Monday, July 31, 2006

Happiness is Relative

There is a spate of articles, conference papers, journals, pod-casts and journalistic pieces appearing on the subject of ‘happiness’; what it is, how it’s measured and what you have to do to enjoy it. I cannot claim to have been following the debate all that closely (I am inclined to the view that ‘one man’s happiness is someone else’s misery’ – I cannot speak for how women see happiness, so using ‘person’ is not appropriate in this case).

However, I came across this paragraph in an article by Mark Vernon (author of The Philosophy of Friendship - Palgrave Macmillan) in
The Guardian (London) July 31, 2006:

“More than a pleasure: The popular idea of happiness as hedonistic is misleading - the good life can't be purchased”

“Adam Smith reluctantly concluded that commercial society did not require people to live good lives, only cooperative ones. He understood the real challenge: unless we are prepared morally to challenge the commercialism and consumerism that shape society, we will not achieve much in terms of increasing the happiness of the affluent west”

Frankly, I know not what Mark is talking about in respect of Adam Smith. ‘Reluctantly concluded’? Where on earth did that idea come from?

‘Good lives’ are better than ‘co-operative lives’? Who made this judgement? Though the idea of being 'good' and not 'co-operating' with fellow humans strikes me as odd, but Smith did point out we do not have to love others to engage in the 'mercenary exchange of good offices' in Moral Sentiments.

Who said the ‘real challenge’ (by whom inflicted on who?) is that ‘we’ must ‘morally challenge’ ‘commercialism and consumerism’? Those who want to do that can divest themselves of everything they have and emigrate to any of a few score of countries in Africa, the near east and elsewhere, and take up the ‘challenge’ they feel 'we' must be ‘prepared’ to accept without access to ‘commercialism and consumerism’.

How Adam Smith got into the act, I do not know. He had reservations about a lot of things in the changing society of mid-18th century Scotland and knew enough about the dreadful poverty of many people in Scotland, whose lives were spent desperately challenging every day the absence of ‘commercialism and consumerism’ in their lives. Despite reservations – he was an educated gentleman, comfortably well-off from his pension (though he gave much of it away to indigent relatives; the rest he spent on his library) – he saw the commercial age as a means to the relief of the burdens of the absence of what he called ‘opulence’ for the vast majority of the people of Europe and elsewhere.

Those dissatisfied with their lives – and I suggest that this is an unchanging feature of human lives since way back – divide into two: those who desperately want a share of the fruits of commercialism consumerism and those who having got their shares of these fruits forget, or, being second or third generation beneficiaries, cannot imagine what the absence of these fruits would mean to them and those around them. But being of the pontificating kind, they think others should share their misery from their affluence by listening to their sermonising, which does not include them volunteering to divest themselves of what they have, at least just yet.


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