Saturday, November 30, 2013

Higher Pleasures, the Work of Wellbeing, and Public Policy

Perhaps the good life is not a state to be obtained, but, as Aristotle suggests, it is the the pursuit and the journey that give meaning and fulfillment. Striving for the good life involves the arduous work of becoming: creating meaning, aspiring for something better, the act of becoming the sort of person and living the sort of life one deems worthy and desirable. 

Thus, the good life is not made up of simple "happiness." It requires trade-offs, often forgoing hedonistic pleasure for long term goals. I have previously written on the distinction between hedonic happiness (are you happy right now?) and eudaimonic wellbeing (with its longer horizon of life satisfaction), showing that the two can well be at odds with one another.

Steven Mazie, on, argues that the current fashion for happiness studies distracts us from what is really important: "Not every costly, challenging endeavor we take up is a recipe for happiness, but our world and our individual lives would be sapped of all meaning if we made life plans based on the results of happiness studies like these [measures of hedonic happiness]. Who would learn Chinese or advanced calculus? Who would spend all night volunteering in hurricane relief emergency shelters? Who would ever have a child?"

Mazie calls on John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures in his attempt to calculate utilities: "If, on reflection, we would refuse to give up Pleasure A in exchange for a bottomless trough of Pleasure B, that’s a good sign Pleasure A is a higher pleasure for us. If we wouldn’t forfeit our religion or our children for the promise of a keg of cold beer that never runs dry, we should consider the former to be more valuable than the latter. Lower pleasures are fantastic — and reading the results of laughable happiness studies may well be one of them — but they are not the pulp of life."

Indeed, when we look to provisioning the good life as broadly as possible, as we should in markets and government, we must take care not to privilege hedonic happiness over long-term wellbeing.

(On a separate but related note: The WSJ reported this week that its CEO Council identified five top priorities for the country: immigration reform, education reform, tax reform, business-government cooperation, and health-care quality. It is remarkable not only that these could all have been pulled from an Obama speech, but also that they are all broadly consistent with a wellbeing approach to policy, even if the devil is in the detail of means to these ends.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Ethics of Possibility and a Positive Anthropology

Arjun Appadurai argues that our society struggles with a tension between “the ethics of possibility” (of hope, aspiration, desire) and the “ethics of probability” (of systematized rationalities, risk management, and cost/benefits). And the ethics of probability is currently crowding out the realm of possibility. In his timely new book (The Future as Cultural Fact), Appadurai calls for a renewed commitment to an ethics of possibility "grounded in the view that a genuinely democratic politics cannot be based on the avalanche of numbers—about population, poverty, profit, and predation—that threaten to kill all street-level optimism about life and the world. Rather it must build on an ethics of possibility, which can offer a more inclusive platform for improving the planetary quality of life and can accommodate a plurality of visions of the good life.” (299-300)

Indeed. Reading this book, I was both exhilarated and a bit crestfallen that Appadurai so eloquently makes a number of arguments that I thought were my own, and that feature in my forthcoming book The Good Life (Stanford U Press)Appardurai calls for greater attention to the "capacity to aspire" and the politics of hope in understanding development, wellbeing, and the economy. As I also argue, wellbeing requires a sense of aspiration, hope for the future informed by ideas of the good life, and a commiserate degree of agency, a sense of control over one's own destiny.  Living up to the expectations of particular values is in many ways the stock and trade of human existence; and it is this forward-looking, aspirational quality that drives agency. The will is important, but there also has to be a way, and the effectiveness of aspiration and agency is often limited by available opportunities, the legal, social, and market structures.

Such a perspective opens the door onto a “positive anthropology.” Anthropology is more comfortable offering critiques than positive alternatives, but the possibility exists to combine our critical proclivities with non-prescriptive, ethnographically informed positive alternatives that engage public policy debates. If a society’s goal is to have folks live meaningful and fulfilled lives—and not just increase income and consumption at all costs—then we should look to ways to help folks realize their longer term goals, the moral projects of their lives, affluence (and its converse, poverty) as seen in all of its multiple dimensions. This is to advocate studies of economic behavior that work between the “is” and the “ought” of David Hume’s distinction, between how the world can be empirically shown to work (the “is”) and how the competing and diverse value systems that anthropological research documents can be linked to moral reflection about things might be different (the “ought”).  

In Appadurai's words: “we need to commit ourselves to a partisan position, at least in one regard and that is to be mediators, facilitators, and promoters of the ethics of possibility against the ethics of probability.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Prosperity, Poverty, and Wellbeing

Prosperity, wellbeing, the good life--this elusive condition that we are all presumably striving for--is notoriously difficult to measure. We have long used income as a shorthand for wellbeing, but we are now realizing how limited that is as a proxy. An adequate income is certainly necessary, but alone is insufficient, for wellbeing. Part of the problem in measurement, as I argue in my forthcoming book on The Good Life, is that often precisely what is most valuable in life in least quantifiable, such as dignity, aspiration, and larger purposes.

Nonetheless, the urge to measure and rank countries produces lots of interesting data. The Legatum Institute's prosperity index uses 8 equally weighted sub-indices to calculate prosperity:
1. Economy
2. Entreprenuership and opportunity
3 Governance
4. Education
5. Health
6. Safety and Security
7. Personal freedom
8. Social capital
Nathan Gamester reports their 2013 findings in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, and there are several interesting results:
  • Norway, Switzerland, Canada, and Sweden come out on top
  • Since 2009, the United States has dropped from 12th to 24th
  • Germany has gone from 16th to 9th
  • Guatemala has drop from 82nd to 90th (out of 142).