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Posts Tagged ‘utilitarianism’

The UK government wants to monitor our general levels of happiness and subjective wellbeing.

"Good luck and happiness" (apparently - but I don't know enough Chinese to confirm whether this is what it means, or whether it is even Chinese! Help please...)

Allegra Stratton reports:

On 25 November, the government will ask the independent national statistician Jil Matheson to devise questions to add to the existing household survey by as early as next spring.

It will be up to Matheson to choose the questions but the government’s aim is for respondents to be regularly polled on their subjective wellbeing, which includes a gauge of happiness, and also a more objective sense of how well they are achieving their “life goals”.

The new data will be placed alongside existing measures to create a bundle of indications about our quality of life.

A government source said the results could be published quarterly in the same way as the British crime survey, but the exact intervals are yet to be agreed.

There are currently different views within the government on whether all indicators should be shrunk into one single wellbeing indicator or simple happiness index.

The government already polls people on their life satisfaction but experts say the innovation is that the new tests will ask more subjective questions and will be put to a larger sample size. The combined wellbeing data set, it says, will have a more central role in policy-making.

A Downing Street source said: “If you want to know, should I live in Exeter rather than London? What will it do to my quality of life? You need a large enough sample size and if you have a big sample, and have more than one a year, then people can make proper analysis on what to do with their life. And next time we have a comprehensive spending review, let’s not just guess what effect various policies will have on people’s wellbeing. Let’s actually know.”

It all sounds very straightforward and well-intentioned. But Clare Carlisle digs a bit deeper and wonders whether it is really possible to agree on what happiness is and to measure it when you think you’ve found it. Time for some solid philosophy:

As centuries of philosophical debate have shown, happiness is neither simple nor uncontroversial – and certainly not easy to measure.

In the western philosophical tradition, reflections on what the best kind of life might be have almost always acknowledged that happiness is something we all desire. Philosophers often regard human happiness as an important criterion for deciding what is good and right, and sometimes as the main criterion. The most straightforward expression of this last view is found in the “utilitarian” moral theory pioneered in England in the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

According to utilitarians, the moral value of any action is measured according to the amount of happiness that results from it. Even for these thinkers, though, questions of happiness are not simply about how much of it there is. Mill certainly recognised different qualities of happiness: he thought that the pleasures of listening to opera or reading Milton, for example, were “higher” than the kind of enjoyment found in a good meal. Indeed, he famously qualified his utilitarianism by insisting that “it is better to be a Socrates dissatisified than a pig satisfied”. The thought here seems to be that part of the moral value of human life – what we might called its dignity – lies in the capacity to be affected by a great range and depth of experience. And this includes our capacity to suffer.

Critics of the kind of moral theory advocated by Bentham and Mill often talk about the practical difficulties of measuring happiness, which might give the coalition pause for thought. In fact, some of these difficulties were pointed out long before the rise of utilitarianism. Aristotle, for example, thought that the goal of every human life is “eudamonia“, a deep conception of happiness as long-term flourishing, rather than fleeting pleasure. This would be difficult, if not impossible, to record with questions such as “how happy did you feel yesterday?”.

Aristotle also recognised that, unlike some other branches of philosophical enquiry, ethics is not an exact science. In the 18th century,Immanuel Kant made this point even more strongly: of course we all desire happiness, said Kant, but we do not know what it is or how it will be achieved. Anyone who has pursued something in the hope that it will make her or him happy – whether this be a career path, a relationship, or a holiday – only to find it disappointing, and even a source of stress and anxiety, will know what Kant was talking about.

However, the government’s plan to measure happiness raises a further and perhaps more profound philosophical question: regardless of whether this is possible in practice, is it the best way of thinking, even in principle, about what it is to live a good human life? A clue to this idea can be found in the way a term like “utilitarian” is sometimes used disparagingly. When, for example, a course of action is described as “merely utilitarian”, this implies that something important has been overlooked. But what might this be?

Good question. I think that’s enough for one post, but you can read the full article if you want to continue into Heidegger’s answer!

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What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.

Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:

One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.

Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.

He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:

The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.

A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.

And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.

What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.

It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.

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Beautiful people striving valiantly to save their marriages, their lives, their world, and their pets… That’s really all you need to know about Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster movie 2012. And that the star is my friend John Cusack (well – I was walking through Leicester Square two years ago and saw him stepping out of a car onto a red carpet at the London Film Festival).

IMG_0620 by SpreePiX - Berlin.

There is one interesting moral dilemma, however, within all the syrup and special effects. [Warning: medium-sized plot spoiler follows.] An elite and self-chosen group have the chance to save themselves from the impending cataclysm, and to give hope that in them the human race might survive. But to do this with the greatest chance of success, they need to preserve their resources, and abandon another group of survivors that desperately needs their help. If they do help, they might jeopardise the possibility of anyone surviving. The answer seems obvious. With so much at stake, of course you would abandon the others and go it alone.

But then there is one of those Hollywood speeches, and it’s quite effective. It goes something like:

We may get through this. We may not. But if we do, will we want to look back at this decisive moment in our history and admit that it is a moment of betrayal? Will we want to live with the knowledge that our new civilisation is founded on an act of raw selfishness, of injustice, of cruelty? Perhaps it would be better to risk death together than to walk into a future without them?

I know, it’s a bit cheesy; and I might be hamming it up a little (and mixing metaphors). But it presents a tight non-utilitarian argument in the middle of a disaster movie – an argument that says the end does not necessarily justify the means, the moral cost is too high, the damage done to relationships and to the hearts of the people involved is worse than the loss of life that might follow. And it is more than just the old ‘too many people in a balloon or on a raft’ dilemma, because it brings in this extra element of historical consciousness, of looking back to the present as a time of unique significance. The implicit reference, I assume, is to the way the indigenous peoples of North America were treated in the founding moments of US history. It’s about how a nation’s continuing identity can be scarred by an original sin.

It got me thinking more widely. About how, in a certain sense, every moral dilemma we face becomes a foundation for the rest of our lives, a turning point to which we can look back with shame or gratitude. This doesn’t mean we should become obsessed about over-analysing all our choices; and it certainly doesn’t mean that all choices (moral or otherwise) are of equal weight. But it’s nevertheless true that every moral choice we face is significant, and pushes our life in a certain direction. We can’t pretend that any moral choice is just in the background or at the edge; in some way it will define us, and define our whole future. We are constantly living with the possibility of making our present actions moments of original sin, or of original blessing.

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