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? (more…)