Friday, February 27, 2009

Is Rationalization the Key to Happiness?

Rationalization is a powerful defense mechanism which comes at the cost of self deception. Does honesty with oneself comes with a price in happiens?

I'm incapable of rationalization. Perhaps it would be more accurate to state I can't really rationalize well enough to convince myself (most of the times).

Rationalization arguments ranging from "Everything happens for the best" and the various versions of "I'm much better off this way" to "If that what it takes to succeed I don't want any part in it" simply don't work for me.

Would I be happier if I could better rationalize?

Rationalization as a defense mechanism

Rationalization is a powerful defense mechanism proposed initially by Sigmund Freud. In Psychology rationalization is the process of constructing logical justification for a belief, decision, action or lack thereof that was originally arrived at through a different mental process (Wikipedia).

To put it in more basic terms rationalization is a defense mechanism in which unacceptable behaviors or feelings are explained in a rational or logical manner thus avoiding the true explanation of the behavior or feeling in question.

By definition the function of such a defense mechanism is to protect our psychology from unacceptable or undesirable behaviors or situations thus enabling our "happiness".

There are many examples for rationalization in day to day life. I'm sure many of us have considerable experience in rationalization efforts some successful, others aren't. Common examples of rationalization include:

  • Justifying all sorts of minor "theft" such as avoiding taxes or copyright infringements with arguments such as "the government just spends my taxes away on Wall-Street Crooks" or "The music companies' make a fortune off of the backs of poor artists while greed or simple financial math are the real motivators.

  • Justifying avoiding a conflict with arguments such as "I'll be the bigger person" while lack of courage, or fear, are the real motivators.

  • Explaining lack of success by arguing all successful people compromise on their principles while many other reasons may well explain it. The list goes on and on.

By rationalizing I am able to explain why I haven't made my first million by 30. I am able to explain why I'm yet another middle class average person with no distinctive mark on anything. The truth is cruel and rationalization helps put it away for a while. At least until the midlife crisis comes along and illuminates us.

Rationalization and self-deception

When I say I am incapable of rationalization I mean I can't really convince myself with my rationalization efforts.

To take my blog as an example – I put quite an effort into my posts and I believe I offer quality to my readership. Still, I am not as successful as I'd like. I could go on arguing the quality of my posts may be of less appeal to the mass market or that the fact I try to argue, in length, is not suitable for internet writing. All of these rationalizations may have some hold in reality but they do not explain why I haven't been selected to write on the NY Times for example. A much simpler explanation may be that although my initial belief is that my posts and my writing are good they simply aren't good enough.

Facing reality may be harsh and cruel but I believe it eventually serves as a great motivator. Personally, I haven't been able to translate my abilities to the success I think I deserve. I may attribute this to many factors which may explain it to an extent. Still, I always know when I'm lying to myself.

I believe avoiding self-deception through rationalization takes an effort but when you are akin to it and honest enough with yourself you will surely see through the rationalization.
Self-deception has been discussed by many philosophers such as Plato, Emanuel Kant, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Sartre.

Rationalization and self serving bias

Rationalization and self serving bias usually go hand in hand. A self-serving bias occurs when people attribute their successes to internal or personal factors but attribute their failures to situational factors beyond their control. The self-serving bias can be seen in the common human tendency to take credit for success but to deny responsibility for failure (Wikipedia).

The self serving bias often serves our rationalizations. What could possibly be easier than to place the blame on the recent promotion of my colleague, instead of me, on luck (or lack of), nepotism or cronyism?

By avoiding a thorough self inspection of my part in the process together with a good rationalization process I am almost assuring it will happen again.

Ignorance is Bliss

It seems we are back to this basic truth and the discussion around it. Rationalizing away may help increase our happiness but it requires a certain level of ignorance and self-deception. Some willingly adopt these and others won't.

The choice, I believe, is not up to us and is rather deterministic. Our intelligence, our experiences and our tendencies will determine how well we are able to rationalize or how happy we may be in our ignorance.

From a happiness point of view rationalization is definitely a powerful mechanism but wouldn’t the majority of people, if offered the choice, prefer the truth over the illusion? No matter the consequences?

