Dirty Spectacles

As I recently admitted, I have in the not too distant past flirted with the excitement of Transhumanist philosophy. It is in many ways a religion of science, which makes it quite appealing: you get the feeling of purpose and destiny normally associated with religion but also the hard-headed rationality of science and technology. Of course, when one looks closer, it is anything but rational; nevertheless it is still surrounded by an aura of respectable logic and no-nonsense practicality, which tempts obsessive reasoners like me.

One of the rhetorical techniques used by the transhumanist crowd, which they share with fans of technological progressivism in general, is to accuse those who yearn for a “simpler” past of misplaced romanticism. Hence we find the following in the Transhumanism FAQ, intended as an answer to those who would like to “turn back the clock”:

The problem with this view is that the pre-industrial age was anything but idyllic. It was a life of poverty, misery, disease, heavy manual toil from dawn to dusk, superstitious fears, and cultural parochialism. [1]

Let us deal with each of these claims in order. First, what is meant by poverty? Notoriously, poverty is relative. The poorest members of modern Western society may well possess material wealth far beyond that of the wealthier end of Western society a few centuries ago; but this does not mean that they are happier with their lot. That wealth is significantly correlated with happiness is a claim that has been debunked time and again. Here is just one example:

“I started trying to understand the roots of happiness. [Shows a slide of a graph plotting personal income and happiness.] This is a typical result that many people have presented and there are many variations on it. But this for instance shows that about 30% of the people surveyed in the United States since 1956 say that their life is very happy. And that hasn’t changed at all whereas the personal income (on a scale that has been held constant to accommodate for inflation) has more than doubled, almost tripled, in that period. But you find essentially the same results, namely that after a certain basic point, which corresponds more or less to just a few thousand dollars above the minimum poverty level, increases in material well-being don’t seem to affect how happy people are.” [2]

So in one sense it is true that earlier societies were poorer than we are today: it is possible to construct absolute measures of material wealth according to which members of Western society are wealthier now than in times past. However, such an absolute measure of wealth is largely irrelevant. Recent research, as well as folk wisdom, shows that a rise in material wealth much beyond the minimum necessary for survival does not entail greater happiness. Even at the individual level, wealth is poorly correlated with happiness [3], but at the societal level it hardly seems relevant at all as long as basic needs are met.

As for misery, on what grounds do they claim that our ancestors were more miserable than we are today? Recent research does not support this claim:

“One problem that’s happening now is that although the rates of happiness are about as flat as the surface of the moon, depression and anxiety are rising. Despite that we’re in a world with so much more material wealth, much safer, better health, and all kinds of pharmaceuticals and treatments for mental illness, we’re still seeing rises in depression and anxiety. Some people might say this is because we have better diagnosis and more people are being found out, but [the data] suggest that we’re seeing it all over the world. In the United States right now there are more suicides than homicides; there’s a rash of suicide in China; and the World Health Organisation predicts that by the year 2020 depression will be the second largest cause of disability-related years lost after ischemic heart disease.

Happiness stays the same as ever. Now the good news here is that if you take surveys from around the world we find that more people are happy than not. [Shows a slide.] And we see that about three quarters of people will say they are at least pretty happy. But this does not follow any of the usual trends. So, for example, these two [charts] show great growth in income but absolutely flat happiness curves. So more money doesn’t seem to be doing anything to increase happiness level. [4]

Yet more evidence that wealth does not entail happiness and good reason to doubt that we are happier today than in the past. There seems no justification for the progressivist claim that pre-industrial life was “miserable”: with no data from the past to go on, the best we can do is to extrapolate from present data, which suggests that pre-industrial people were about as happy as we are today but they suffered from less depression and less anxiety.

However, although our mental health may be worse today than it was then, it cannot be denied that our physical health has improved. Modern Western nutrition may be awful, as the obesity and diabetes epidemics seem to indicate, but that is no reason to condemn modern medicine. In fact, it might be thought something of an achievement that we are so well cared for that blubber and sugar are some of our major worries. The revolution in so-called evidence-based medicine, which is essentially the consistent application of the scientific method to those areas of medical care amenable to such a method, is one of the few 20th century revolutions of which I thoroughly approve.

It would be extremely callous of me, safe in my relatively good health with a doctor just a telephone call away, to claim that improvements in medical care do not matter. Nevertheless, with regard to general happiness, there is a sense in which medical care is analogous to wealth. Disease is one of the accepted risks of life: whereas we would be horrified if a friend or relative were killed by smallpox, we still expect to lose friends to cancer. That is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to eradicate cancer just as we eradicated smallpox, but only that once cancer was forgotten its eradication would no longer be a source of happiness. Thus although medical care is undoubtedly a good thing (in general — I do not consider the prolongation of old age without accompanying quality of life to be a good thing: “old people’s homes” are an abomination) and hence a cause to prefer living today than in the past, it cannot be used as evidence that pre-industrial life was miserable for people alive then.

