In my last newsletter, I wrote a somewhat scathing piece about Martin Seligman, the man behind the US Army’s $140 million resilience training course, in which I argued that Seligman’s model of the good life shirked any clear concept of moral goodness. I was amazed by his suggestion that Osama bin Laden lived a ‘flourishing life’, and suggested that, if this was the case, there must be something very wrong with his model of flourishing.
Positive Psychology (and indeed the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on which it is largely based) takes therapeutic techniques from ancient Greek philosophy, but separates them from their moral context and tries to turn them into non-moral skills or techniques. It gets quite dangerous, I think, when you start to use public policy to teach CBT and Positive Psychology in schools and armies, as Martin Seligman is now, because essentially you are teaching young people that the good life has nothing to do with any particular values. We’re trying to teach ‘the good life’ to young people while preserving the liberal idea that the government should not back any particular moral or ethical philosophy. So policy makers argue they’re not teaching values or morals (which sounds elitist or paternalistic), but instead are teaching ‘skills’.
But I fear that is trying to have your cake and eat it.
This is not a new argument, by the way. Plato, in his dialogues, considers two different types of government, both of them attempts to bring happiness to the people. One model of government, described in The Statesman, is a model of what JS Mill enthusiastically called ‘scientific management’. The ideal statesman is an expert in the science or techne of statescraft. What he designs is, essentially, a highly efficient value-less technocracy which makes people happy. This is basically what Martin Seligman is trying to sell us – and it’s also what Max Weber and JS Mill seemed to think social science could provide us.
The other model of government, described in The Republic, The Laws and elsewhere, insists that such a science of statescraft would be an empty and spiritually bankrupt technocracy if it is not deeply informed and guided by an idea of the good.
Regarding this debate – between a technocracy of wellbeing and a moral philosophy of wellbeing – you might enjoy this talk by the person who designed the US Army’s first resilience-training course, Major Thomas Jarrett. Like Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness course, Jarrett’s Warrior Resilience Training course, which he first taught in Iraq in 2005, is based on the therapeutic principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. But Jarrett also embraces and includes Stoic philosophy, and the Stoic principles of virtue, honour and courage. In other words, his vision of resilience and well-being is a moral vision, not purely a technocratic one.
I personally think this is far more appropriate for soldiers – who after all are willing to die for their country – than Seligman’s amoral technocratic vision, although the US Army ended up backing Seligman’s amoral version rather than Jarrett’s moral version of resilience. See what you think.