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Image by: parl

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Capitalism with Social Equality: A Powerful Though Experiment Demonstrates Our Moral Obligations

An interesting thought experiment by American philosopher John Rawls demonstrates the morality of a more socialistic version of Capitalism

I've been writing here, at The Personal Financier, for over a year and a half now. My skepticism regarding Capitalism as the best economic system, or lesser evil, should be quite familiar to my regular readers. Still, when at times I offer a more socialistic approach in my posts the comments are not late to follow.

It seems our solid conviction in the morality of Capitalism is deeply rooted in us. While pure Capitalism or the more extreme free market variations might have taken a blow recently, our indisputable belief in unadulterated Capitalism remains unscathed, not without just cause.

Capitalism has proved to be a shining beacon in the darkness of earlier economic approaches and has allowed men and women to fully express their potential. Still, we cannot ignore the destructive side-effects our economic system has on social equality (or inequality) and the erosion of the middle class which is the foundation to any solid economy.

There is no need to elaborate on the destructive force of more extreme versions of capitalism as we are witnessing, first hand, the results of greed which "pure" or unregulated capitalism leads to. Obviously the human factor is to blame and not the system, but shouldn't systems be designed to contain our human flaws?

The intuitive appeal of a more socialistic approach

Imagine a disabled person, say blind or handicapped in some fashion. Would you agree that it is society's moral obligation to support such a person? I'm sure that by support the majority would agree that basic sustenance such as a decent roof over one's head, clothes, food and decent medical care are all very reasonable considering the financial capabilities of our western governments.

To take this discussion one step further, to a more risky area, we have to consider the following arguments which I believe to be true:
1. Not all individuals are created equal.
2. Not all individuals, even if are created equal, have equal opportunity.

The socialistic point of view I wish to discuss is such that will, accordingly:
1. Assure the basic needs of all human beings
2. Strive to create equal opportunity

Obviously I can hear the comments in my head already. Why should the lazy and careless live off my taxes? It is a bit more complicated than that but to put it very clearly and basically:
I believe the state of affair where several "freeloaders" enjoy basic sustenance on "our" expense is preferable to a state of affairs where the unfortunate, of which some are lazy and others have had it bad, are taken care off.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating extreme equality and I believe the relationship between ability, effort and personal gain should be rewarded to make any sort of progress. I would, however, like to make sure the less fortunate are living with minimal dignity.

Before this discussion gets more complicated I'd like to present John Rawls Veil of Ignorance which I believe is a very powerful and intuitive thought experiment that contributes to this discussion greatly.

John Rawls' Veil of Ignorance

John Rawls was a contemporary American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. Much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes Rawls set out to discuss the "state of nature" or the hypothetical human condition prior to the foundation of the state and the state.

While Thomas Hobbes's state of nature is a savage war of every man against every man Rawls uses a thought experiment to demonstrate his concept of the state of nature.

Rawls suggests that at the state of nature it is reasonable to assume the talented and strong would be able to coerce others (the weak). To overcome this "evolutionary" problem Rawls sets up the "original position" and asks us to put ourselves behind a veil of ignorance which deprives us of any information regarding ourselves and others placing us all in an equal, conscious starting point for the discussion in the social contract which we are all interested in.

Rawls argues that the representative parties in the original position would select two principles of justice (as a result of the veil of ignorance regarding their actual positions):

1. Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others;

Even the most egotistical would like to assure their basic rights, unknowing what their actual position is (talented and strong or weak).

2. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:

  • to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (maximin rule);
  • attached to positions and offices open to all. The reason that the least well off member gets benefited is that it is assumed that under the veil of ignorance, under original position, people will be risk averse. This implies that everyone is afraid of being part of the poor members of society, so the social contract is constructed to help the least well off members (Wikipedia)

And sympathy is what we need…

Rawls thought experiment is powerful. It forces the thinker to consider himself in someone else's shoes and evokes sympathy. And as the song goes: …sympathy is what we need my friends …
I'm anxious to read your great comments.

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Image by: mjecker