Category Archives: Philosophy

“[…] by pushing his jam always forward into the future, [the “purposive” man] strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality”

John M. Keynes thus criticized an excessive preoccupation with the future in his essay Economic possibilities for our grandchildren (1930). I was a bit puzzled by this, and the full quote does not really help:

The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.

Helpfully, there is a Wikipedia page on the “jam tomorrow“.  It turns out that the jam reference comes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), in which the White Queen offers Alice to work in exchange for jam that she (Alice) will always receive tomorrow, i.e. never. Back to Keynes: Such forward-looking behavior is helping to solve the economic problem, but as soon as that is done (it will take at least 100 years), we can stop pushing the jam into the future.

(And presumably start eating it, though Alice says she does not care for jam, but perhaps that is another story.)

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Hell is unhappiness

Religious beliefs have been associated with happiness, but psychologists Shariff and Aknin (PLOS ONE) take a more disaggregated look:

They construct life satisfaction and daily affect measures from the Gallup World Poll and put it together with country-level beliefs in Heaven and Hell from the World Values Survey and the European Values Survey. Believing in Heaven is associated with greater well-being, believing in Hell with lower. This cross-national comparison shows the relationship between aggregate measures of daily well-being and “the percentage of population that believes in Heaven minus percentage that believes in Hell”:

There are also some regression results controlling for some things.

What is the causality? Shariff and Aknin also conduct an experiment on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: People primed to think of Hell by writing a short paragraph about it reported lower happiness and positive emotions and higher sadness, fear and negative emotions afterwards compared to people writing about Heaven or an unrelated topic. The Heaven group or the control group did not differ from each other.

H/t: Kevin Lewis

What motivates intelligent machines?

Noah Smith has a nice take on the Singularity, or the Slackurality, which is his prediction of what will happen as intelligent machines, like intelligent humans, will come to have other motivations than just “inventing thinking beings more intelligent than themselves.” Someone meeting this AI-slacker might have to exclaim: “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33)

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Children and happiness

Contemplating whether or the number of children to have? Take a look at “A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility” by Margolis and Myrskylä. The authors use data from 25 years of the World Value Survey, totalling 86 countries and over 200 000 respondents. They are interested in what the relation between what people answer on the question “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, somewhat happy, or not at all happy?” and their number of children.

Margolis and Myrskylä find that a higher number of children is associated with lower happiness, but stress that looking at this in the aggregate is highly misleading. This is shown by breaking the data down by subcategories and plotting the results. In particular, they “find that the association between happiness and fertility evolves from negative to neutral to positive above age 40,” as shown e.g. here:


FIGURE 3 Happiness and number of children by age and sex, from Margolis, R. and Myrskylä, M. (2011), A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility. Population and Development Review, 37: 29–56. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2011.00389.x

So more children may pay off in the long run. Though it must be said that this is just descriptive, but valuable and interesting nevertheless. There are more graphs like this one, and the results can be understood simply by looking at the graphs.

With also the recent report that “economists with two or more kids tend to produce more research, not less, than their one-child or childless colleagues” in hand and just having achieved the second, I am expecting a short-term boost in productivity and long-term in happiness.

Do thought experiments in ethics have external validity?

A runaway train car is on its way to kill five people on the tracks. You have the power to direct it to a sidetrack on which there is only one person. Do you do it?

A well known thought experiments in ethics. However, will people’s judgments when thinking about such cases transfer to the real world? A group of researchers constructed virtual realities to improve the realisticness of the scenarios. Their finding: People acted in a more utilitarian way (sacrifice the one to save the five) in the virtual reality than in the text case. The virtual reality scenarios were deemed to be more emotionally arousing as measured by skin conductance.

H/t: Gary King

(Note: Very small sample size – 38.)