Can you measure eudaimonia?

by | Sep 26, 2011

Martha Nussbaum has another book out. Does she never sleep? This one is called Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, and looks at the necessity of moving beyond GDP by measuring a broader range of human ‘capabilities’, such as education, health etc. Professor Nussbaum developed the ‘capabilities approach’ together with the Cambridge economist Amartya Sen, who then went on to advise the French government on its launch of national well-being measurements in 2009. But, unlike her former colleague, Nussbaum seems determinedly sceptical about the value or point of national measurements of subjective well-being. She says, in an interview on the Freakonomics podcast:

It’s all a question of what you think happiness is. And this is a question that philosophers have asked for centuries. And the minute that Jeremy Bentham said that we should look at happiness in terms of pleasure and satisfaction, John Stuart Mill immediately said, “Now wait a minute, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” And so he then insisted that we had to think about happiness as containing many different kids of experiences, many different kinds of activity. And well, Mill wasn’t the first to say that. He was really getting all of that from Aristotle. So I’m with Mill, and I think that the Benthamite approach, where we just think of happiness as a single feeling, has got very little going for it. If you just think about a daily experience, the pleasure I get from writing is very different from the pleasure that I get from going out and buying a very nice dress. They’re just very different things. And the pleasure that somebody might get from bringing up a child is different again. So I think that’s not a good idea. And I think we should have a much more Millian rather than Benthamite conception of happiness.

Very well, I agree so far. Others – like Charles Seaford of the New Economics Foundation, have noted this contemporary clash in well-being policy between Benthamite and Aristotelian definitions of well-being. The question for Nussbaum is, does she think this more Aristotelian definition of well-being can be measured in individuals or nations using social science? If you look at the list of capabilities Nussbaum came up with, it includes some rather intangible things like ‘play’, ‘practical reason’, ‘senses / imagination’, ’emotional attachment’, ‘control over one’s environment’. When I say they’re intangible, I’m not denying they exist. But does Nussbaum think these capabilities can be measured for an individual, or for a society? Or does she think this more Aristotelian idea of human flourishing simply isn’t readily measurable using social statistics?

A second interesting area to think about in Nussbaum’s thinking is the relationship between capabilities and virtues. Does Nussbaum believe that politics can or should promote a particular conception of the good life? This is a key question, because Nussbaum is trying to find a balance between the ancient Greek idea of the good life, and the liberalism and pluralism of John Rawls, JS Mill, and other liberal theorists.

Aristotle’s concept of the good life, or eudaimonia, is grounded in a functionalist account of human nature. Humans, Aristotle argues, have a unique nature. It is rational, ethical, political and religious. Eudaimonia (human flourishing) is the fulfillment of this uniquely human nature, in virtuous activity, in political engagement, in the contemplation of God. Politics should promote well-being or eudaimonia in the people. So it should educate the people and instil habits of virtue in them both through state education, and through creating spaces and institutions in which they can practice the virtues – for example, the university, parliament, perhaps even monasteries. So what Aristotle gives us is a state-backed model of the good life. This particularly inspired Karl Marx, who intended to be a lecturer on Aristotle, and who also came up with a state-backed model of the good life. The Marxist project obviously went a bit wrong. And it should alert us to the dangers inherent in Aristotle’s political philosophy – it is illiberal, anti-pluralist, mono-culturalist, and potentially an excuse for a intrusive and coercive government to meddle in our minds (for our own well-being, of course).

So what is Nussbaum’s solution? She suggests governments should protect human capabilities, rather than impose a particular model of the good life. Her capabilities are not virtues, she insists. They are the basic opportunities which each human deserves to have. They create the space for the pursuit of our different conceptions of the good life. For example, if we’re a Stoic, Muslim or Buddhist, our conception of the good life might involve some ascetic practices, such as fasting, designed to develop our agency and moral freedom. We might choose to follow such practices. But this doesn’t give the state the right to impose these practices on the people, through a Ramadan-style official month of fasting, for example. On the contrary, the state should protect humans’ access to basic nourishment. If they choose to go without food some days for moral purposes, that is their choice.

Another example: if we’re Stoic or Buddhist we must strive to free ourselves from emotional attachments in order to attain tranquility and freedom from desire. But the state should not strive to free us from our emotional attachments through some enforced Platonic or Stoic regime (for example, by taking children away from their parents at the age of five as Plato suggested). On the contrary, Nussbaum argues the state should protect our basic right to form emotional attachments. If we choose, then, to work to free ourselves from these attachments, that’s our choice.

