Monday, April 7, 2014

Is the story of human flourishing all about emancipation

Yes, the story of human flourishing is all about emancipation. There is no other word that better describes what human flourishing is about.

At least that is the way it seems to me - and that view has been reinforced by reading Christian Welzel’s book, Freedom Rising, which is subtitled: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation.

The central idea in the book is that a desire for emancipation from external constraints is deeply rooted in human nature. It stems from the ability of humans to make conscious choices and to imagine a less constrained existence.

Emancipative values remain relatively dormant when people are poor, illiterate and isolated in local groups - they tend to place lower value on freedom of choice and more equal opportunity than on meeting their most basic needs.  Emancipative values emerge strongly as people acquire more action resources (wealth, intellectual skills and opportunities to connect with others). As people recognize the value of civic entitlements, such as the right to vote, they are inspired to take collective action to achieve them.

A society ascends a utility ladder of freedoms as its people obtain more action resources, adopt emancipative values and attain more civic entitlements. Life provides greater opportunities for most people as societies ascend this ladder. That is fundamentally what human flourishing is about in my view.

For individuals, ascending Welzel’s utility ladder of freedoms is much the same as ascending Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. However, Welzel’s emancipation theory has the advantage of being able to explain movement up the ladder in terms of forces of social evolution as well as desires that are deeply rooted in human nature.

Some implications of Welzel’s emancipation theory are capable of being tested empirically. The index of emancipative values used in the empirical work incorporates twelve items from the World Values Survey covering values relating to autonomy, choice, equality and voice (e.g. protecting freedom of speech and giving people more say in government and workplace decisions). Action resources are measured using various indexes of technology, education and national income. Civic entitlements are measured using Freedom House indicators and various other sources such as Vanhanen’s index of democratization.

The results of four tests of implications of Welzel’s emancipation theory are briefly reported below.

First, the empirical work confirms that emancipative values tend to become more widespread as action resources become more widespread. The results indicate that action resources (particularly intellectual resources) strengthen emancipative values at both the individual and societal level, but operate most strongly at the societal level. An individual’s intellectual resources strengthen her emancipative values more when she lives in a society in which intellectual resources are more widespread.

Second, the empirical results reported are consistent with the view that the sequence of change runs from emancipative values to civic entitlements rather than vice versa. Increases in emancipative values are explained by action resources rather than civic entitlements.

Third, evidence is presented that as emancipative values become more widely shared, the dominant life strategies in a population shift from an extrinsic focus on material circumstances to an intrinsic focus on emotional qualities. As emancipative values become more widely shared, people become less preoccupied with their financial situation and their satisfaction with life becomes more closely related to their emotional state (happiness).

Fourth, evidence is presented that a strong sense of general well-being becomes more common as intrinsic life strategies become prevalent. In other words, levels of life satisfaction tend to be higher when life satisfaction becomes more closely related to emotional state rather than material circumstances.
To sum up, Welzel’s emancipation theory seems to me to fit the facts pretty well in terms of what we know about the ways in which values have changed and civic entitlements have expanded as living standards have risen.

I will consider in my next post whether or not Freedom Rising provides a satisfactory explanation of the conditions that got the ball rolling by enabling people to achieve higher material living standards, first in Western Europe and then in many other parts of the world. That is not just an important historical question. It is also relevant in considering what factors could cause the processes of emancipation and human flourishing to be interrupted in future.

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