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The New Republic has a cover story by eminent social historian Deirdre McCloskey warning of the dangers of Happyism, or ‘the creepy new economics of pleasure’. The piece shows American culture beginning to engage more deeply with the politics of well-being – there have also been excellent articles recently in The Atlantic and I wrote my own little contribution in The New Inquiry last week – as president Obama’s government quietly considers whether to launch national well-being measurements, as the UK and France have recently done.

There’s much I agree with in the article, but I don’t think McCloskey does the movement justice, so I find myself in the unusual position of defending a movement which I’ve also spent a lot of time critiquing.

In some ways, the whole piece is a straw-man attack, in that she defines the movement as purely committed to a hedonic or utilitarian definition of happiness. She then proceeds to make the usual (and justified) critiques of this definition of happiness:

  • it assumes that people’s definition and experience of happiness are the same the world over, ignoring linguistic and cultural differences.
  • national measurements of hedonic happiness don’t tell us much of use, as national happiness levels seem to stay flat over time no matter what’s happening.
  • if we accept the utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ it could lead to all sorts of unjust policies, like pursuing policies that favour the extrovert / happy majority while punishing the introvert / unhappy minority.
  • if pleasant feelings are the sole aim of life, what’s to stop us engineering them with ‘soma’ type chemical interventions.

This ‘new hedonics’, she says, is a travesty of the older Aristotelian idea that:

Happiness is a good story of your life. The Greek word for happiness is “eudaimonia,” which means literally “having a good guiding angel,” like Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. The schoolbook summary of the Greek idea in Aristotle says that such happiness is “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”

But to define the politics of well-being as purely committed to a hedonic definition of happiness is to massively simplify the movement. There is a profound awareness within the movement that there are several ways one could define happiness or the good life, and many of the philosophers, psychologists and economists within it are committed to a more Aristotelian or eudaimonic definition of happiness.

Positive Psychology, for example, has for at least decade distinguished hedonic happiness from other forms of happiness, such as ‘meaningful happiness’ or ‘flow’. The new economics foundation, which is the leading think-tank on the politics of well-being here in the UK, also makes this distinction, and tries to find ways to measure a eudaimonic definition of happiness. The UN Summit on happiness last year began with the utilitarian Peter Singer and the Aristotelian Jeffrey Sachs making this distinction. So it’s a straw-man to define the movement as homogenously utilitarian / hedonic.

If, as McCloskey seems to do, you accept a more Aristotelian definition of the good life, as one involving the virtues, character development and the pursuit of meaningful projects, then you are faced with two questions. Firstly, can we measure this more Aristotelian notion of happiness. And secondly, what role if any should public policy play in promoting it.

Aristotelian ethics were built on a foundation of psychology. Aristotle argues that we should pursue the good life and cultivate the virtues because it fulfills our nature and leads it to flourishing. This is a psychological as well as an ethical claim – it’s a form of ‘moral science’. So science should be able to tell us some useful things about whether it’s true or not. It involves some testable claims: that humans are capable of changing their habits through reason, that we can build stable character dispositions, and that the practice of the virtues leads to something we can somehow recognise as flourishing.

McCloskey seems to recognise the role of science in exploring this eudaimonic project: she supports Positive Psychology’s attempts to put virtue ethics on a firm empirical evidence base, and calls their work “gratifyingly sensible”. She seems to like the science when it supports her own Aristotelian definition of the good life, while dismissing any research into a utilitarian definition of the good life as “not science”.

The point is this: if we’re interested in the good life and happiness – and why shouldn’t we be – then this research project will involve both the sciences and the humanities. It will involve both social science and ethics. We have to be very careful in this fusion, careful not to leap from an Is to too rigid or dogmatic an Ought (and I think Positive Psychology does, on occasion, make overly prescriptive claims). But we can’t blithely ignore the relationship between the Is of science and the Ought of ethics. It’s a question of finding the right balance between the two. And why shouldn’t research into hedonic happiness be a part of that project?

Secondly, there’s the question of if or how social policy should be used to encourage eudaimonia or a certain definition of the good life.

McCloskey, who is committed to a bourgeois definition of the free individual, insists that social policy has no role to play in the attainment of eudaimonia. She says: “there are regions of meaning for free adults that social policy, even benevolently applied, should not penetrate”. We should be free, as bourgeois individuals, to pursue our own ‘self-culture’, through the consumption and discussion of cultural products like novels and museums. And that works best in a consumerist, capitalist economy, where ‘high culture’ typically flourishes.

