Author: Jeremy Blumenthal

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Too Much Happiness?

Increasingly, the study of “happiness” is making its way into legal academic writing. In some analyses it is framed as an alternative to money as a measure of welfare; in others as a focus on addressing the recurring problem of law firm associates’ pessimism. It is applied to tax policy, the calculation of pain-and-suffering damages, democratic institutions, and more. And happiness is making its way into law schools—well, in a sense anyway—with seminars being offered at Yale and Temple Law Schools on, for instance, “Law, Happiness, and Subjective Well-Being.” The study of happiness, and the related research program in positive psychology, are becoming increasingly prominent in law and policy.

The connection to the also-burgeoning literature on paternalism is clear; to the extent different interventions might be able to increase people’s happiness and welfare, is government justified in promulgating such interventions (or even obligated to do so)? That’s a can-of-worms type of question that I won’t get into in this post, but it connects with an interesting new article that indirectly raises the question whether such intervention—even if justified—might in fact backfire. That article, “The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy?,” suggests that even though higher happiness seems to correlate with higher success in other areas, simply continuing to increase happiness might not increase that success consistently. The abstract follows:

Psychologists, self-help gurus, and parents all work to make their clients, friends, and children happier. Recent research indicates that happiness is functional and generally leads to success. However, most people are already above neutral in happiness, which raises the question of whether higher levels of happiness facilitate more effective functioning than do lower levels. Our analyses of large survey data and longitudinal data show that people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships and volunteer work, but that those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income, education, and political participation. Once people are moderately happy, the most effective level of happiness appears to depend on the specific outcomes used to define success, as well as the resources that are available.

We know that “money doesn’t buy happiness”—that simply increasing financial success doesn’t directly correlate with happiness above a certain (surprisingly low) point; here’s an interesting suggestion that above a certain point, happiness doesn’t “buy” success.

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President Bush on Art. II, Sec. 2

I remember being quite amused at the following New York Times quote, by our President and Commander-in-Chief. It was more than a month ago (11/8), but I don’t recall it eliciting much comment either in the media or the blogosphere. Maybe it’s just me…

“[A]ppearing at George Washington’s mansion in Mount Vernon, Va., with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France[, Mr. Bush said,] ‘You can’t be the president and the head of the military at the same time.”’

OK. Um, but see U.S. Const., art. II sec. 2.

To be fair, full context of both:

”My message was that we believe strongly in elections, and that you ought to have elections soon, and you need to take off your uniform,” Mr. Bush said later, appearing at George Washington’s mansion in Mount Vernon, Va., with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. ”You can’t be the president and the head of the military at the same time.”

**********

The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States….

But I was still amused.

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This is Your Brain on … the New York Times

A recent NY Times bit talks about “neurorealism,” that is, people’s increased tendency to believe psychological or other scientific assertions when those assertions are accompanied by images from brain scans. The piece quotes Deena Weisberg, who wrote an article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience documenting this empirically (in both laypeople and, if I remember the article correctly, in experts, though to a lesser extent), and the neologizer, Eric Racine. The piece mentions a newspaper article “about how high-fat foods activate reward centers in the brain,” and asks, “Couldn’t we have proced that with a slice of pie and a piece of paper with a check box on it?” Brian Leiter also noted the Times piece, with a plug for his paper criticizing legal academics’ use of evolutionary biology.

But the Times bit, and these scholars, conflate two very different points. The first is the “credulousness” issue—that people believe the assertions when accompanied by brain images. That’s an important point, especially in the legal context, where judges, jurors, or policy-makers might be exposed to such scans and misled by such scientific “explanations” of behavior. (Of course, it’s not enormously surprising, given past concerns about jurors’ understanding of complex scientific evidence.)

But that’s quite a different point from the dismissive “check box” question, criticizing even the usefulness of such neurological research. fMRI and other such scans can of course provide important and useful evidence, and certainly can tell us more than simple self-reports or even other behavioral studies. Matt Lieberman, a psychologist at UCLA [disclosure: we were in grad school together] and one of those most prominently associated with the newish field of social cognitive neuroscience, has addressed this well, in answering whether SCN provides something more than conventional social psychology. Summarizing just one of his papers on the issue: he points out that fMRI can provide evidence that “two psychological processes that experientially feel similar and produce similar behavioral results, but actually rely on different underlying mechanisms,” such as memory for social and non-social information. It can document “processes that one would not think rely on the same mechanisms, when in fact they do,” such as the common neurological pathways in the experience of both physical and social pain. And more speculatively, he suggests, as “more is learned about the precise functions of different regions of the brain it may be possible to infer some of the mental processes that an individual is engaged in just from looking at the activity of their brains.” This is an important advantage to overcome potential difficulties in, for instance, self-report.

There is of course danger in over-selling fMRI and similar neurological evidence—whether evaluating psychiatric patients, capital defendants, or others—and documenting people’s susceptibility to such over-sell is important. But it’s quite a different question whether such scans can be useful, and to dismiss them out of hand is just as obviously a mistake.

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Kosher Food, Social Justice, and Shaming (Blumenthal Guest)

The last year or so has seen a fascinating movement in the kosher food world-the development of the “hekhsher tzedek” -variously translated as a “righteous seal” or “Justice certification.” Initiated largely by the Conservative Jewish movement, the certification is seen as a complement to the traditional kosher certification, which attests that the food in question has been prepared according to Jewish ritual law. According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the seal would certify that “food and meat processors have met a set of standards that determine the social responsibility of kosher food producers, particularly in the area of workers’ rights.” Thus, kosher food could receive two certifications-one showing that it is ritually kosher, one showing that the workers in a particular plant were treated ethically, fairly, and legally. The USCJ was to consider a resolution establishing the certification at its December conference last week. It was expected to pass easily, though I have not seen follow-up reports.

The idea is controversial, for a number of reasons legal and otherwise. One is motive-some see the move as motivated by antipathy toward one of the larger kosher facilities, AgriProcessors, in Iowa, where worker mistreatment and unsafe conditions were alleged in the spring of 2006.

Another set of issues concerns the proper purviews of government, religious, and lay groups: objections have been raised that responding to such worker treatment is the role of government agencies and the justice system. There are interesting echoes here of the kosher fraud statute cases of the last several years, in which constitutional challenges to state definitions of “kosher” were upheld. These cases essentially led to more informal, social regulation of kosher food sellers, reflecting the sort of “shaming” and social norms issued often discussed here at CO. See Shayna M. Sigman, Kosher Without Law: The Role of Nonlegal Sanctions in Overcoming Fraud Within the Kosher Food Industry, 31 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 509 (2004). (My own opinion is that those cases may be wrong, and the statutes not unconstitutional, but that’s another discussion.)

But other questions have been raised, too-for instance, what effect, if any, would such certification have on the value of the ritual certification (i.e., would the religious aspect of it be devalued)? Is there potential liability for a certifying group if there is an accident or mistreatment at a plant that has been certified? What standards would the certifying group use?

All of these notions, I think, raise good issues for legal scholars (and students looking for note topics!).