Friday, June 27, 2008

Are you happy? Thoughts on Africa's development paths and the philosophy of happiness

South Africa, and many other African countries, are in a phase of active economic development.  Infrastructure programmes are launched, houses are built, services provided and new neighbourhoods rolled out.  The implicit assumption is that these activities will lead to an improvement in the lot of Africa’s people.  Will this be the case? A short detour in happiness research and philosophy sheds some light.

Human happiness: a fertile research field

It has come as a shock to many that the extent to which rapid socio-economic advancement has improved human well-being is now being questioned.  The standard indicators of economic, political, and social progress are not very good at tracking human happiness. Despite many years of economic growth and associated increases in income in most developed countries, happiness studies send out very mixed results (e.g. the apparent difference between aggregate happiness and individual happiness, happiness is U shaped over one's lifetime, happiness declines after a certain level of income, improve happiness by giving, happiness is related to personality).  Happiness research has become fertile ground and continues to fascinate scientists from very different disciplines (see for example this debate by ABC News on the science of happiness).  

Development paths for developing countries

In developing countries, with high levels of poverty and deprivation a lot of catch-up is still needed and the dynamics of achieving human well-being are somewhat different.  Rising income is generally associated with an increase in happiness as it releases people out of 'very unhappy' states of poverty.  Although absolute poverty has decreased substantially among a segment of the world’s population when compared to the start of the Industrial revolution, widening inequality worldwide seem to threaten the stability of the current system.  Recent evidence from Africa suggests that the benefits of economic growth does not translate into social development.  Some recent research argues that it is not so much the fact of being unequal in itself, but the inequality of economic opportunity and mobility, often driven by unemployment, that makes people really unhappy. 

The question of worldwide sustainability, ecological thresholds and reinforcing system feedbacks places increasing pressure on the “tried and tested” development path of the accumulation of income and wealth. Unequal playing fields in increasingly globalised markets also fuel the state of unhappiness.  The questions whether developing nations will have the space to develop as developed nations did is often asked. Whether this type of development path is the wise thing to pursue do is a second, just as important question.

This again brings to the fore the age-old concept of human well-being.  Human well-being is much more then only materialistic well-being, normally measured through indicators such as GNP and income.  This is recognised in the vast and growing literature on well-being and human happiness, but the translation of such a new theory of well-being to African situations is still lacking. This vital disconnect would continue to support the choice of development paths that does not really increase human well-being. New measurements of well-being are slowly created to take account of such concerns, but are far from being applied in a consistent policy supporting framework yet.    

For the love of wisdom - and beyond..

It may well serve as a reminder that the concept of human well-being fascinated philosophers from the earliest times. The Platonic interpretation of well-being is to search for the good in fixed principles and underlying laws with a primary focus on an unchanging reality in another world. Plato separated mind and body and happiness therefore closely corresponds to the organisation of human society in city-states, the best imitation of stability in this world at that time, while providing the context for a rationalistic inquiry into substantive, unchanging realities in the other world. 

Aristotlean philosophy, however, was much more focussed on well-being derived from the process of life itself. Mind and body are treated as one and human happiness became much more associated with bringing potential into full action in the real world.  As a result of this view and after the demise of city states, subsequent Stoic philosophers divorced human happiness from Platonic political life in favour of living well or being virtuous in a changing physical world. 

Both the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions departed from the assumption that reason can bring a better understanding of the world, and, in turn, can be used to create a better future.  Later philosophy brought beliefs back, either as a partner in dual spheres (sic. the philosophy of St. Thomas of Aquinas) or as a context wherein reason is embedded (St. Augustine). After the Renaissance, belief and reason, faith and knowledge, became separated again.  

Platonic rationalism dominated up to the 17th century when British empiricism brought back the philosophers of experience.  They argued that reality can be understood through observation, experimentation and controls.  In both these strands of thinking, the initial ontological question on the nature of being has changed to the epistemological question on the nature of knowledge. 

It was Immanuel Kant who continued to strive to reconcile rationalism - the then new empiricism - and moral certainties in one framework.  He could not, however, escape an integration by placing each in their own domain. Not surprisingly, post-Kantian philosophy developed into two broad schools of thought: (substantivist) positivistic rationalism (Comte, Smith, Mill) and a much smaller processional historical dynamics school (Hegel).  A third school of thought continue to emphasise the importance of a reality beyond human implication (whether through reasoning or empirical observation) and an appeal to normative values transcending beyond our own limited rationality or experience.

It is this first school of thought that came to dominate the Western world.  Among others, it was the discipline, structure and optimism of this school of thought that provided the stage for the most rapid economic progress of mankind in recent Western history.  This progress has brought us a lot, but also left us with many unanswered questions on human well-being.  

It may well be that perceptions on what human well-being really is became associated with an economic development logic underpinned by a particular philosophical point of view. Being latecomers to the development party, Africans do have the window of opportunity to critically assess their development paths.  This search is not only for the love of wisdom, but has very real outcomes. 

No comments: