Ethical People More Satisfied With Life

University of Missouri economist Harvey James finds a relationship between life satisfaction and low tolerance for unethical conduct.

“The just man is happy, and the unjust man is miserable,” Plato declares in The Republic. A noble thought, to be sure, but Socrates’ most famous student didn’t have data to back up his belief. Harvey James, on the other hand, does. The University of Missouri economist finds a relationship between life satisfaction and low tolerance for unethical conduct. He discussed his findings, first published in the journal Kyklos, with Miller-McCune staff writer Tom Jacobs.

The research
“I found a correlation between how people responded to ethics questions and their satisfaction with life. As part of the 2005-06 wave of the World Values Survey (which examines attitudes around the globe), respondents were asked in face-to-face interviews: On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with your life? There were also four ethics questions that ask how acceptable or unacceptable they felt a particular practice is: claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled; avoiding paying your fare on public transportation; cheating on taxes; and accepting a bribe.

“What I found is, generally, people who believe that these particular ethical scenarios are not acceptable also tend to indicate they are more satisfied with life. That’s with controlling for other factors that scholars have shown are also correlated with happiness, including relative wealth.”

The limitations
“Admittedly, this measure of ethics is less than ideal. It certainly does not reveal the actual behavior of people. However, the four statements have a common, underlying ethical construct, which is that each of them expresses an action that could either directly or indirectly harm others, or society generally. Also, the measure of happiness is relatively crude. If someone asks you how satisfied you are with your life, your answer can be affected by many things that happened to you that particular day or week or month.

“Correlation or causation? It could be that a strong set of ethics affects happiness; it could be the other way around; or it could be something else that’s affecting both of them. My personal belief is that not being willing to justify ethically questionable behaviors may improve a person’s psychological well-being, perhaps because he or she avoids feelings of guilt or shame. This could in turn produce an increase in happiness.”

Cultural variations
“My original desire was to use all the countries for which data was available, but different cultures may view these particular scenarios differently. So, I scaled back and looked at four countries in the Western Hemisphere: The U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. I found that, generally, there is a positive correlation between [ethical standards] and happiness, but the strength of that relationship differs from one nation to another. The effect of the ethics variable was much stronger and larger for Brazilians than for people in the United States. Brazil, like much of South America, has a stronger religious culture. That may be part of the reason.”

Larger implications
“These findings are consistent with the view that happiness is derived from doing well, and from meeting psychological rather than material or hedonistic needs. While income, personal characteristics and societal values play a role in affecting happiness, so do personal ethics. If the goal of public policy is to improve subjective well-being, and if subjective well-being increases when people are just, then efforts to improve the moral behavior of people will also improve overall societal well-being.”a

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