Friday, September 18, 2015

Empirical Evidence for Thomistic Natural Law in the Pursuit of Happiness: Charles Murray's "Coming Apart"

One of the readings for my course this semester on "Natural Right and Law" is Thomas Aquinas's "Treatise on Law" in the Summa Theologica.  Thomas agrees with Aristotle that the end of all human action is happiness.  Natural law is about how we pursue happiness by satisfying our natural inclinations.  So, for example, marriage naturally contributes to our happiness by securing two natural ends--the parental care of children and the spousal bonding of husband and wife in a household.  These natural ends are achieved most fully, Thomas argues, in a heterosexual life-long monogamous marriage.

Some of my students disagree with this argument, because they think that sexual partners can be perfectly happy without being married, and that children can be raised successfully by a single parent.  So marriage is not necessary for either parental care or sexual partnership. 

Thomas agrees that it is possible for a wealthy mother to rear children properly without any help from the father, and it is also possible for a man to generate a child through fornication and then care for that child (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 154, a. 2; Summa Contra Gentiles, III, chap. 122, sec. 7).  But Thomas thinks these are exceptional cases, because generally for most people monogamous marriage is the best way to secure parental care and spousal love, and thus promote the happiness that comes from satisfying those natural human desires.

As I thought about our class discussions, it occurred to me that Thomas's argument about marriage might be empirically testable.  I reread Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum, 2012), and I made some copies for my students of some of the figures in the book that present evidence for how marriage contributes to happiness. 

Like Thomas, Murray agrees with Aristotle's claim about happiness as the end of all human action, and he believes that the American founders were successful in framing a government that would secure the conditions for people at all levels of American society to pursue their happiness.  Murray worries, however, that over the past 60 years, there has been a radical divergence between a new upper class and a new lower class, so that those in the lower class are failing in their pursuit of happiness. 

Up to the 1960s, there was no great cultural distance between upper and lower classes.  In fact, when people were asked in surveys to identify their class, 95% of the people said they were either "working class" or "middle class."  But then, beginning in the late 1960s, lots of different social indicators began to show trendlines towards a growing separation of the upper class from the lower class. 

One of those trendlines was in marriage.  Most of those in the upper class continue the American tradition of strong marriages with both parents caring for the children.  In 1960, those in the lower class showed the same pattern of strong marriages, but since then, marriage has declined steeply in the lower class.  Moreover, this trend in marriage is associated with a trend in reported happiness.  In 1960, most people in both the upper class and the lower class reported themselves as being "very happy."  In 2010, this was still true for the upper class; but many of those in the lower class were reporting themselves to be "not very happy." 

So it seems that in 1960, Americans in both the upper class and the lower class agreed with Thomas in seeing marriage as a critical condition for happiness; but now while those in the upper class continue to agree with Thomas about this, many of those in the lower class now agree with those of my students who think Thomas was wrong, because they think marriage is not a natural condition for happiness.

In his analysis and presentation of the data, Murray distinguishes between "Belmont" as the upper class and "Fishtown" as the lower class.  Belmont is a suburb of Boston that is known as one of the wealthiest and most upper class communities in America.  Fishtown is a neighborhood of Philadelphia that is known as a working class area.  Not only does Murray look at these real communities, he also identifies a fictional Belmont and a fictional Fishtown.  In fictional Belmont, Murray puts all those Americans who have a bachelor's or graduate degree and work in some high-status professional or managerial position, or are married to such a person.  In fictional Fishtown, Murray puts all those Americans who have no more that a high school diploma and whose occupation is some low-status job.

Here is how Murray presents the data on the connection between marriage and happiness.  Looking only at white Americans ages 30-49, Murray shows that in 1960, 95% of Belmont was married, and 85% of Fishtown was married.  So the marriage rate was a little lower for Fishtown, but not by much.  But since 1960, the gap has widened.  In 2010, 85% of Belmont was married, but only 49% of Fishtown was married (Figure 8-3).  In 1960, the divorce rate for Belmont was almost zero, and the divorce rate for Fishtown was about 4%.  In 2010, the divorce rate had risen to 7% for Belmont and 35% for Fishtown (Figure 8-5)

Looking at the percentage of children living with both biological parents when the mother's age is 40, Murray shows that in 1960 97% of the children in Belmont and 95% of the children in Fishtown were living with both parents.  In 2010, the percentage had dropped a little to 94% in Belmont, but it had dropped steeply to 27% in Fishtown (Figure 16.2).

So when we say that in America since 1960 the marriage rate has dropped, and the rates of divorce and single-parent families have increased, this is true mostly for the lower class, and much less so for the upper class.

