Ethics and Happiness

This interesting new paper by Harvey James sets out to examine the relationship between ethical behavior and happiness. It’s an interesting addition to the ever-increasing literature on happiness. And it provides some empirical evidence that Plato and Aristotle had it right, after all. After a brief description of the work, I offer my own comments and criticisms.

James utilizes data from the World Values Survey (WVS), using the particular countries of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Brazil, to examine whether those who exhibit more ethical behavior are happier than their less ethical counterparts. Now, those familiar with the WVS will realize that specific behaviors are not included in the survey. Rather, there are questions about attitudes concerning ethical questions. James selects four such questions (answered on a scale of 1-10)- claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled; avoiding a fare on a public transport; cheating on taxes if you have the chance; someone accepting a bribe in the course of their duties- which have a decidedly ethical bent. James conjectures that one’s answers to attitudinal questions about ethical dilemmas will accurately reveal/predict their behavior.

In order to measure happiness, he utilizes respondents’ answers to the question- all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days. Like the four questions above, answers are given on a scale of 1-10. Keeping with the happiness literature, James posits that answers to this question reveal what is known as Subjective Well Being (SWB). He then uses probit and OLS in order to determine whether those who are more ethical indeed do have a (statistically significant) higher level of SWB. The results are not all significant, but do show a clear correlation between ethical behavior and happiness.

Overall, I find this to be a very interesting and well written paper. However, it does have its flaws. First, a nitpicky concern I have is James’ reliance on dummy variables in his model. Not that dummies do not have a place here, but rather that I think he relies on them too much and I question the validity of some of the assumptions he makes when converting ordinal values into dummy variables. Yet, without having access to his dataset, I cannot claim that different parameters for the dummy variables would have yielded different results.

I would also question whether answers to survey questions can function as good proxies for actual behavior. It has been well documented that people will give untrue answers to questions, especially ones that implicate social norms, such as ethical questions. Further, there is also bound to be some distortion between people’s claimed ethical attitudes and their ethics in practice. Answering a question, in an interview room, about whether or not you believe cheating on taxes is justified is far different than sitting down to do one’s taxes.

These criticisms aside, I still find the paper to be compelling evidence that ethical behavior (attitudes) and happiness are correlated. One other note of caution, of course, is that correlation does not imply causation. James does note two potential causal factors for both- income and psychological well-being. He dismisses the former as the results in his model were inconsistent with respect to income.

Psychological well-being is a more compelling causal factor, to James and to me. However, untangling the ways in which well-being, happiness and ethics feed into one another is a task far beyond this paper. It seems reasonable that psychological well-being has a strong causal relationship to both happiness and ethical behavior, but it is also reasonable to assume that there are feedback effects. For example, as noted, altruistic behavior may be caused by psychological well-being, but there are psychological benefits to altruistic behavior. Future research, mainly in psychology, needs to examine what baseline level of psychological well-being is required to cause ethical behavior and bring about happiness.


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