Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Does the evolution of ideas about happiness intersect with the evolution of ideas about markets?

Over the last year I have read two excellent histories that are related to my interest in freedom and flourishing. The first is Jerry Muller’s account of the evolution of ideas about markets in European thought since 1700 (“The mind and the market”, 2002). The second is Darrin McMahon’s account of the evolution of ideas about happiness (“Happiness, a history”, 2006).

A theme of Muller’s account is the concern that many people have had over the last few centuries that the new choices that the market provides would be unsatisfying if they did not fit into some larger scheme linked to institutional attachments. Some were concerned that modes of thought and action characteristic of the market would permeate all human relations, including family relationships.

A theme of McMahon’s account is the tension over the same period between the view that pursuit of happiness amounts to the same thing as pursuit of pleasure and various other views including the idea that happiness comes from a life well lived.

It seem to me that the themes of the two books intersect in the recognition of their authors that it is important that individuals should develop the capacity to make reflective choices and to stick to them. Muller writes:

“The challenge for the individual is to choose among the possibilities offered by the market in a reflective manner, so that they form part of some larger plan of life. The alternative is to become ... a reactive slave to the manipulation of one’s desires by those without an interest in one’s well-being” (p398).

McMahon quotes Aristotle that it would be absurd for the purpose of life to be pleasant distractions and amusements. He then adds: “Yet in order to act otherwise, to undertake ‘serious’ endeavours, living life according to virtue or virtues, we must first decide what those endeavours should be. And that is precisely the problem for many in the contemporary world who find it hard to set long-term goals other than good feeling, to chart meaningful narratives that give hope, conviction and purpose to their lives” (p 474-5).

The market order provides people with an expanded array of choices but it is not responsible for the choices that they make.

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