A technocratic solution to a spiritual question

by | Mar 2, 2011

There is a danger that we have become not just trapped in the ‘prison of GDP’, but trapped in the prison of statistics. We have become trapped in the idea that something can only be a serious goal if we can quantify it, measure it, and track our progress towards it on a neat Power Point graph. And we want to use this approach to find well-being. We want a technocratic solution to a spiritual question.

The argument often put forward as to why governments should start to measure well-being is that it will free us from what one British minister calls “the prison of GDP”. We have become ‘trapped’, it is said, in narrow and overly-reductive economic measurements, which don’t capture what truly matters to us. The solution to this, we are told, is to measure what does matter to us: positive emotion, social relations, well-being. But can one really measure well-being? First of all, you need to define it.

Charles Seaford, co-head of the Centre for Well-Being at the new economics foundation in London, said recently that the high-level British policy debate over how to define well-being divided into two camps: the Benthamites and the Aristotelians. The Benthamites, followers of the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, define well-being as ‘feeling good’, and want to measure it by asking the nation how they feel. The Aristotelians, followers of the 4th century Greek philosopher, define well-being as ‘optimal human functioning’, or what Aristotle called eudaimonia. They want to measure it by asking the nation how autonomous they feel, how socially engaged, how fulfilled, and so on.

The Benthamite approach

I have several problems with the Benthamite or Hedonic approach, of defining well-being as merely ‘feeling good’. Briefly, because others have made these criticisms at greater length and in better prose:

It is overly-simplistic. The Benthamite approach suggests that happiness is one single, homogeneous experience, and that instances of it differ only in intensity and duration. Only statisticians could believe this. This belief displays, in the words of John Stuart Mill, “the empiricism of one who has not experienced very much”. It tries to take the many multi-faceted, multi-cultural, nuanced and subtle experiences of well-being and reduce them to one experience, that can be measured in one question – ‘how happy are you on a ten-point scale?’ Because it’s a bounded scale, people will typically reply ‘about a seven’. Their general levels of well-being may rise over time, but they will still typically reply ‘about a seven’, because they will adapt to their higher levels of well-being. That’s why happiness levels have not risen in the last 30 years – not because our society is broken, but because the method of measuring happiness is limited and cannot reflect absolute rises.

It is vulgar. Bentham, Mill said, suffered from a “deficiency of imagination”. So do his followers. Bentham insisted that only things that make us feel pleasant are worthwhile, therefore ‘pushpin is better than poetry’, because pushpin, a trivial parlour game, creates more pleasant feelings in the masses than poetry. He had no sense that some types of happiness are higher and better than others, and so we should be educated to appreciate them. He also didn’t appreciate that some worthwhile experiences – like watching a tragedy – will actually make us feel sad. The best arts – Shakespeare, Sophocles, The Sopranos – connect us to the full range of human experience, the dark as well as the light. Utilitarianism, by contrast, tries to turn everything into a moronic happy face. Imagine a TV show or a novel where everyone was happy all the time. It would be unbearably boring.

It fails to recognize the appropriateness of negative emotions. Nature gave us a range of emotional experiences for a reason. Sometimes, it is appropriate to be sad, or angry, or disappointed, or restless. Deifying one feeling is counter-productive, and reduces the rich complexity of life.

It is ignoble. If the goal of life, and the goal of society, is simply ‘pleasant feelings’, then why shouldn’t the government give every citizen a ration of MDMA or Prozac, to lift the general level of good feelings? The reason we dislike that idea, is because we recognize there is more to life than ‘bovine contentment’. We don’t want just to feel good. We want lives of genuinely rich activity, engagement, striving, achievement and fulfillment. Feeling good is the bonus to those experiences – it shouldn’t be the goal itself. In fact, an important part of the striving life is moments of dissatisfaction and restlessness. Those emotions have their place in human experience.

It is self-absorbed and anti-civic. Utilitarians think that, if ‘feeling good’ is made the goal of society, everyone will naturally work for other people’s happiness. But why should they? ‘Because it will make them feel good’. But what if it doesn’t? What if visiting my sick mother in hospital actually makes me feel bad? What argument can a Utilitarian make in that instance? Our own pleasant feelings are not a strong and lasting enough guide for sustained moral and civic behaviour.

What about the Aristotelian approach?

I have more respect for the Aristotelian approach. It captures the fact that human well-being is (in my opinion) about more than simply feeling good. Rather, the ‘feeling good’ is a consequence of fulfilling certain human drives or needs: the need for social engagement, for meaning and purpose, for autonomy, for creativity, and so on. But can we empirically measure this more nuanced and multi-faceted idea of eudaimonia?

Yes, say the Neo-Aristotelians. They include the economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who have come up with a ‘capabilities approach’ to human flourishing, which defines ten core human capabilities. Sen and Nussbaum claim that statisticians can measure the extent to which a society enables a person to fulfill those capabilities.

Another, related approach uses the Self-Determination Theory of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Deci and Ryan say that humans have three core needs or drives: the need for autonomy, social connectedness, and mastery. And again, they insist that statisticians can measure the extent to which an individual or a group has achieved fulfillment in these areas. Their approach has been very influential for the new economics foundation (nef), which describes it as “a modernised, empirically-based version of Aristotle’s theory of eudaimonia.”

And finally, Martin Seligman, inventor of Positive Psychology, also insists that well-being is a multi-faceted experience, which he separates into four domains: hedonic happiness, engaged happiness, achieving happiness and meaningful happiness, each of which can be empirically measured, he insists.

Measuring eudaimonia

So the Neo-Aristotelians insist that eudaimonia can be measured, just like the Benthamites’ more simplistic idea of happiness. But are they right? Let’s start with Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which has been taken up by the new economics foundation (nef). There’s a lot to like about the theory. It has defined eudaimonia as the fulfillment of three core needs: autonomy, mastery, and social connectedness. But SDT leaves out something pretty fundamental to Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia: virtue. Aristotle said that happiness is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue”. But there’s no mention of virtue in SDT, or in nef’s approach.

One can imagine a person who feels a deep sense of autonomy, mastery and social connectedness, but who is nevertheless morally rotten. A Nazi party functionary in 1930s Germany might feel autonomy, mastery and social connectedness, but we might still insist there was something lacking in their well-being, namely, sound morality. But you can’t measure the soundness of a person’s moral beliefs empirically or scientifically.

Nussbaum and Sen try to introduce some moral capacity into their ten core capabilities. The capabilities include the capacity for emotion – feeling appropriate emotions and attachments – and also the capacity for ‘practical reasoning about the Good’. But can you really scientifically measure the extent to which a person feels appropriate emotion? That involves a subjective moral judgement about what emotions are appropriate, and an Aristotelian would give a different answer to, say, a Stoic, or a Buddhist, or a Freudian, or a Methodist. Again, you can’t measure this empirically and scientifically, because it’s a question of moral belief.

Likewise, you might be able to test a person’s capacity for practical reasoning about the Good, in a philosophy exam for example. But I really don’t see how such a test could be applied to an entire country without being utterly simplistic. And, to really test a person’s level of eudaimonia, you’d need to see not just how well they can reason about the Good, but how well they actually follow their reasoning and translate it into their lives. How could you test that empirically for an individual, let alone for a nation?

Martin Seligman, finally, insists that science can empirically measure both hedonic happiness, and engaged happiness (or ‘flow’) and meaningful happiness. Perhaps science can measure how good someone feels at a particular moment, but to rely just on hedonic measurements is “morally and politically imprisoning”, he says. I agree. But can science measure engaged happiness and meaningful happiness?

You can measure the extent to which a person is absorbed in an activity. But it is easy to imagine instances where a person is completely absorbed in an activity that is nonetheless unhealthy and toxic – a heroin addict is utterly absorbed in their addiction, for example, as is a video game addict. We have to make some moral judgement about the worth of the activity one is engaged in. A person might dedicate their lives to a novel for example. But is that a worthwhile activity, if they are working on a very bad novel? And one can also easily imagine many instances where a person’s obsession makes their life very unbalanced and myopic. Isn’t an important part of well-being having a balanced life of various different pursuits and fulfillments?

Secondly, Seligman defines meaningful happiness as ‘the feeling of working together with others to serve a higher cause’. But doesn’t a great deal depend on the moral worth of the cause you are serving? You could be marching for the civil rights of minorities, or you could be marching against them with the Ku Klux Klan. Both marchers would feel a sense of meaning, purpose and social engagement -but to decide which of these people is experiencing genuine well-being, we’d need to move beyond empirical measurements of their feelings and make moral judgements about the cause they are serving.

Seligman thinks we can assess how ‘meaningful’ a life is by empirically assessing a person’s own judgement, their friends’ judgements, and ‘some objective societal measure’. But assessing all the tangible and intangible impacts of a person’s life would take a God, not a statistician. To truly weigh up the meaning of a person’s life, you’d have to look centuries into the future after their death…and you’d have to have some idea of what, if anything, awaits humans in the afterlife. Science and statistics can’t tell us anything about our fate after death, which means there is a vast area of uncertainty at the heart of the ‘science of well-being’.

For most humans around the world, personal assessments of our life’s meaning involves beliefs about God and the after-life. Aristotle, Socrates,Plato, the Stoics – they all thought that the ‘purpose’ of man was to contemplate God and serve God. But the Neo-Aristotelian science of functioning tries to cut out this idea of man’s divine purpose, because statistics can’t measure the existence of God. So man, in modern functioning theory, doesn’t really have a function. ‘Man’s function is to fulfill human needs’. But what is the point of that?

The limits of empiricism

There is a danger that we have become not just trapped in the ‘prison of GDP’, but trapped in the prison of statistics. Statistics are the foundation of modern government. They are the cornerstone of the modern faith in the power of technocrats and bureaucrats to control nature, mitigate risk, and make life better. We are realizing now that one can become trapped in statistics, that they can distort and mislead. But our panacea for this sickness is….more statistics.

We have become trapped in the idea that something can only be a serious goal if we can quantify it, measure it, and track our progress towards it on a neat Power Point graph. This is the sacred belief at the heart of our technocratic societies. And we want to use this approach to cure our spiritual malaise. We want a technocratic solution to a spiritual problem.

But it’s just not that simple, sadly. We can’t just clear up the uncertainty and suffering of life with a Power Point presentation, rapturously as such a presentation would be received at TED talks and in the halls of power. There can never be a science of well-being because science can never prove what the purpose of life is, or if it has a purpose, partly because it can never prove what happens after death. Science can measure the quantifiable, but not everything can be reduced to a number. Could you put a number on how much you love your child?

Of course, no one wants a world of rampant moral relativism. I also would like to believe that there is such a thing as a good life, that some lives are better-lived than others. And I recognize that science can help us a great deal in our search for good lives. But, in the words of Aristotle, we should look for precision in such matters “only so far as the subject admits”.

The dangerous unintended consequence of this search for a perfect ‘science of happiness’, this search for ‘facts’ about well-being as opposed to ‘beliefs’, is that the ‘happiness science’ becomes a dogma – with governments telling their citizens ‘this is the way to happiness, and you should follow it’. Governments can of course make moral arguments to their citizens. But I don’t think they can say they have scientifically proven that their model of life is the best – because there is a limit to what can be measured and tested scientifically. And insisting that there is a ‘science of happiness’ takes the search for happiness out of the hands of the individual and puts it in the hands of ‘happiness experts’. Part of the Good Life is finding the Good Life for myself, not simply following some instant happiness recipe handed out by the ministry of happiness.

The constant repetition of the phrase ‘science of happiness’ is in danger of giving the public the impression that science has, or ever could, clear up the question of the meaning of life once and for all. Such is the eagerness of psychologists, economists and policy-makers to affect public policy and win funding, that exalted and inflated claims for this young field are being made in the media, conferences and policy meetings.

But if the politics of well-being is going to be more than a passing fad, if it is going to be legitimate in the eyes of the public and of posterity, then we need to be more humble and more honest, and to admit the limits of our certainty and empirical ability. Socrates suggested that wisdom consists in admitting the limits of our knowledge. Let’s admit what we don’t know and can’t measure.


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    Jules Evans is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, Philosophy for Life), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).

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