How is this connected to happiness?  Under the influence of Aristotle, Murray defines happiness as lasting, deep, and justified satisfaction with life as a whole, the kind of satisfaction an old person might feel in looking back over a whole life well-lived (253-55).  He thinks there are three general requirements for the kinds of accomplishments that give us such deep satisfaction.  First, the source of the satisfaction must be something important, which excludes some passing pleasure from something trivial.  Second, the source of the satisfaction must require some effort over an extended period of time, which excludes accomplishments that come easily to us.  Third, we have to be personally responsible for the accomplishment, so that we can rightly take pride in it as something that would not have happened without us.

There aren't many activities that satisfy these three requirements--importance, effort, and responsibility.  Murray writes:  "Having been a good parent qualifies.  Being part of a good marriage qualifies.  Having done your job well qualifies.  Having been a faithful adherent of one of the great religions qualifies.  Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours qualifies" (255).  Murray suggests that such accomplishments that make us happy fall into four major domains of life--family, vocation, community, and faith.  (All of these activities can be found on my list of 20 natural desires.)

Murray can then make testable predictions that happy people will tend to be those with accomplishments in these four areas of life.  A sample of white Americans ages 30-49 were asked from 1990-2008, How happy are you?  31% said they were "very happy."  59% said they were "pretty happy."  10% said they were "not too happy" (Figure 15.1).  From his analysis of these surveys, Murray can show that "very happy" tends to correlate with accomplishments in the four areas he has identified as important for happiness--family, vocation, faith, and community.

Of those who reported being "very happy," 40% were currently married, 16% were separated, 17% were divorced, 22% were widowed, and 9% were never married (Figure 15.2).  Having a very happy marriage and being satisfied with one's work are together the two most important factors for happiness.  But social trust and religion are also somewhat important.  Among American white people aged 30-49 who are unmarried, dissatisfied with their work, with no religious beliefs, and living in neighborhoods with little social trust, the probability that they will report being "very happy" is only 10%.  For those with a satisfying job and a happy marriage, the probability is 55%.  High social trust and religious activity raises the probability to 76% (Figure 15.6).

Murray shows that this explains the differences between the white Americans in Belmont and those in Fishtown in their self-reported happiness.  In 1970, 50% of those in Belmont and 35% of those in Fishtown reported that they were "very happy."  In 2010, this gap had widened steeply--40% of those in Belmont and only 17% of those in Fishtown (Figure 15.8).

Murray also shows, however, that this gap narrows or even disappears as the people in Belmont and Fishtown become similar in their achievements.  Among those with high work satisfaction and good marriages, 45% of those in Belmont and 30% of those in Fishtown report being "very happy."  Among those who also report high social trust and weekly religious worship, the difference totally disappears--both in Belmont and in Fishtown, 60% of these people report being "very happy" (15.7).

This is emphasized by Murray because it shows that there is no barrier to happiness for those with a low level of education and income in a low-status job.  The people in Fishtown can be very happy if they are married, if they find satisfaction in their work, if they live in places where neighbors help one another, and if they are active religious believers.

When I presented this to my students as empirical evidence that Thomas was right--particularly about the connection of marriage to happiness--some of them responded with two criticisms.  One criticism was that correlation was not necessarily causation, and so we could imagine that people with happy dispositions are more likely to get married, and therefore it's not that marriage causes happiness, but that happiness causes marriage.

But if happiness is not caused by marriage, or by the other kinds of accomplishments Murray identifies, then what does cause happiness?  Is happiness just a product of innate temperament that does not arise from any accomplishment in life?

If happiness were just a product of a fixed innate temperament, it would be hard to explain the steep drop in self-reported happiness in Fishtown from 1960 to 2010.  Why has the proportion of people in Fishtown with happy temperaments declined so drastically in correlation with a drastic decline in rates of marriage and of the other three factors associated with happiness?

The second criticism of my claim that Murray's evidence supported Thomas's argument for marriage as a natural condition for happiness was that the growing gap between Belmont and Fishtown could be best explained as an effect of the growing gap in economic inequality.  The people in Belmont are so much richer than the people in Fishtown that it is easier for the people in Belmont to find the economic resources necessary for supporting families and the other factors for happiness.

Murray does survey the evidence for growing inequality as one of prime factors separating the upper class from the lower class, and he worries about it (49-52).  But as I have indicated, Murray also shows that it is possible for low-income and low-status people in Fishtown to achieve the same happiness as those in Belmont when the natural conditions for happiness are satisfied.  If that is so, then the growing gap between Belmont and Fishtown cannot be explained as purely the product of the growing gap in wealth.

Some of my other posts on Murray's arguments can be found here, here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

"Thomas agrees with Aristotle that the end of all human action is happiness. "
But Darwin would tell us that if the human organism is one which is designed to seek happiness, it is only nature's way of persuing further ends of survival and reproduction. So happiness is not THE end of humans. Aquinas agrees with this in that the Precept of Natural Law is survival and reproduction; happiness only comes in later.

CJColucci said...

The lower classes are letting us down. Didn't Oscar Wilde say that their purpose was to provide a moral example to the upper classes?