A series of recent articles on this blog has shown that some societies offer better opportunities than others for individuals to have the basic goods of a flourishing human. My aim in this post is to draw threads together to provide an overview of the links between the basic goods and determinants of opportunities to have those goods.
First, I will recap how the basic goods were identified.
As explained in the first article in the series, I have adopted the criteria for the basic goods of “the good life” used by Robert and Edward Skidelsky:
- 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.
Those criteria were developed by Skidelsky and Skidelsky in their book How Much is Enough (2012). Those authors also presented a list of basic goods that I used as a starting point for thinking about the items that should be regarded as basic goods.
The basic goods that I think a flourishing human could be expected to have are:
- The prospect of a long and healthy life.
- Wise and well-informed self-direction.
- Positive relationships with family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and trading partners.
- 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.
- Living in harmony with nature.
I think my list is comprehensive and have given reasons why I think the items included on it are basic goods. Nevertheless, my perceptions of what it means to be a flourishing human are not incontrovertible.
Some items on this list could be grouped together. Longevity and psychological well-being are both aspects of health. Positive relations with other humans and living in harmony with nature are both aspects of relationships with other living things. However, I think the differences between the items concerned are large enough to warrant separate listing.
Links between the basic goods
The chart shown at the beginning of this post suggests that the basic goods are linked together as an integrated whole when a human is flourishing.
Wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance. As discussed in the post on that topic, self-direction helps individuals to maintain other basic goods that are necessary to their pursuit of chosen goals. The exercise of practical wisdom helps individuals to live long and healthy lives, maintain positive relationships, manage their emotional health, and live in harmony with nature.
Psychological well-being depends heavily on other basic goods. As noted in the post on psychological well-being, much of the international variation in life satisfaction scores can be explained by factors that are closely related to other basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.
The causal link between psychological well-being and self-direction runs in both directions. Sanity is necessary for wise self-direction.
The prospects for people to live long and healthy lives have always depended on living in harmony with nature. That is true even in the modern world. For example, the severity of damage resulting from bushfires recently experienced in Australia may be attributed to failure to have enough regard to living in harmony with nature. In addition to the immediate threat to life posed by the fires, may people have been adversely affected by smoke, which includes particulates that can be detrimental to long term health.
Determinants of opportunities to have the basic goods
Conclusions of the posts relating to each of the basic goods are outlined below.
- Wise and well-informed self-direction: Individuals have strong incentives to learn how to make wise and well-informed choices in societies where there is a great deal of economic and personal freedom. They are likely to have easier access to relevant information in countries with relatively high skill levels.
- The prospect of a long and healthy life: Health spending, income growth and education have contributed substantially to increased longevity. The more fundamental determinants are the cultural and institutional factors that have contributed to economic development, including economic freedom. Long healthy life expectancy is associated with high levels of economic and personal freedom.
- Positive relationships with other humans: The extent to which others can be trusted has an important impact on the opportunities for positive human relationships because it improves incentives for trade and other mutually beneficial activities. Trust levels tend to be higher in countries with relatively low crime rates and adherence to rule of law. Generalized trust, which gives greatest weight to trust of people who have just met and people from different religions and nationalities, tends to be greatest where people hold emancipative values, involving greater tolerance of diversity. Networks of individuals who can rely on each other for social support tend to be strongest in high-income countries.
- Psychological well-being: Countries with the highest average life satisfaction are characterised by relatively high income levels and life expectancy, accompanied by perceptions of strong social support, freedom and low corruption. The percentage of the population who are dissatisfied with life tends to be relatively low in such countries.
- Living in harmony with nature: The sense of kinship that people feel toward some animals living in the wild is similar to their feelings toward household pets. Human reasoning seems likely to continue to expand this sense of kinship to encompass more living things. Rising incomes make people more willing and able to afford more humane treatment of animals.
Common elements among determinants
The most pervasive common elements among the determinants of opportunities to have the basic goods are high incomes and high levels of economic and personal freedom.
The pervasiveness of high incomes as a determinant of opportunities for human flourishing points to the importance of economic growth. I have recently argued that it seems likely that for the foreseeable future the aggregate outcome of choices freely made by individuals as consumers and producers of goods and services will continue to involve further economic growth, even in high income countries.
However, it is possible that, over the longer term, increasing numbers of individuals will choose a lifestyle involving stable incomes and more leisure to one with rising incomes. Such an outcome would be consistent with ongoing growth of opportunities for individuals to live the lives that they aspire to have.
Once we recognize that economic growth is only one possible outcome of personal choices in the context of expanding production and consumption possibilities, that opens the way for us to focus on the determinants of productivity growth, rather than GDP growth outcomes. The cultural and institutional factors that have led to economic growth in the past have potential to continue to raise productivity levels, and thus enable opportunities for human flourishing to continue to expand, even if aggregate demand for goods and services does not continue to grow.
Cultural and institutional factors that support individual self-direction and opportunities for mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation are important not only in enabling people to make effective use of known technology, but also in bringing about improvements in skills, innovation, technological progress and advance of knowledge that enable productivity growth to occur.
Important institutions supporting the ongoing growth of productivity include liberty and rule of law. Individuals need liberty in order to exercise self-direction, and they need trustworthy trading partners and collaborators to engage with for mutual benefit. The perception that others can be trusted is enhanced by widespread adherence to rule of law. Culture is directly important in supporting the advance of knowledge, respect for innovators, and tolerance of diversity. Culture also underpins the values supporting liberty and the rule of law.
Wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance among the basic goods of a flourishing human because it helps individuals to maintain the other basic goods. The exercise of practical wisdom helps individuals to live long and healthy lives, maintain positive relationships, manage their emotional health, and to live in harmony with nature.
At a societal level, liberty and rule of law are among the most important determinants of opportunities for individuals to have the basic goods of a flourishing human. That poses the question of why there is greater liberty and adherence to rule of law in some societies than in others. In order to understand the determinants of opportunities for human flourishing we need to understand the evolution of cultures supporting liberty and the rule of law.