PoW: Is Osama bin Laden the model of a flourishing life?

On Wednesday, I went to listen to Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, give a talk at the RSA about his new book, Flourish (you can listen to the talk here). He was introduced by Geoff Mulgan, an influential British policy wonk who has done much to introduce Seligman's ideas here in the UK. Mulgan sat behind Seligman, beaming beatifically. The audience also seemed entranced by Seligman's ideas and applauded him to the rooftops. Was it just me, then, who was slightly appalled by what Seligman said?

He laid out his latest vision of what makes a good or flourishing life. It's all contained in an acronym, of course. The secret of the good life is PERMA: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. You might choose a life based on one or more of these things, but a flourishing life will probably have a fair sprinkling of all of these five ingredients. You need a good pinch of Meaning, for example: Seligman, who has designed a $140 million resilience-training course for the US Army, told us that those soldiers who committed suicide typically scored in the lowest 1% for Meaning in the Global Assessment Tool which each soldier must take (ie when asked by a questionnaire how meaningful they thought their life was, they said 'not very').

I was going to put it to Seligman that one could have a lot of PERMA, and still lead a bad life. One could have lots of Positive Emotion, and yet be a happy idiot. One could have a lot of engagement (or 'flow') through being addicted to a computer game. One could have a lot of relationships, but with bad people. One could have a deep sense of meaning, through serving an evil cause. One could have a profound sense of achievement from achieving something that most of humanity might say was worthless or even immoral. It all depends on the value of the activity you're engaged in, the value of the cause you're serving, the value of the relationships you cultivate.

But then, to my surprise, Seligman himself made this point. Mulgan asked him if he observed the Weberian distinction between facts and values in social science (the sociologist Max Weber argued facts discovered by social science were distinct from ethical values), or if Seligman believed one could go from the Is of social scientific measurements to the Ought of moral prescriptions. Absolutely not, Seligman replied. Positive Psychology is an objective science, not a prescriptive ethical philosophy. Indeed, he added, Osama bin Laden probably had a life that was, objectively, very high in PERMA.

It struck me, at that point, that if your model of the good life is met by Osama bin Laden, there's something very wrong with your model. Particularly so if you're teaching this model to every soldier in the US Army, which has spent the last decade trying to track down and assassinate Osama bin Laden.

What's missing in Seligman's vision of the good life is goodness. He is trapped in a Weberian vision of social science, in which the scientist simply observes and records facts without making value judgements. He wants to preserve this position, that Positive Psychology is a descriptive science rather than a prescriptive ethical philosophy, because he wants to defend its status as a science, and because he knows an 'objective science' is far more likely to get public funding than an ethical philosophy.
But you can't speak about flourishing or the good life without making value judgements. As Aristotle realized, you have to train people to use their moral discrimination to distinguish between good PERMA and bad PERMA, between serving a worthwhile cause and serving an evil cause. A vision of the good life without this moral discrimination is simply bankrupt. It has a hole at its very soul.

I think everyone in the audience, including Mulgan, felt that Seligman was presenting them with a warm, noble and idealistic vision of society and of politics. But he's not at all. It's a Weberian vision of automated bureaucracy emptied of all moral values. Seligman describes the US Army as 'the second biggest corporation in America, after Wal-Mart'. That, again, shows his amoral vision of society. It's offensive to compare the Army to Wal-Mart: Wal-Mart doesn't ask its employees to die for their country and their fellow men. Yet the Army, in its panic at the rate of suicides in its ranks, has appointed this man - who insists that virtue and flourishing are two completely different things - to educate every one of their soldiers.

The idea that bin Laden is a perfect example of PERMA shows us very well the relativism and even nihilism of psychology and social science if it is not combined with and guided by ethical philosophy. Philosophy ungrounded in social science is a brain in a vat. But social science unguided by ethical philosophy is a chicken without a head.
All of this was foreseen by Nietzsche, who saw the decline of values and the moral relativism that would arise following the 'death of God'. He foresaw what he called the 'last men', who would exist in a state of comfort and complacency in the twilight of the gods because they had no knowledge of what they had lost, no sense of the flattening of their moral horizons. He wrote: 'We have invented happiness', the last men say, and blink.'
There's no doubt this is difficult ground. We're moving rapidly towards a synthesis of modern empirical psychology and ancient ethical philosophy, and building up a 'moral science', or a naturalist ethics rooted in a scientific study of human nature. This is leading to some genuinely difficult questions about the relationship between scientific facts and moral values, between Is and Ought. The distinction between the two is, to some extent, being collapsed. It is appropriate to be careful and wary in this situation, and not to rush to value judgements over-hastily. This was what Weber objected to in his own day - economists and social scientists using very new scientific research to make moral pronouncements about their times. We only have to look at David Brooks, and the contemporary mania for neuro-ethics and neuro-politics, to see how objectionable that tendency can be.
On the other hand, there are some questions - such as the question of what constitutes a good life or a good society - which are simply impossible to approach without making moral judgements.

Against the last men's replacement of values with 'happiness', Nietzsche hoped new values would be created by what he called the superman. He was part of a late Romantic culture, which included Emerson and Carlyle, that hoped post-Christian society would be saved by 'the hero' (it wasn't). This idea of the hero goes back through the Renaissance, particularly Machiavelli, all the way back to the classical era, and in particular to Plutarch's Parallel Lives and Aristotle's idea of the 'great-souled man'.

I've been writing about Plutarch this week, and the cult of hero-worship which he did so much to spread through western culture. I went to interview Rory Stewart on this topic yesterday at the House of Commons. Stewart is something of a school-boy hero himself: by 35, he had already walked across Afghanistan, served as the deputy governor of a province in occupied Iraq, written two best-selling books, and set up an arts charity in Kabul. He told me how he was inspired by the classical cult of hero-worship, but how he's come to feel 'liberated' from it by realizing how ridiculous and out-of-place it is in the modern world. Have a look at the video of the interview, I think it's quite interesting.

Next week's newsletter will be sent out next Saturday, when I'll be reporting from a Sceptics conference in Las Vegas.

Have a good weekend,