Thursday, 19 April 2012

Human Flourishing

Over the past decade, those involved in economic policy-making have come in for criticism for placing too much emphasis on GDP as the ultimate aim of and measure of a country’s success.  Many, particularly informed by psychology, have suggested that it would be preferable include other things which enhance the well-being of individuals and policies which promote its enhancement.   Australia and France are two countries which are actively pursuing a dashboard approach to measurement of economic performance and social progress.  In Australia this is monitored by the national statistics office’s Measures of Australia’s Progress [1] and in France by the Sen-Stiglitz initiative[2]

What these projects are attempting to do is monitor the factors in the socio-economy which impact the conditions under which people might achieve greater physical and mental security and the freedom to choose their vocation in life.  History, psychology, philosophy, sociology  theology – even economics of a bygone era -  will all attest that human flourishing is not simply a matter of satisfying drives and desires (which can, indeed, provide a certain amount of happiness for a time), but that it occurs when communities and/or institutions share values and support their members. This idea underpins the Big Society project as well.

We see in the Occupy movements around the world, the walkout of students from Prof. Mankiw’s macroeconomics class at Harvard and shareholder and public revulsion over executive rewards for failure that the injustices which have been an outcome of institutional unfairness and market failure are unsustainable.  As Diane Coyle says in her book The Economics of Enough, ‘a sort of existential introspection questioning the moral basis of the economic order has set in.’[3]  The question I sense lurking underneath a great deal of anger and anxiety is: what is purpose of life? What is the summum bonum of human existence? 

There have been a variety of answers provided since ancient times, some more persuasive, appealing or apparently relevant than others.  Psychology says that the highest good is human happiness and this is composed of a biological set point, the conditions of one’s life and voluntary activities.  Some life conditions can be changed (marital status and location) while others cannot (age, sex and race).   External conditions that can negatively impact happiness levels are noise, commuting, lack of control, shame and/or conflicts in relationships.[4] 

Is that it then? The highest purpose in life to be happy and the goal of political economic policy to be promoting as much of this as possible for the greatest number (as per John Stuart Mill)?  If so, then it seems obvious that happiness is a highly conditional state that can change like the weather.  And indeed Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found this to be the case – that when ‘a culture has had a run of good luck and for a while,’ this can lead to 'extreme disillusion when it is no longer able to carry on ‘shielding’ its members from chaos.'[5] 

It seems to be an apposite time to think again about what makes a life worth living and enables a society to flourish.  Aristotle said that the highest good - one that would lead to eudaemonia, a term which encompasses happiness but which is deeper and longer-lasting - is for people to lead virtuous lives.  It was Aristotle who pointed out that human beings are telic creatures – they need to live for something; there must be some purpose which captures a person’s deepest longings.  Psychologists Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener concur, saying: Humans are unique among animals in many respects; perhaps chief among them is the ability to live virtuously and find purpose in life.  As humans, we actually require a sense of meaning to thrive.[6]   Is that goal happiness?  It depends on your worldview.

The existentialists said that the purpose of life is whatever a person choses it to be – this arising from the notion that existence precedes essence and that ultimate reality is the human being.  Atheists often say something similar, as well as do some self-styled help gurus, some artists and novelists and some social scientists.   As Sally Brampton often remarks in her agony aunt column in the Sunday Times, ‘the point of living is that there is no point.  It’s what we make of life and how we see it that give it meaning.’[7]  Aldous Huxley was honest enough about his motivation for his atheist worldview, saying: 

I had motives for not wanting to the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation…liberation from a certain system of morality…There was one admirably simple method in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.[8]

Perhaps the best description of the atheist worldview, which appears to me to be far more honest and rational than the debates of Richard Dawkins or the advice of Alain de Botton, comes from the British philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, who said in his work A Free Man’s Worship:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve and individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system,  and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.  Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation henceforth be safely built.[9]

The idea of meaning in life is further complicated by the question of human nature.  I think this is a topic psychologists have denied for years in favour of theories about genetics, thoughts, feelings and behaviour.  But even these long-held ideas are being challenged by the evolutionary social scientists like Steven Pinker who asserts in his tome, the Better Angels of our Nature, that statistics on violence suggest that human beings are becoming more peaceable – that human nature itself has been changing.  If one is using proportions to measure human violence against other humans, then by demography alone we know that those figures will decline over time. If you plotted the number of number of people killed or injured in war and civil conflicts per century, you would be horrified by the steeply accumulating numbers.  The Christian philosophy professor William Lane Craig has said that it is evident this is not the best way to assess mankind’s progress by asking this question: would you consider it progress if the 21st century were also characterised by two more world wars and a nuclear exchange, the resulting proportionate fatalities being less than those of the conflagrations of the 20th century?

