Friday, December 17, 2010

Is Happiness A Social Good?

The most recent New York Review of Books carries a review of two titles on happiness (subscription required). The authors, Sissela Bok and Derek Bok, are husband and wife. Sissela is a moral philosopher; Derek is the former President of Harvard University. Sissela's book is a non-intrusive survey of philosophical ruminations on happiness as a moral good, an end toward which human beings might or should or do work. Derek's book is on happiness as a goal and measure of political acts. Reviewer Thomas Nagel makes clear throughout his essay that "happiness" as a statistically measurable fact is almost impossible to understand. While there is some correlation between happiness and income level, most people most of the time report that they are "happy" with their lives. There is little difference, across national boundaries, in these self-reports. More socio-economically egalitarian countries are about as happy as those with greater inequality, such as the United States.

So, I have to wonder. Is happiness a social good toward which our politics should strive? Is it, as Nagel makes clear, a good among others, to be weighted with them in the balance of goods sought? The questionable nature of self-reported happiness leaves me scratching my head. For example, my wife and I are, to continue the self-reporting trend, quite happy with our life. One of the reasons we are happy is that our lives are incredibly easier than the lives our parents led, economically and financially speaking. We take a look around at all the gadgets and gizmos in our house, our planned trip to Disney World in the spring, our two well-maintained and serviceable automobiles, our his-and-hers laptop computers, the multiple television sets and DVD/Blu-Ray players, the 600-watt home theater that rattles the windows when the family is away - we'd be crazy not to be happy.

Yet, this doesn't define our happiness, at least when we talk to one another about it. Our happiness is in our shared life together, the sacrifices we make, the time and energy and effort we spend raising our children to be good, hard-working, intelligent, creative members of society. We think of our friends and families, near and far, and the joy others have added to our lives.

All the same, I will admit that while this immediately preceding paragraph is true, it also makes it easier to be happy because of the various physical and material comforts we enjoy. Which means . . . exactly nothing. Happiness, as a definable ethical norm, a moral good toward which we should strive, does not exist. People can be filthy rich and miserable; people can be desperately poor and happy. Folks who live in far more egalitarian societies are not self-reportedly more happy than those in far more stratified societies. Derek Bok makes the odd observation that even though it is a fact that Americans are underpaid, overworked, and that social mobility is far less likely than in other societies, we should not gear social policy toward these ends because there is no correlation between social egalitarianism and self-reported happiness.

I can think of no reason greater than this to ignore the whole concept of happiness as a social good. We don't design policies based upon whether or not folks will tell a researcher they are happy. We design policies because they will make our society a better, more free, more open society where access to goods opportunities are more equitably distributed.

Civil Rights did not make a whole lot of people happy, either. It was necessary to make our country a better place to live.

Designing social and economic policies need to follow the same general principles.

Virtual Tin Cup

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