we need to figure out how to tell the difference between suffering people attempting to remedy their shitty situation, and happy people chilling out – both of which may describe any of us at different times in our life, or even our day. “Are you glad you were born?” is unsubtle, an all-or-nothing approach that relies heavily on people knowing the answer to questions they may have only limited capacity to understand. Analyzing behavior in smaller chunks would give us a better idea of just how happy people are to be here.

Poverty and Pain

Behavioral economics is a strong tool for understanding ourselves and each other. However, many behavioral economists, consciously or unconsciously, rely heavily on the “imaginary survey justification,” and no economist, to my knowledge, has attempted to use behavioral economics methods to figure out how bad, or how good, life is to individuals.

Bryan Caplan published a fascinating, even audacious paper in 2007 entitled “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State.” In it, he argues that giving the poor more life choices through charitable assistance seems to actually harm them, because they are irrational and fail to choose the best option for them. From his abstract:

Critics often argue that government poverty programs perversely make the poor worse off by encouraging unemployment, out-of-wedlock births, and other “social pathologies.” However, basic microeconomic theory tells us that you cannot make an agent worse off by expanding his choice set. The current paper argues that familiar findings in behavioral economics can be used to resolve this paradox. Insofar as the standard rational actor model is wrong, additional choices can make agents worse off. More importantly, existing empirical evidence suggests that the poor deviate from the rational actor model to an unusually large degree. The paper then considers the policy implications of our alternative perspective.

The option Caplan fails to consider is this: the lives of the poor are unacceptably bad without charitable aid.

We don’t think it irrational, exactly, when a person in extreme pain does something to relieve his pain that may have negative future consequences. A shrieking, sweating patient in horrible pain might be perfectly aware of the potential for developing a long-term addiction to opiates, but we do not consider his decision to take opiate medication to be irrational. His pain is so bad that we think it makes sense for him to use any means to stop it, even if they harm his future interests.

Connecting to my discussion of work vs. leisure, I think it a valid hypothesis that poverty is actually dreadfully painful – not only physically, but emotionally and socially. There is only so much pain we can expect a being to endure before his attempts to relieve it through future-damaging means becomes perfectly understandable and, in fact, rational.

The Demand for Pain Relief

An economic theory of rationality, to be in touch with human ethical reality, must include an account of pain. We must attempt to define and study pain (in the broad sense) in a behavioral economics context, rather than to define it away, as Caplan attempts to do.

Karl Smith notes that studies consistently show that health care consumers do not seem to take into account mortality data when choosing between health care providers, even when very good mortality data is widely available in a user-friendly format. Perhaps the demand for life is not as high as we might think. People seem to like spending money on health care, but not to care about outcome. One approach suggested by this is to study revealed preferences/willingness-to-pay for death risk reduction and pain relief (broadly defined), respectively, in different contexts and populations.

Is Loss Aversion Irrational?

A recent paper on behavioral economics, using tufted capuchin monkeys as subjects, demonstrated that the monkeys exhibit what is considered a typical human departure from rationality, “loss aversion.” That is, monkeys trained to use metal discs as money preferred to buy fruit from a graduate student who would give them a smaller food reward but sometimes add a few grapes to it, rather than from a graduate student who would give them a larger food reward but then maybe remove a few grapes. The monkeys weren’t maximizing the number of grapes they got; they specifically exhibited a preference to have things added, rather than have things taken away.

This does not, I think, exactly illustrate irrationality in the capuchins: it illustrates that they are utility maximizers, not grape maximizers. Monkeys experience a loss of utility from losing grapes that is greater than the utility produced by those grapes. Losing grapes, we might say, is painful. Doing the resource-maximizing thing does not necessarily equate with doing the utility-maximizing thing.

A Place for Quantitative Methods

Caplan’s conclusion is that we must not treat the poor as rational actors, because they deviate so heavily (compared to the wealthy) from being long-term best-interest maximizers. Therefore, he says, we should not expect to solve their problems by giving them money or other charitable aid.

An equally supported conclusion would be that being poor is so awful it is unendurable, like severe physical pain, and poor people actually are rational, taking this into account. Caplan also gives us a hint at what might be an indicator of painfulness: the degree to which the actor deviates from resource maximization. He says, “The behavioral literature has documented that the average person frequently violates neoclassical assumptions. But it rarely investigates variation in the tendency to violate neoclassical assumptions. Casual empiricism and limited formal evidence suggest that the poor do deviate more. A great deal more could be learned at low cost if new behavioral studies collected information on participants’ income and education to test for heterogeneity. [Citations omitted.]” Analyzing LOTS of factors for correlation to deviation from resource-maximization rationality, not just income, education, and intelligence, could help us understand the circumstances under which life is so painful that we act irrationally.


1. The extreme seriousness of the basic human need for affiliation and belonging is not widely acknowledged, even though data is available to that effect from a wide variety of sources. Kipling Williams’ meta-studies, Ostracism: The Early Detection System and Ostracism: Consequences and Coping are a good place to start to review the literature on the consequences of failed belonging. For instance, Williams explains experiments using Cyberball, an interactive computer game that can be used to give test subjects the impression of being ostracized in a controlled way. He says experimenters have “found strong negative impact on mood and need levels for those participants who were ostracized” in the Cyberball game, and when the experiment was conducted under fMRI, participants “showed significant increases in activity in their anterior cingulate cortexes, where people also show significant activity when enduring physical pain.” Further, he states that “In all of these Cyberball studies, the effects sizes of the ostracism manipulation are over 1.00 (often above 1.50) indicating strong effects, and subsequent meta-analyses indicate it takes only three people per condition to reach standard levels of significance. [Citations omitted.]” See pp. 17-19 of Ostracism: The Early Detection System. What’s especially amazing is that the effect is clearly not rational – it holds even when ostracized participants have been explicitly told that they’re only playing against a computer (NPCs).

Thomas Joiner’s book Why People Die by Suicide (see my review here) is a book-length treatment of an empirically-tested theory of the causes of suicide, and concludes that three factors are the best predictors of suicidality: failed belonging, feelings of burdensomeness, and competence (ability to physically do it). Two of the three factors are measures of failed social affiliation. Other kinds of sadness (including sadness for other reasons and clinical depression) are not very predictive of suicide. And Phillipe Rochat’s excellent book Others in Mind details the formation of the human “self” through child development studies and other empirical research, concluding that what he terms the Basic Affiliation Need is not only an extremely critical need, but one that is primordial to, and directly causes, the formation of the self. The need to belong and to have a place in society is not a luxury, but a basic need the absence of which is more painful than prolonged hunger or injury.

2. Yesterday, I overheard two high school girls having a conversation. One revealed to her friend that although she realized it meant giving up one’s life, she could see the upside to a diagnosis of terminal cancer – a kind of peace, and an exemption from the future-oriented unpleasantness we must all endure if we are to be considered socially responsible. “You could just have fun in school,” she said. “I work my ass off every day with work and schoolwork, but if you were going to die anyway, you could just relax. You wouldn’t have to worry.” Her friend agreed, but said she wanted to see what it was like to be an adult anyway. “I’m not sure I do,” said the first little girl. School is generally work, not leisure.

Written by Sister Y

April 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm