The political science of well-being

This week, Laura Stoll of the New Economics Foundation's Centre for Well-Being wrote: "As I sat listening to Professor Martin Seligman, the founding father of the Positive Psychology movement, talk about ‘well-being and public policy’ at our All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics meeting, I was struck by how now is maybe one of those rare times that politics and science are aligned in their visions for the future of society. This makes it absolutely essential that we step up political pressure on the government to make sure well-being continues to become a serious feature of improvements in policy-making across both central and local government."

In fact, I would argue that politics and science have often been aligned over the last two hundred years, through the theory of positivism, which has been around at least since Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Positivism argues that social sciences can discover the facts of a situation, and politics can be guided by this science to find the most effective policies to manage a situation. And ethics, morals and values don't need to come into it - so positivism argues, anyway. This belief is, in fact, the great white hope of modern technocratic politics - and Martin Seligman's positive psychology is really this positivism re-engineered.

And the critique of positivism, argued by modern philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair MacIntyre, Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss, begins by attacking this distinction between facts and values. It argues that you cannot create a value-free political science, because every technology has to have an end, which it says is worthwhile and good. So you can't create a value-free political science, as Seligman claims you can.

Have a listen, if you want, to this 1966 lecture by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, which talks about political philosophy and the fact / value distinction which positivist social science introduced. Strauss' thinking is an important part of the discussion about the politics of well-being.