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Anti-Happyism and the defence of bourgeois freedom

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.


The Vickys: can you be paternalist without being patronising?

Two news stories caught my eye this weekend. Firstly, the British government wants to launch a voucher scheme so every parent can take parenting classes from a range of providers. One of them is called the Parenting Gym, and is owned by Octavius Black, the millionaire school-chum of David Cameron’s, who made his fortune through Mind Gym, a corporate well-being consultancy.

The other story was that the Templeton Foundation has given a multi-million-pound grant to Birmingham University to set up a Jubilee Values and Character Centre. The press release says:

How does the power of good character transform and shape the future of society? What would be the wider social, cultural and moral impact of a more grateful Britain?  What personal virtues should ground public service?  How can fostering character traits like hope and optimism be help working towards a better British society? The Centre will initiate a national consultation on a proposed curriculum policy for character building in schools, and will run a 10-year project at Birmingham called ‘Gratitude Britain’.

These are the two latest trumpet-blasts from a movement which has been dubbed the New Paternalism. The phrase originally appeared from Nudge psychologists like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who call their nudge policy interventions ‘libertarian paternalism’. They want to nudge people in pro-social directions without them realising it (hence it’s ‘libertarian’ – because the citizens are so dumb they don’t realise they’re being guided).

But there are other New Paternalists who are much bolder. They want to instil good values in the citizenry, create good habits, foster good character. They are similar to Victorian paternalists like Matthew Arnold, but they take his lofty Hellenic philosophy and try to put it on a firm evidence base, to create a science of resilience, optimism and other ‘character strengths’.

I call this movement the Vickys, after the tribe in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a steam-punk novel about a future society that has fragmented into a collection of tribes or ‘phyles’, each with their own culture and moral code – including a Nation of Islam tribe, a neo-Confucian tribe, and the Vickys, who are cyber-engineers and who follow Victorian customs. Success in this society is all about what phyle has accepted you.  Your character’s flourishing depends on your phyle’s network and moral culture – – and if you don’t have a phyle, you’re screwed. In the plot, the leader of the Vickys hires a nano-engineer to code an interactive ‘gentleman’s primer’ to cultivate the character of his niece – except it gets stolen and discovered by a street orphan, who subsequently rises to the top of her society.

So the real-world Vickys include, in the US, Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists, who have got enormous backing from Templeton for their research into character strengths and resilience training, and who launched a $125 million course in resilience-training for the US Army. Like Stephenson’s Illustrated Primer, they want to create a computer-automated course in moral education – an app for character. The Vickys also include  include self-control psychologists like Roy Baumeister, and champions of ‘social and moral capital’ like Jonathan Haidt and Robert Puttnam.

The UK Vickys include Wellington headmaster Anthony Seldon and his new colleague, James O’Shaughnessy, who left the Number 10 policy unit last year to set up a chain of Wellington academies; Matthew Taylor of the RSA; Matthew Grist and Jen Lexmond of Demos; the Young Foundation; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine; Danny Kruger, another former Tory advisor who wrote Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’ speech and who now runs a charity for former prison inmates; Lord Richard Layard of the LSE; and, more speculatively, Alain de Botton, whose recent writings have called for a shift beyond liberalism and back to a more interventionist paternalism. Anthony Seldon described the New Paternalist ethos in the Telegraph this week:

Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who its heroes are and that lacks a commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become… The riots in British cities in August 2011 were the catalyst for the creation [of the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values]. As the fires subsided, a call was heard across the nation for a renewed emphasis on communal values and ethical teaching, which would discourage such events happening again. It is an indictment of us all that such a centre should ever need to have been established…The development of a sense of gratitude among people in Britain will be at the heart of the work. The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, hard work, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe. Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or “public school”. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.

I am interested in this movement, and attracted to some aspects of it. My book is very much about the new fusion of ancient virtue ethics with modern empirical psychology, and how this new fusion is being spread by public policy in schools, the army and beyond to foster character, resilience, eudaimonia and other such ideals. I got into the scene when Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped me overcome depression in my early 20s, and I then found out how much CBT owed to ancient Greek philosophy. I’m a huge fan of Greek philosophy and its practical therapeutic use today, so a part of me loves the renaissance of virtue ethics in modern policy.

But we have to be aware of the ideological and political context of these efforts in mass character education. It can all too easily seem like rich people telling poor people to buck up and be a bit more moral. It can ignore the economic and environmental context and how that dynamically feeds into character. I’m not saying character is entirely caused by economic context. But it’s certainly a factor – Aristotle himself knew that. He insisted eudaimonia was as much made up of external factors like wealth and the kind of society you live in. If you’re too poor or your society is too unequal, he warned, it would be very difficult for you to achieve eudaimonia or for your society to find the ‘common good’.

Jeffrey Lebowski

Rich people tend to attribute their success entirely to their character, as if they simply have the right values, and poor people are poor because they don’t.  Very rich people like Sir John Templeton or Andrew Carnegie love to think they became incredibly wealthy because they worked out the primal ‘laws of the universe’ – and then they go around giving money to people like Napoleon Hill or Birmingham University to prove it. They insist that anyone can become as rich as them, they just need to follow these basic cosmic laws. It’s the philosophy of Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire in the Coen Brothers’ film, who turns out to have married into money. This laissez-faire / law of attraction philosophy goes down fairly well in America, because some millionaires like Carnegie really were self-made men – although look closer and you’ll see that an awful lot of America’s billionaires had the benefit of going to Yale or Harvard, like Templeton, Gates, Zuckerberg and others.

In the UK, it’s a lot harder to sell this emphasis on values and character, because we have a much more obviously class-ridden society, that is still to some extent dominated by the 7% who went to private school. And many of the New Paternalists went to private school. It becomes hard to sell, basically, when a privileged clique insists that social instability is purely a consequence of bad values. Let’s face it: it’s easier to have values like optimism when you grow up in an environment that tells you from the start that you are special, an environment that is filled with opportunities to develop your talents, that rewards effort, that creates the expectation of success, that gives you a sense from the start that you can influence your society and be listened to by your government. To create such an environment takes money (an average of £15,000 per pupil a year in independent schools, as opposed to £6,000 a year in the other 93% of the country. The most expensive schools cost over £30,000 a year).

On the other hand, if you grow up in (let’s say) a deprived inner city environment that is physically ugly, crowded, occasionally violent, where there’s never enough money, where crime pays (at least in the short-term), where the government is seen as an intrusion and threat, where your school tells you to rein in your expectations, where you are immersed in a media that celebrates everything you don’t have, that’s going to affect your values. As Jerome Kagan, the great neuro-psychologist, recently put it, the best prediction for depression is poverty. (On the other hand, you may very well end up with more resilience than someone from a more protected background, and a driving ambition to either reform your community, or escape it – both quite different to the ‘gratitude’ the Templeton Foundation wants to foster).

So I think that if you want to sell values / character education, you need to be aware of this problem. You need to be aware of the dynamic interplay between environment and values, rather than focusing exclusively on the one or the other. And you need to ask yourself: what is the connection between values and politics – or between the cultivation of a good character, and the cultivation of a good society? In the service of what political ideology are you teaching values? And you can’t say ‘character has nothing to do with politics’. That in itself is a political, libertarian, laissez faire response.

I worry (and I’m not the only one) that a character education course that emphasizes optimism and gratitude is going to be laissez faire and in the service of the status quo. The emphasis on public service can also be quite laissez faire. It’s a public school ethos dedicated to serving Queen and Country – serving, rather than trying to reform. However, character education is not necessarily in the service of the status quo. There’s also a great tradition of values education on the Left, which tries to train young people both to engage with their society and change it – like the Joseph Rowntree Trust, for example.

Ideally, character education would not drill young people in any one ideology, whether that be laissez-faire capitalism or Quaker reformism. It would give them the capacity to critically reflect on all such values, to be aware of their flaws, to try and choose the best path for themselves and their society. It wouldn’t ignore politics (we’re trying to create good citizens after all) but it wouldn’t become mindless propaganda either. That sort of nuanced approach is not easy. It takes money and leisure – and the sort of confident teacher who thrives on challenging feedback from their well-informed students. That’s why Aristotle thought philosophy could only the pursuit of propertied gentlemen – it’s hard to do well on a mass scale.

West Point cadets

There’s a danger, again, of a class divide in our approach to values education. Take the US Army, which has long tried to teach values and character. The officer class study Hellenic philosophy at West Point, as part of the Cadet Leader Development Studies course. They get the opportunity and leisure to consider and reflect on values in a manner worthy of autonomous sovereign agents (or gentlemen). The privates, meanwhile, get drilled in resilient thinking by Martin Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness course. Their spiritual fitness is evaluated by a computer questionnaire and given an automatic score. There is no leisure to reflect on or criticise the values in which they are drilled. You couldn’t have an entire army of autonomous philosophers, could you? That has to be confined to the officer class (so the argument goes).

But a democratic society of equals is different to an army. Are we prepared to try and educate a whole society of autonomous citizens capable of critical and reflective thought? Or is that just for the lucky few, while the masses get drilled in unquestioned good habits?

I’ll end with a quote from Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, where Nell, the young orphan, learns the meaning of intelligence:

[Nell says:] “The Vickys have an elaborate code of morals and conduct. It grew out of the moral squalor of an earlier generation, just as the original Victorians were preceded by the Georgians and the Regency. The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code– but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.”

“They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”

“Yes. Some of them never challenge it– they grow up to be smallminded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel– as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”

“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded – they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”