Can you measure eudaimonia?

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?
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The Rise of the Neo-Aristotelians

I’m excited about going to see Alasdair MacIntyre talk today. I think he’s the most influential living philosopher, and it’s a rare chance to see him speak in London (he moved to the US 40 years ago). The influence of his 1981 book. After Virtue, is still growing. More and more thinkers are following him in embracing Aristotle and a Neo-Aristotelian virtue politics as a way beyond the ethical relativism of liberal, pluralist capitalism.

That includes communitarians on the right, like Phillip Blond, the architect of the Tory party’s Big Society concept, who called for a ‘new communitarian settlement’, and communitarians on the left, like the MP John Cruddas, who writes in the New Statesman today that Labour should embrace a “politics of virtue, rooted in Aristotle, which resists commodification and nurtures community”.

It also includes the literary critic Terry Eagleton, who I see has left behind post-modernism and the relativism of literary theorists like Derrida and Baudrillard to embrace a Neo-Aristotelian / MacIntyrean virtue politics.

MacIntyre, and Aristotle, are obviously back in vogue. But I wonder what he thinks of the contemporary fusion of Aristotle with empiricism and utilitarian happiness measurements? Does he think we can discover a ‘science of flourishing’? Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to ask him this evening.

Beyond Liberalism

One way to understand the modern politics of wellbeing – by which I mean the introduction of policies by governments aimed at cultivating the ‘wellbeing’, ‘happiness’ or ‘resilience’ of their citizens – is as an attempt to move beyond the confines of liberalism, and to answer the question, ‘where next?’

The liberal state aims to safeguard the rights of the individual in their own private ‘pursuit of happiness’, but it does not go so far as to tell the individual where or how they should pursue it. Each individual in a liberal society has liberty of conscience, and liberty to pursue their happiness as they see fit, as long as they are not harming anyone else.

Modern liberal governments are, more or less, disestablished from religion – they do not try to promote one particular religion or spirituality, and maintain a careful neutrality in matters of private moral and spiritual beliefs.

Modern liberalism did once have a telos, or goal: the goal was the removal of all obstacles, prejudices and superstitions, so that each individual could freely pursue their own private happiness.

We have more or less reached that goal in western societies today, particularly with advances in minority rights since the 1960s, and in homosexual rights over the last decade. So the overarching telos of liberalism has been reached, and we are left with liberal society as an assortment of private teloi.

But this leads to an inevitable restlessness among philosophers and policy makers. Where now? Now the priests and monarchs have been defeated, and the old superstitions over-turned, now we are free to pursue our private inclinations…where next to steer the ship? Continue reading