Sunday, November 17, 2019

What are the basic goods of a flourishing human?

A good place to begin is with the discussion of the basic goods of “the good life”, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky in their book How Much is Enough (2012). The relevant discussion is in Chapter 6, entitled ‘Elements of the Good Life’. I published a somewhat critical review of the book on this blog some years ago, but I saw some merit in the authors discussion of human flourishing.

The authors adopt the following criteria to identify basic goods:
Universality: not specific to eras or cultures;
Finality: not just serving as a means to a more basic good;
Sui generis: not incorporated in some other good;
Indispensability: lack of the good leads to loss or harm.
I accept those criteria.

The authors identify the following seven basic goods:
  • Health: ‘‘the full functioning of the body, the perfection of our animal natures”.
  • Security: ‘‘an individual’s justified expectation that his life will continue more or less in its accustomed course, undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals”.
  • Respect: an individual’s feeling that others ‘‘regard his views and interests as worthy of consideration, as things not to be ignored or trampled on”.
  • Personality: ‘‘the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good”.
  • Harmony with Nature: ‘‘a sense of kinship with animals, plants, and landscapes”.
  • Friendship: ‘‘all robust, affectionate relationships”, including work relationships etc. as well as family relationships.
  • Leisure: “that which we do for its own sake”, not just time off work.

That list summarises 17 pages of discussion, so it may not do justice to the authors’ deliberations. Nevertheless, it provides a basis to consider whether items have been identified appropriately, and whether anything important has been left out.

Health is obviously an essential characteristic of a flourishing human. The authors want to discourage “an obsession with longevity”, but it is reasonable to assert that flourishing involves living healthily for the term of one’s natural life.

Security is important, but it serves as a means to other goods, including a long and healthy life and psychological well-being (an important omission from the authors’ list of basic goods).

Having others respect of one’s views and interests feels good, but it isn’t indispensable to individual flourishing. Respect for one’s natural rights (life, liberty and property) is certainly indispensable, but serves as a means to other goods, including the ability to live a long and healthy life, interact with others for mutual benefit, and to the acquire human and physical capital that contributes to flourishing.

“Personality” does not seem to capture adequately the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good. The authors use the term personality, rather than autonomy or practical reason, because it implies “spontaneity, individuality and spirit”. Those aspects of personality could be more appropriately incorporated under psychological well-being. The basic good corresponding to framing and executing a plan of life seems to me to be best described as accepting responsibility for self-direction.

Living in harmony with nature is important to human flourishing, and not just because of environmental impacts on human health and well-being. As I see it, the motivation for living in harmony with nature stems from deep-seated intuitions about our kinship with other living things.

Friendship doesn’t seem the most appropriate word to capture the wide variety of relationships that the authors put under this heading. The relevant basic good seems to me to be positive relationships.

Leisure is usually thought of as time off work, rather than engagement in doing things for their own sake. Martin Seligman uses the term ‘engagement’ to refer to the relevant basic good in his book Flourish (2011).

The other four elements of well-being identified in Seligman’s PERMA acronym (discussed here) are positive emotion, relationships, meaning and achievement. Of these, Skidelsky and Skidelsky only directly acknowledge relationships as an element of the good life. It seems to me that positive emotion and a sense of achievement are essential characteristics of a flourishing human.

Meaning requires a little more discussion. Seligman defines ‘meaning’ as belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self. This makes sense if serving the self means pursuit of personal pleasure. Those who see their lives as meaningful could be expected to value more things in life than their own pleasure.

So, here are the basic goods that I would expect a flourishing human to have:
  1.  The prospect of a long and healthy life.
  2. Wise and well-informed self-direction.
  3.  Positive relationships with family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and trading partners.
  4. Psychological well-being: emotional stability, positive emotion, satisfaction with material living standards, engagement in doing things for their own sake and learning new things, perception of life as meaningful, a sense of accomplishment, optimism, resilience, vitality, integrity, and self-respect.
  5. Living in harmony with nature.

What do I plan to do with this list? My interest is in the factors that lead to differences in opportunities for human flourishing in different countries. For example, which are the countries where some person chosen at random is likely to have the best prospects of a long and healthy life? How can we explain why the prospects for that individual are better in those countries?
Such questions will be explored in later posts.