And why does Bostrom believe that pre-industrial life consisted of “heavy manual toil from dawn to dusk”? That sounds a lot more like 19th century industrial work than anything pre-industrial workers had to suffer. The working day for a medieval peasant did indeed stretch from dawn to dusk (thus it was approximately eight hours long in winter and sixteen hours long in summer) but it was broken up by many periods of rest. Breakfast, lunch, the afternoon nap and dinner all took place during the so-called “working day”, unlike today when we are lucky to get an hour for lunch. Labourers in the 19th century who campaigned for eight-hour working days were not taking a great step forward for workers’ rights, they were merely trying to undo the damage done during the Industrial Revolution. [5]

In addition, the year was full of holidays: Christmas, Easter and midsummer were all celebrated with long holidays and the calendar was peppered with saint’s days and rest days. There were also week-long “ales” to mark personal occasions such as weddings and deaths. Overall, approximately a third of the year was given over to holidays in medieval England. Even the ancien règime in France guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days and thirty-eight holidays. Travellers in Spain reported that holidays took up five months of the year. [6]

Furthermore, a peasant was not required to work on every day that was not an official holiday:

The peasant’s free time extended beyond officially sanctioned holidays. There is considerable evidence of what economists call the backward-bending supply curve of labor — the idea that when wages rise, workers supply less labor. During one period of unusually high wages (the late fourteenth century), many laborers refused to work “by the year or the half year or by any of the usual terms but only by the day.” And they worked only as many days as were necessary to earn their customary income — which in this case amounted to about 120 days a year, for a probable total of only 1,440 hours annually (this estimate assumes a 12-hour day because the days worked were probably during spring, summer and fall). A thirteenth-century estimate finds that whole peasant families did not put in more than 150 days per year on their land. Manorial records from fourteenth-century England indicate an extremely short working year — 175 days — for servile laborers. Later evidence for farmer-miners, a group with control over their worktime, indicates they worked only 180 days a year. [7]

Erik Rauch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has compiled a list of estimates of the average number of hours worked per year for different periods: [8]

13th century Adult male peasant, UK 1620 hours
14th century Casual labourer, UK 1440 hours
Middle Ages English worker 2309 hours
1400 – 1600 Farmer-miner, adult male, UK 1980 hours
1840 Average worker, UK 3105 – 3588 hours
1850 Average worker, USA 3150 – 3650 hours
1987 Average worker, USA 1949 hours
1988 Manufacturing worker, UK 1856 hours

This demonstrates quite clearly that the only people who had to suffer long days of hard toil were those poor souls who had the misfortune to live through the Industrial Revolution. The claim that pre-industrial workers had a harder life than today’s workers is a lie based on falsely extrapolating early industrial conditions into the past. In fact, the working day wasn’t so bad until the industrialists turned up.

Finally, what should we make of the accusation of “superstitious fears and cultural parochialism”? We could point out that there are still plenty of superstitious fears around today, including many new ones. We could also suggest that a bit more parochialism might not go amiss in contemporary culture. However, it is clear by now that these are not reasoned arguments but merely baseless accusations fueled by ideology.

[1] Bostrom, N. 2003. Transhumanist FAQ (Humanity+) available at http://humanityplus.org/learn/philosophy/faq

[2] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talking in February 2004 at TED in Monterey, California. Available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXIeFJCqsPs. I quote from 03:15 to 04:15.

[3] Quiñones, E. 2006. Link between income and happiness is mainly an illusion (Princeton University). Available at http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S15/15/09S18/index.xml

[4] Nancy Etcoff talking in February 2004 at TED in Monterey, California. Available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W2dsnhC18Q. I quote from 01:44 to 03:05.

[5] Rogers, J. E. T. 1949. Six Centuries of Work and Wages (London: Allen and Unwin)

[6] Rodgers, E. 1940. Discussion of Holidays in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press)

[7] Schor, J. B. 1993. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic Books)

[8] Rauch, E. Preindustrial workers worked fewer hours than today’s. Available at http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html

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Published in: on October 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm  Comments (3)  

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting you should correlate hours worked with misery.

    I think it’s more a case of the type of work performed effecting happiness, rather than the hours worked. One of the keys to happiness is having meaningful work to perform. I do agree there needs to be a balance between work and play.

    I think we have multitudes of choices of the work we do today compared to our forefathers. That should make us happier!

    Live Life Happy!

  2. I don’t think I did correlate hours worked with misery. Bostrom claimed that pre-industrial life consisted of “heavy manual toil from dawn to dusk”. I pointed out that actually we work more hours now than they did.

    I am also not so sure that having “multitudes of choices of the work we do” is necessarily a good thing. First of all, having multitudes of choices tends to be negatively correlated with happiness: see, for example, Barry Schwartz’s talk at TED in July 2005 at Oxford:

    Too little choice is bad but so is too much. “Pre-industrial life” is a rather large category — most of the world for most of its history — but I think at various times and places it came closer to the happy median than either slavery at one end of the continuum or modern society at the other.

    Second, I think the uprootedness of modern life (see Simone Weil’s The Need For Roots, Harper & Row 1971) contributes to the modern malaise. We no longer have a sense of our place in society, of being part of something bigger than ourselves, and I think our supposed “freedom of choice” is partly to blame for that.

  3. Hmm. Perhaps I spoke too hastily when I praised Evidence-Based Medicine: Zombie science of Evidence-Based Medicine


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