About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Podcast Double-Teaser: The Science and Philosophy of Happiness AND Evidence-based philanthropy

by Julia Galef
Massimo and I are gearing up to tape another double-header of the Rationally Speaking podcast, and we’ve got two fascinating topics lined up. In Episode 37 we’ll be looking at the science and philosophy of happiness. Debates over what’s important to happiness — Money? Children? Love? Achievement? — are ancient and universal, but attempts to study the subject empirically are much newer. We’ll talk about what psychologists have learned so far about which factors have a strong effect on people’s happiness and which don’t. We’ll also examine some of the surprising findings from the field — like the studies that show that parents are less happy than non-parents, or the controversial finding of leading happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert that people return to their happiness “set point” even after extreme events like winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed. 
We’ll also tackle some of the philosophical questions regarding happiness, such as whether some kinds of happiness are “better” than others, and whether people can be mistaken about their own happiness. Many people make a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, putting things like love and art in the former category, and sensual pleasures in the latter category. But does that distinction make sense? And should we value truth and wisdom even if they come at the cost of less happiness, as John Stuart Mill famously argued, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” 
In Episode 38 we’ll be joined by a special guest: Holden Karnofsky is the founder of Givewell, a nonprofit organization devoted to investigating charities and NGOs to determine how much of an impact they’re having. You could call it “evidence-based philanthropy” — determining whether a charity is doing good, as opposed to just telling a convincing story, and trying to figure out where you should donate your money if you want to get the most done for your dollar. We’ll talk with Holden about how Givewell evaluates charities, and about what the research has to say about various controversies in the nonprofit world: Can large charities be efficient or do they inevitably become bureaucratic? Should we focus on problems closer to home instead of giving to foreign countries? And do microfinance NGOs like Kiva or Grameen Bank live up to their claims?


  1. Re evidence-based philanthropy:

    I know nothing about Givewell but the idea sounds great to me. A couple of questions from my completely uninformed perspective:
    * How would this relate to the principle of giving to those areas that are under-represented by existing donations?
    * Could this allow for supporting research that has delivered nothing yet but that might lead to huge pay-offs for humanity?

    These questions were triggered by a BBC piece about a hedge fund millionaire who gave £20 million to the Cavendish Laboratory:
    Currently still available to listen here:

  2. I'm intrigued. I do hope you'll start by clearly defining what happiness is though. I get a lot of different answers to the question of what happiness is. How do you measure happiness anyway? Is it entirely subjective, or is there some objective means by which you can at least compare levels of happiness? As always, I look forward to the podcast.

  3. >“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.<
    As if we had a choice to be either a pig or Socrates, since it's the nature of a human (and probably a pig as well) to be dissatisfied, and especially one whose curiosity approaches that of Socrates. Who I suspect was happily dissatisfied.

  4. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on Pascal Bruckner's view of modern day happiness which, according to him, leads to so much angst.

  5. I wonder if it's possible to reset that base "happiness level" for people who are set so low that they might be characterized as "miserable"? And how does depression figure into this? Are people who become depressed more likely to be the ones that have a lower base point such that they don't have as far to go to be pushed into depression as a person with a higher base point? So what sets this base in the first place?

  6. Very much looking forward to the optimized philanthropy podcast - sounds fantastic. I'd love for Holden to go into as much detail as possible for the format about how Givewell makes one charity's actions commensurable with another's so that you are comparing apples to apples; e.g., how to compare a charity that works toward better quality of life with one that is supposed to save lives?

    Also, LessWrong has some wonderful articles on this topic:
    Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others" by Yvain
    Efficient Charity by multifoliaterose

  7. Regarding the Mill quote, how much does self justification and cognitive dissonance play into measurements of happiness? Do people tend to say they're happy because they'd rather convince themselves they're happy than admit they're unhappy?
    Have there been any studies on happiness that try to "prime" the subject with something they agree or disagree with? Such as "Given X, how happy are you?", where X might be "Obama is in office", or "Palin is gaining popularity", etc.

  8. I recently listened to an interesting podcast episode on the effectiveness of micro finance. Hope this helps.


  9. Considering that there seems to be some "happiness baseline" which our brains revert to after becoming accustom to a novel experience AND that there seems to be a correlation between reward uncertainty and dopamine levels (where a 50/50 prospect gives us far greater motivation and short term "happiness" than does a 100% guarantee of reward), do you suppose we could keep our "happiness levels" raised above the baseline by constantly pursuing new goals of moderate risk? Is happiness as simple as learning and experiencing new things?

  10. I would be interested in hearing about how various cultures have defined happiness differently over time and what factors influence the way a certain culture defines happiness. For example, has any research been done into the correlations between certain views of happiness and other sociocultural factors?

  11. Love your new term 'evidence-based philanthropy'. I'm totally using that.

  12. mods can you fix this? RS 38 & RS39 teaser BOTH link to here, so no access to RS39 free will teaser.

  13. John,

    the teasers don't usually link to the actual episodes, only the after-taping summaries do. However, the full list of podcasts with links is available on this page, just click on the "Podcast" tab at the top.


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