“Human beings in communities, not interacting robots,” please

In Brief: 
  • A British political economist and his philosopher son offer thoughts on why an endless pursuit of money and things has failed to foster increased happiness.
  • They suggest that the discourse on what it means to be developed and how to attain “the good life” needs to be reexamined to consider more than material wealth.
  • They also want to “revive the old idea of economics as a moral science; a science of human beings in communities, not of interacting robots.”

How Much is Enough? Money and the good life.
By Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky
Other Press, New York

Earlier this year, a UN high-level meeting sponsored by Bhutan brought together hundreds from governments, religious organizations, academia, and civil society to discuss “gross national happiness” instead of “gross national product” as a measurement of progress. The meeting follows last year’s General Assembly resolution on “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development.”

The events come as part of a general discussion over whether unbridled, consumer-driven economic growth is really delivering on its promise of improving overall human well-being.

As part of this discourse, two accomplished British academics have written a new book that, as its title plainly states, asks: How Much is Enough? Money and the good life.

Robert Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick, and his son, Edward Skidelsky, a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Exeter, bring fresh analysis and new insights to the subject of development and well-being, examining first the prevailing assumption that more is always better.

“We are not against economic growth as such, but we may reasonably ask not just growth for what, but growth of what,” they write. “We want leisure to grow and pollution to decline. Both are part of any sane idea of human welfare. But both are excluded from GDP, which measures only that portion of domestic production that is traded in markets.”

The Skidelskys argue broadly that if growing material prosperity has not yet yielded concomitant human well-being, it is because humanity has lost its way in the pursuit of an insatiable, conspicuous consumption that has only created a rat race where individuals work ever more hours to buy things that do not bring real or sustained happiness.

“To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter,” they write.

They draw on ancient and contemporary philosophic and economic thought, and also new research on human happiness and economics. They point to mounting data, for example, that shows increased income brings little or no increased happiness beyond a certain floor where basic needs for food, shelter, and comfort are met.

The Skidelskys also analyze the nature of happiness, arguing that the utilitarian definitions of it that are commonly employed by economists today focus too much on maximizing pleasure instead of what brings genuine satisfaction in life, fingering this as what has gone wrong with indicators like GDP — and, even, some of the new thinking about the economics of happiness.

They note, for example, that one prominent “happiness economist” has called for research into the electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers as one means of maximizing public happiness at the lowest cost.

“If happiness is just a state of mind, how can it at the same time be the supreme good, the ultimate object of all our striving?” they write. “To labor for years on a work of art or on bringing up a child simply so as to enjoy the resultant mental buzz is to betray a very peculiar attitude to life. Yet it is precisely this attitude that underlies the current cult of happiness.”

What is needed are definitions of happiness that include a strong emphasis on moral values. They want to “revive the old idea of economics as a moral science; a science of human beings in communities, not of interacting robots.”

To this end, they compile a list of seven “basic goods,” the “possession of which constitutes living well.” These are: health, security, respect, harmony with nature, friendship, leisure, and “personality” — which they define as “the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good,” adding that some often simply call this “autonomy.”

The Skidelskys say this list encompasses all of the necessities of life, such as food and shelter, which fall under the health and security categories, and yet also promotes a wider, more philosophically based conception of basic needs. Their idea in this redefinition is to provide policy-makers with broad guidelines for a “non-coercive paternalism” where state powers promote the good life over raw growth.

“Growth might sensibly be pursued as a means to one or more of the basic goods,” they write. “Health requires decent food and medicine. Leisure requires time away from toil. Personality requires a place to withdraw, a ‘room behind the shop.’ Populations too poor to afford these goods have every reason to seek to become richer. Here in the affluent world, however, the material prerequisites of health, leisure and personality have long since been achieved; our difficulty is making proper use of them.”

Bahá’ís will find much to appreciate in this book. Certainly, the Bahá’í teachings, like other religious traditions, place emphasis on qualities such as love, self-sacrifice, and service to humanity.

Moreover, while material prosperity is surely a component of human well-being, and necessary to satisfy the requirements of justice, Bahá’ís understand that no program of development that fails to account for the spiritual reality that underpins human nature can succeed.

“No matter how far the material world advances, it cannot establish the happiness of mankind,” said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “Only when material and spiritual civilization are linked and coordinated will happiness be assured.”

The Skidelskys acknowledge the role of religion, saying the “realization” of their list of basic goods “is probably impossible without the authority and inspiration that only religion can provide.”

Overall How Much is Enough is thoughtful and thought-provoking. It surely contributes much to what is becoming one of the chief discourses in sustainable development.