Jeffrey Sachs has described his essay, ‘Restoring Virtue Ethics in the Quest for Happiness’ as highly speculative. That description is apt in my view, even though the idea of restoring virtue ethics does deserve serious consideration. (The essay was published recently as Chapter 5 in the World Happiness Report 2013.)
Jeff begins by establishing that before the modern era, virtue and happiness were seen to be inextricably intertwined. Happiness was seen to be achieved by harnessing the will and the passions to live the right kind of life. He goes on to argue that, over several centuries, virtue ethics has largely been replaced by utilitarian considerations, resulting in greater hedonism and consumerism.
I agree that people have come to think of happiness as being largely about feelings – about pain and pleasure, or positive affect and negative affect, rather than about tranquility, equanimity or spirituality. And, for many people, the pleasure of immediate consumption seems to have encroached upon the virtue of prudence.
Jeff takes this argument much further. He suggests that in the early decades of the 20th Century (the Roaring 20s) ‘America slid into an ethos of ‘hyper-commercialism, untethered by ethical, religious, or philosophical constraints’. He suggests that since then the prevailing ethos has been that happiness ‘was more and more to be found in personal wealth, pure and simple’. He follows Wilhelm Ropke in suggesting that the ubiquity of advertising and the other ‘dark arts of persuasion’ are undermining social values and ethics. He also shares Ropke’s concerns that financial innovations are undermining the fragile restraints that induce households to save for the future.
Jeff argues that hyper-commercialism is the dominant ethos in the United States today. He also claims:
‘Hyper-commercialism has failed to lift average US happiness for more than half a century, even as per capita income has tripled. In Figure 2.3 of this report, the US ranks just 17th in happiness, though it has a higher income per capita than the 16 countries ahead of it, with the exception of Norway’.
However, I don’t think Jeff has established that hyper-commercialism is the dominant US ethos. It seems to me that what Jeff describes as ‘hyper-commercialism’ is normally referred to in less inflammatory terms as ‘materialism’ - a preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts and considerations at the expense of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values. Whereas hyper-commercialism is linked exclusively to commercialism, materialism could have a number of different causes. Businesses certainly try to tempt people to buy the things they sell, but they were not alone in encouraging materialism. The 20th Century was also prime time for industrial and political movements which promoted materialism by encouraging people to agitate for improvement in the material conditions of their lives. Practitioners of the politics of envy have been active in America in encouraging people to become discontented, even though they have been less successful than in some other parts of the world.
The idea that materialism has become dominant seems to me to understate the ongoing influence of ethical constraints and non-commercial values in the United States. Views about anti-social behaviour have moved in favour of greater government regulation, and opportunistic and untrustworthy behaviour is widely discouraged. Moralists and even some entertainers preached against materialism during the 20th Century, as in earlier periods. Their view has gained impetus in recent years as scientific evidence has emerged that people whose main goal in life is to become wealthy tend to become unhappy if they fail to attain that goal.
Jeff also seems to have overlooked the possibility that people might have chosen to become more materialistic in their outlook even in the absence of urging by commercial and political interests. Is it not possible that we have come to want the material objects that make our lives more comfortable and provide us with better travel and communication possibilities as they have come into existence and as we have come to learn how they can improve our lives? My casual observations suggest that it is possible. For example, when I visited Bhutan it seemed obvious to me that many of the people who live there still want access to the material objects of the modern world, even though they have been exposed to little advertising.
The evidence that Jeff cites of no increase in average happiness in the US for more than half a century is contradicted by evidence from the Pew Research Center and the Gallup Organisation that since 1964 the proportion of Americans saying that their life today is better off than five years ago has generally far exceeded the proportion saying that their life today is worse than five years ago. It seems to me that the latter surveys are more reliable because they require respondents to evaluate their current and past lives on a directly comparable basis.
The point that Jeff makes about average happiness in the US ranking below that of some countries with lower incomes invites an inspection of the reasons why the US ranking is lower, to see whether they provide support for speculations about hyper-commercialism. I don’t see any obvious evidence in support of Jeff’s speculations in Figure 2.3 (to which he refers in the passage quoted above). Perceived levels of social support and generosity are comparable to those in the highest ranking countries. The Figure suggests that the areas in which the US performs more poorly than the highest ranking countries are perceptions of corruption and freedom to make life choices – which are not linked in obvious ways to hyper-commercialism. Further research is required to understand why people in the US perceive corruption to be high and their freedom to be restricted.
It is fairly clear from what I have written that I disagree with a fair amount of the reasoning by which Jeff comes to the view that virtue ethics should play a larger role in the quest for happiness. Nevertheless, I agree with him that we should be seeking some kind of ethical consensus as a guide to public policy. In Free to Flourish (and on this blog) I have suggested that the concept of a good society – a society that is good for the people who live in it – could be a useful focus for thinking about this issue. I have suggested that there would be widespread agreement that a good society would have three important characteristics:
· a set of institutions that enable its members to live together in peace;
· widespread opportunities for its members to live long and healthy lives, and to pursue their economic, educational, cultural goals; and
· a degree of security against misfortunes such as accidents, ill-health, unemployment and environmental disasters.
Finally, I agree with Jeffrey Sachs’ suggestion that more attention should be given to monitoring individual norms regarding honesty, trust and other aspects of virtue ethics. The state of the social fabric is clearly of fundamental importance to the pursuit of happiness.