She finds happy economics ‘creepy’ because it seems to go against her liberal individualism, by trying to nudge or tax us towards a ‘puritanical’ and anti-consumerist definition of the good life. We should be left to pursue the good life in our own way without intrusion of social policy, she insists.

This makes the naive bourgeois assumption that there is some ‘public sphere’ disconnected from policy. But our ability to pursue ‘self-culture’ depends on social policy: on the education we receive in schools and universities; on our working lives, the meaningfulness of our jobs, the amount of leisure we have; on the media and the ease of access we have to ‘culture’; on the quality of our environment, including everything from housing to policing to the natural environment.

We are not born free, rational, autonomous creatures. We become so, through education. And the quality of that education depends on social policy, particularly in education. McCloskey seems to hold the classic bourgeois illusion of independence. It’s an illusion because it ignores all the social conditions and social policy that allows the middle class that independence.

It reminds me of Habermas’ defence of the ‘public sphere’ of 18th century coffeehouses, where free bourgeois individuals could congregate to freely discuss ideas. But what about those who weren’t allowed into the coffeehouse – the women, working class men, the slaves? The creation of a just coffeehouse which everyone has the education and leisure to join requires social policy.

I also find suspicious her attempt both to embrace an Aristotelian idea of eudaimonia and to argue for unfettered consumerism. It presupposes that we are more free than we are. The Greeks, including Aristotle, recognised that our degree of freedom over ourselves is quite limited, that the cultivation of good character is hard. It takes teaching, practice, leisure, and a culture and economy that is hospitable to this project.

Aristotle thought this project was only possible for a wealthy few, supported by a large caste of slaves (there’s that bourgeois illusion of freedom again, dependent on the enslavement of others).

The challenge, if you accept the eudaimonic project and are also a social democrat, is to try and make this project feasible for the many, not just the few. And it’s also to create a culture and economy that is hospitable to this project – and that necessarily involves social policy, particularly in education. I don’t think you can say ‘leave it to the market’, because the market is infused with its own values and logic which are often inhospitable to the pursuit of eudaimonia. You end up with a culture where even the art is hopelessly saturated with consumerist values.

McCloskey’s notion of bourgeois independence also ignores the Aristotelian idea that part of the good life involves engagement with politics and policy. We reach flourishing partly by engaging as citizens with the mutual creation of our government and society.

The Neo-Aristotelians that McCloskey approvingly quotes, such as Martha Nussbaum, clearly believe that social policy has a role in encouraging eudaimonia. Nussbaum helped to develop the United Nations Development Index, and has also come up with a list of ‘capabilities’ which governments should promote. But Nussbaum then faces the charge that all Neo-Aristotelians have to face: why those capabilities? Why those virtues and not others? How can you prove that they really lead to flourishing? What gives you the right to use social policy to promote them? And how, exactly, will you promote them in the public at large?

You can’t rely, as Nussbaum seems to do, purely on the university as a vehicle for eudaimonic education. Because a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to go to university, or are so saddled with student debt that they have to focus on getting a good job. The attainment of a liberal education for the many rather than the few requires supportive social policy. I personally think it shouldn’t stop at university either, but should involve life-long community learning. But that, too, involves social policy, and the capacity of academics to engage in extra-mural activities rather than being lost in endless managerial paperwork.

In her defence of the status quo (liberal consumerism), McClusky makes the same mistake that Adam Smith made in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith argued in that book that we should all be free to pursue our natural desire for happiness. But he recognised, in his more pessimistic moments, that left to ourselves, we find our happiness in the approval of others, and this natural bias would probably mean that many of us would end up chasing illusory goals of external status, and that this would make us miserable. He both deified nature, and recognised it leads us astray.

But, he concluded, it’s good that we chase these delusions because, even if consumerism makes individuals miserable, it helps the economy grow, and that is good. But good for who? At what point do the needs of the economy become more important than the needs of the individuals who constitute it?

Our natures need institutions to guide them and give them shape. Institutions need social policy to create them and to defend them. If you ignore that in the name of bourgeois individual freedom, then you are abandoning the terrain to other forces – particularly corporations – to shape our nature into the shapes that serve their ends rather than ours.

The challenge, for everyone in the politics of well-being, is to balance the communitarian idea of the good life with a liberal, pluralist insistence on our right to make up our own mind and choose our own way.  It’s to find the right balance between tradition and freedom, between culture and anarchy.

The argument in defence of bourgeois liberalism and laissez faire consumerism becomes particularly untenable when it becomes environmentally unsustainable. Then, clearly, the balance between wisdom and freedom, between culture and anarchy, has been lost.