Another example: our conception of the good life might include God. But that doesn’t mean the state should back one particular conception of God’s existence (or absence). But it should protect our opportunity to follow our particular religion, if we want to. So really the state should not be in the business of telling us how to live our lives, but should merely protect our opportunities to follow our own good.

But there remains the question of state education. Nussbaum follows Aristotle in believing the state should play a bigger role in providing education both to young people and to adults, to develop their capacities, such as their capacity for practical reason, imagination, debate, citizenship and so on. She also, however, criticizes the notion of some forms of art being ‘higher’ than others. So she’s quite wary of the state subsidizing opera, for example – such elitism goes against her liberal, Rawlsian, pluralist instincts. She herself was brought up in aristocratic family, and she has self-consciously rebelled against that elitism ever since – this is why she hated Allan Bloom’s very elitist book on higher education, The Closing of the American Mind.

Still, I wonder if there’s a contradiction here. Doesn’t her Aristotelian and Millian rejection of the utilitarian definition of happiness commit her, as it committed Mill, to the idea that some forms of happiness and beauty are simply higher and better than others, and that it is the job of education to guide us, to some extent, towards these higher conceptions of happiness, justice and beauty?

Nussbaum’s own work – such as The Therapy of Desire, Cultivating Humanity, and Upheavals of Thought – put forward a Greek conception of education, arguing that through philosophical education we can move from lower conceptions of the good (based, for example, on money, status, power, tribe etc) to higher conceptions of the good (for example, the good of the whole of humanity rather than our particular tribe).

But doesn’t that mean the state should teach people some conception of the good? Particularly with the education of young people – surely the state has to teach children some conception of the good life? With adults, ie people over 16, obviously there should be more room for debate, disagreement and critical reasoning. But still, isn’t the whole idea of higher education that it involves, in some sense, an education of our emotions, and a guiding of them to higher conceptions of the good and the beautiful?

I think it’s possible to negotiate our way round this problem. What Nussbaum does in her books, and what I’ve tried to do in the book I’m writing at the moment, is show how Greek philosophy offers not one but several models of the good life. These models share some basic Socratic conceptions of human nature, but take it in different directions – Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic, Cynic and so on – with different conceptions of the emotions, of politics, of God and so on. So perhaps we could teach young people these various different models of the good life, these different approaches, without trying to usher them down one particular path? That, it seems to me, would be one compromise between an Aristotelian idea of the good life and a Millian defence of individual choice.

I remain, like Nussbaum, wary of the idea of national well-being measurements, and sceptical of the ability of social science to numerically quantify the goodness of a life. It is much easier to measure well-being in a Benthamite or hedonic sense than in an Aristotelian or eudaimonic sense. So when people like Richard Layard enthuse about national well-being measurements, what they are really saying is that our government should embrace a specifically utilitarian conception of well-being and then use it to guide public policy. Approached with this level of naivité, General Well-Being could be as distorting a measurement as Gross Domestic Product.

Too many economists, in their enthusiasm to get with the well-being programme, are rushing to promote national well-being measurements. For example, Jeffrey Sachs, in his new book The Price of Civilization, seems to make the same mistake as so many other happiness economists, of trying to marry Aristotle and Bentham’s conceptions of well-being. He claims that the solution to the international financial crisis is a return to “personal and civic virtue”, and he holds up Aristotle as the lodestar for this revival of virtue. Well and good. But then he also says the solution is ‘the measurement of Americans’ well-being’. Does Sachs really think that simplistic questionnaires can measure well-being in an Aristotelian sense? Does he think you can find out how good a person’s life is, simply by asking them how happy they are, or how satisfied with their life they are?

Aristotle thought we could only really know how good a person’s life was when they were dead, and we could consider their life as a whole in all its dimensions and consequences. He also said: ‘It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the subject matter admits’. That is why he is a far greater philosopher than Bentham – because he realizes the complexity of the subject of well-being, and to what extent we should look for precision in our analysis of it. Bentham, by contrast, clearly exhibited ‘the empiricism of one who has not experienced very much’, as JS Mill put it, which is a wonderful description of many modern ‘happiness experts’.


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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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