Well-being in a time of riots, famine and recession

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It seems quite a lot happened whilst I was on holiday in the Alps watching glaciers melt: the Office of National Statistics published the results of its survey on public perceptions of well-being; London experienced terrible riots; meanwhile the tragic famine in East Africa worsened and the world slipped closer to a double dip recession.

The first on that list was clearly not the most important but it is sadly instructive to reflect on the rather flawed attempt to assess our well-being in the light of the other events.

This post on the ONS report by Jules Evans also really resonated with me.

Highlights below:

One slight problem with the report, of course, is that it’s the product of a rather haphazard method of canvassing public opinion. In a public debate, you’re going to have all kinds of opinions expressed, and it is some person’s job to decide if the opinion is worth noting, and if so, how. It would be good to be able to analyse the actual responses behind the report – after all they’re of historical interest, as they have now led to an official definition of well-being which will become the goal of our entire society – but alas, the ONS tells me they’re not available.

That means that, inevitably, there is a large dose of mediation or subjectivity from the ONS. It is not simply reflecting back the public’s opinions, rather it is, inevitably, filtering those responses, picking out themes and shaping them into a narrative. So this is far more of a subjective exercise than, say, measuring GDP. The ONS is, in effect, getting into the business of selecting what values are important for us. This is quite an extension of its job remit.

For example, the report notes that “there were considerably more contributions concerning belief or religion, in particular Christianity, than we had expected”. If that’s the case, why wasn’t ‘religion’ put as one of the things that really matters to people? Presumably because ONS staff didn’t deem it appropriate to measure our religiosity (and, by implication, for government policies to encourage religiosity). But the consequence is that we end up with an official definition of well-being that leaves out religious belief – despite the fact that many people appeared to say it really mattered to them.

And it’s telling that the ONS should equate religion with belief – as if some people hold these rather quaint things called ‘beliefs’, while the social scientist, naturally, relies on the empirical evidence or objective data. Yet when Aileen Simkins of the ONS says on Radio 4 that any national measure of well-being has “got to include equality…it’s got to include sustainability”, one might ask ‘why does it got to?’ Is she not also asserting moral beliefs or dogma? They happen to be beliefs that I share, but nonetheless, such assertions are dogmatic rather than scientific or objective…

…The report balanced responses from the general public with responses from an advisory committe. If you look at the advisory committee, almost all its members are either economists, statisticians or bureaucrats (a few are businessmen). There’s not a single priest, rabbi, imam, philosopher, historian, novelist or artist – no one from the Humanities, in other words. These are precisely the people who might question the ability of social science to quantify how meaningful or flourishing a life is with its questionnaires and ten-point scales.

If you ask a room full of economists what the best way is to discover the meaning of life, they will answer ‘economics’. But that doesn’t necessarily make it so.

What the initiative to measure national well-being shows is an incredible optimism in statistics and economics, and their ability to quantify not just our most intimate feelings, but even the objective quality and value of our lives. And what seems strange to me is that we should retain this incredible optimism in social science when we’re still in the middle of a political, economic and moral crisis caused by an excessive faith in the accuracy and objectivity of social science. Rather than pause to wonder if perhaps we have relied too much on social science and its ability to guide us to positive outcomes, instead we rush to give even more power to economists and social scientists.

Last year CAFOD, Tearfund and Theos produced the report ‘Wholly Living: a new perspective on international development’ it argued that ‘too many people around the world are prevented from contributing all they might to the common good. Poverty, sickness, insecurity, ignorance, vulnerability and powerlessness prevent millions in the developing world from being able to exercise their creativity, productivity and generosity [what we define as being able to live a flourishing human life]. At the same time whereas few people in developed countries die of malnutrition, it is increasingly clear that job insecurity, overwork, consumerism, anti-social behaviour and family dislocation prevent the inhabitants of rich nations from living well.’

It tried to be explicit and honest about the values we were adopting in advocating for the purpose of human society and development and it also has a lot to say about the context we are in today.

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