A well-being world

The measuring of official policy by its impact on the quality of human life is progress. But only if the governments that proclaim the idea are serious, says David Boyle.
David Boyle
19 December 2010

In Europe and elsewhere, there is a growing awareness of the social need for government policies and business practices to be grounded in a true understanding of human well-being. The scale of the change that this will entail was anticipated in the young John Stuart Mill's struggle with utilitarianism.

Mill’s fearsome father was the secretary and disciple of the architect of the modern utilitarian idea, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832); in 1826, at the age of 20, the young Mill suffered a nervous breakdown as the apparent implications of the philosophy began to unravel in his mind.

“The end had ceased to charm”, he was to describe the moment in his autobiography, “and how could there ever be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.”

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) went on to rescue utilitarianism from the puritanical abyss to which Bentham’s guiding principle - the greatest happiness of the greatest number - seemed to lead if pushed too far. But the idea’s two originating flaws remained: it developed a reductionist view of the human spirit, and its pioneers (the “statists” of the 1820s-1830s) linked the measurement of happiness exclusively to that of money.

This quantifying approach has trapped official thinking in Britain ever since, never more so than during the first decade of the 21st century when utilitarianism became the beating heart of the New Labour government. Two minor examples make the point: the government’s ambition to “make Britain the world leader in online gambling”, and its rejection of the architect Richard Rogers’s use of the word ‘beautiful’ in his report on future cities in place of the (measurable) phrase “good design”. 

There are signs that the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed after the election in May 2010 is seeking a different philosophy. Its decision to include human well-being and quality of life (and not just economic growth) as key criteria when looking at the impact of policy is welcome and could even be revolutionary - but only if the government means what it says.

Here, the coalition’s approach to university funding casts doubt on its intentions. The Browne report which guides its policy is possibly the most utilitarian take on the subject ever written; it views higher education as solely an investment that must be recouped. But education cannot be just an investment, even if it is that as well. This depressing and even dehumanising view misses the fact that a university training (perhaps especially in the humanities) can be greatly enriching on many levels, for both the people involved and the wider society.

The report’s thinking is - as Charles Seaford, my colleague at the New Economics Foundation (nef), argues - that it is inefficient for graduates to work in low-paid jobs, even if these are more socially useful; rather, they will serve the nation better by spending years chained to an economic treadmill to pay off the loans they incurred while studying.

The logic of this kind of extreme utilitarianism is to reduce the value of communities to only what can appear on a balance-sheet - and eliminate everything else, including the intrinsic value of the people who compose them.

“There is a risk of turning a university degree into an object”, says Deborah Bowman, a director of studies in Cambridge. “It should be OK to say that we are not just economic entities. Do we want a country in which we are all trying to earn as much as we possibly can - or having rich, fulfilling lives? We are in danger of creating a higher-education system in which these are seen as the same thing - and they aren't.”

An official decision to measure well-being is a move in the right direction. The commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress appointed by France’s president in 2008 with the involvement of (among others) Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz reflects the same positive fusion of politics and ideas. But fine words are not enough. The idea of being guided by people’s well-being rather than money and growth is too important to take lightly, far less betray.

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