Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Does GNH measure progress towards a better society?

In my last post, ‘Can happiness be aggregated?’, I suggested that any statement about aggregate happiness or gross national happiness (GNH) involves judgements – explicit or implicit – about the characteristics of a good society.

I used the example of Mary, who is flourishing at level 9, and Jane, who is just surviving at level 1, and asked whether their combined level of flourishing is equivalent to that of two other people who are flourishing at level 5 ( i.e. (9+1)/2).  I suggested that you may feel that combining the ratings of different individuals together should involve value judgements rather than just arithmetic. I argued that if we introduce value weights into the process of aggregating the flourishing of different individuals, we are making a judgement about the extent to which the distribution of flourishing is consistent with our views about characteristics of a good society. 

I think the issues raised by the example of Mary and Jane can be brought into sharper focus if we consider whether aggregate flourishing increases to the same extent if Mary’s level of flourishing rises from 9 to 10 as when Jane’s level of flourishing rises from 1 to 2. I think most people would feel that Jane’s increased flourishing should receive more weight than Mary’s in the assessment of aggregate happiness. As argued above, the assignment of relative weights involves a value judgement. Different people can be expected to have different opinions about this matter.

The people responsible for the GNH survey in Bhutan have taken the position that ‘beyond a certain point, we don’t need to keep adding in higher achievements to the quality of life mechanically’. Their methodology would not count the increase in Mary’s level of flourishing as making any contribution to GNH on the grounds that it is appropriate to confine attention to ‘a middle band of achievements that contribute significantly to human wellbeing for most people’. I am not sure whether these implicit weightings reflect a consensus of the people of Bhutan, but in any case the weightings in the GNH index have validity as an expression of the values of the elected government.

The way I see it, Bhutan’s GNH index is the method that the government of Bhutan has chosen to measure progress toward a better society.


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