Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Ethical buses and the economics of happiness

Apparently there are social scientists doing very scientific research about what makes people happy. To this end the World Values Survey Association has polled over 350,000 people and gathered together a bank of data that any scientist would be proud of. Apparently this sort of work is being packaged as something that might be called post-economics – work that pushes economics being a narrow fixation on alienating indicators like GDP, the money supply and other bars in the iron cage of reification.

One finding that has come out of the painstaking and costly research into human well-being is that talking to a stranger while traveling on public transport makes people happier. Ian Bullock picked up on this bit of somewhat fluffy science and wrote an interesting article for (a site we were delighted to come across). Most of the article is a refreshingly humorous unscientific account of his attempt to test this thesis for himself while traveling on local buses. His very personal and statistically insignificant data confirm the earlier findings.

Such findings are laughably unilluminating but the research is interesting insofar as it illustrates the failure of one attempt to go beyond the framework of traditional economics – a failure in the sense that it thinks it is breaking new ground while, in truth, it remains within the very same set of categories that bolster the system that was very nearly brought to its knees in September 2008.

Presumably the train of thought goes a bit like this: there is something brutal and inhumane about contemporary economic reality; economic theory lends support to this by insisting that all the arguments focus on impersonal indicators like the GDP; to go beyond this we ought to bring human happiness into the equation; there need be no sacrifice of scientific rigour because we can gather hard and fast data (and lots of it) about what makes people happy.

There is no denying the importance of human happiness. There is a problem, though, with the utilitarianism that is implicit in this attempt to humanise economics. Unwittingly, Ian Bullock illustrates this perfectly, as he gets on and off Vancouver buses measuring his happiness level on a scale of one to ten and trying various techniques suggested by the social scientists to increase it. Isn’t that what the liberal monads were already envisaged as doing within the market economy? What’s new here? The answer is surely: Nothing.

In rushing to embrace the individual as the missing token of humanity, the post-economists are simply repeating the same crazy oscillation we see elsewhere is society - the insane oscillation between inhumane calculation (e.g. the denial of affordable healthcare) and entertaining pseudo-humanity (e.g. the TV station telling the tear-jerking story of the diseased child and inspiring thousands to give blood). And, again, I don’t want to deny the value of chatting with strangers on the bus, but when we step back and see the bigger picture, does this really get beyond the level of pseudo-humanity? In all probability we will find ourselves chatting to someone on their way to the bank where they will have to beg to save their home from foreclosure. They will be slightly less unhappy when they walk into the bank. But they will still have to beg.

The really daring thing – the thing that would really break the taboos in economics - would be to insist on the need for some kind of ethics. These would be values; not use values or exchange values, but good, old-fashioned ethical values of the sort that Aristotle (and others) would have been proud of.

An alternative picture of Ian Bullock’s bus comes to mind. On a bus I always feel more optimistic about society (and perhaps therefore a tad happier) when I see someone get up to give their seat to someone in greater need. This might or might not make the person losing their seat happy, but it would make the bus a better place. It warms me to see that people still care and still have a sense of propriety (and the act of giving up one’s seat surely involves a mix of both empathy and propriety). Now, these good people surely don’t even begin to try to calculate whether the pleasure gained throught the self-consciousness of virtue outweighs the pain in the legs caused by standing up. They couldn’t. There is a logical hiatus between that kind of utilitarianism and the ethical world of the better bus.

The good bus is one that has shared values that both entrench and demand a concern for others. That concern is a concern for, amongst other things, the happiness of others, but the social order evident in the bus is not one that can be built up on the basis of utilitarian calculation.

In a sense, what needs to be reclaimed is not individual happiness but the idea of a social order – an order dismissed both by liberal economics and utilitarianism – not an order to be ossified and reified, but one that will allow people to be more human than a calculating utilitarian monad.

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