When psychologists (or economists or sociologists for that matter) refer to ethics and human nature, I think they’re more often than not making claims about morality and human behaviour which can certainly change (for better or worse) over time and by locality.   Are we progressing in how we treat one another?  There are more slaves in the world today than in the entire history of the world.  Social scientists can’t even use the word evil because there is no outside referent in a secular humanist worldview.  There’s no such thing as evil, only dysfunction. 

The five categories of morality as described by Jonathan Haidt [10] (and referred to by Pinker) are believed by the evolutionaries (like Paul Seabright) to be innate.  And actually, I think most theologians and some philosophers wouldn’t disagree; people know a great deal about the right thing to do but have a deeply ambivalent relationship those truths.  Interestingly, despite this hard-wired sense of fairness, the big socio-economic story of the Anglo-Saxon west  of the past  30 years or so has that fairness has been sacrificed for efficiency (markets) and personal freedom (democratic process).  And these have been corroded by abuses of power.  Which makes the occupy protests unsurprising.

Amartya Sen has added an enormous amount to the debate over human well-being and the implications of such on economic and social policy.  Professor Sen has questioned the characterisation of human motivation as being purely rational and self-interested and that well-being has no single measure; rather, its elements are many and cannot be reduced down to utility or some cash-value equivalent.  He calls well-being’s diverse elements capabilities and says that they are composed of freedom from hunger, disease, indignity and discrimination.  Also, that human welfare is composed of both materialistic and non-materialistic factors including the ability to engage in economic transactions or political activities.  The emphasis is not only on how human beings actually function but also on them having the capability to function in important ways if they so wish. 
Professor Sen has brought the discipline of economics back to the political economy which Adam Smith envisaged in the 18th century: that ethics and economics should be seen as one subject rather than two; that markets encapsulate values and that small ideas or measures of human happiness are not sufficient goals for policy or institutions. 

It is quite apparent that many people throughout history have sought the common good as their purpose in life.  These are the people that find their purpose in fighting for social justice, given the deep-seated notion that all people are created equal and deserve equitable opportunity and respect.  What I find fascinating is that this passion for justice appears in both people with religious faith and those without.   And I think this chimes with the summum bonum of Aristotle[11] as well as the great theologian St. Augustine and the political philosopher of our time, Michael Sandel. 

When I think about the concept of the striving for justice in a strife and anxiety-riven world, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from C S Lewis:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?  A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.  What was I comparing this universe to when I called it unjust?  If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?  A man feels wet when he falls into water because man is to a water animal: a fish would not feel wet.  Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own.  But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that id did not happen to please my fancies.  Thus I the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.  Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore not creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.  Dark would be a word without meaning.[12] 

I think the single concept which encompasses the highest form of human flourishing, freedom, justice and the common good is what the Old Testament prophets called shalom.  This is sometimes defined as peace, but encompasses more than peace of mind or absence of military conflict.  Shalom means the webbing together of God, humans and all creation in justice[13], fulfilment and delight; it is universal flourishing which includes human flourishing.   And while it can be most fully experienced and offered by believers, God’s commitment to the spread of shalom is not limited only to those who know him by name or those who pursue it in his name.  As Bono says in the song City of Binding Lights, ‘Blessings not just for the ones who kneel, luckily.’[14]  The summum bonum is the peace, completeness and welfare which compose shalom, and it’s personal, social and political.

[3] Diane Coyle, The Economics of Enough, Princeton University Press, 2011.
[4] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science, New York: Arrow Books, 2006.
[5] Mihaly Csikszentmilhalhi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, HaperCollins, 1990.
[6] Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Dener, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, London: Blackwell, 2008.
[7] Sally Brampton, Sunday Times, 10 Oct 2010.
[8] Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, London, 1946,
[9] Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship, in Mysticism and Logic, London, 1918.
[10] Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity as described in J. Haidt & C. Joseph, ‘The moral mind: how 5 sets of innate moral intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules,’ in P. Carruthers, S. Laurence and S. Stick (eds.), The Innate Mind, Vol. 3, New York: Oxford, 2006.
[11] For Aristotle, justice is the quintessential moral virtue and is the natural outcome of the virtuous person who desires to live the good life.  Justice, for Aristotle, is the end and the means of happiness.
[12] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1943.
[13] As discussed by Nicolas Wolterstorff in audio interview, ‘It’s tied together by shalom,’ Faith & Leadership, March 2010.
[14] Bill Haley, ‘On Work and Human Flourishing: Twenty Men Fixing a Road,’ The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture, Sept 2011.

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