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Say NEJ to positive thinking?

1 Mar

brinkmann

Bucking the current trend for candle-lit cosiness, the Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann  has written a book called  Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which rubbishes the whole business of  looking on the bright side.  Positive thinking, Brinkmann argues, is a maudlin distraction from the important things in life.  Rather like Oliver Burkeman (this blog, 29 Nov 2016), he maintains that  instead we should  be facing  up to the negative.

Last week, Radio 4’s Today programme pitted Prof Brinkmann against  Anthony Seldon, one of the pioneers of happiness teaching in this country.

These days, we’re not allowed to be unhappy, Brinkmann said. This is nonsense. We need  to understand the negative things in our world,  not cloud them in a sugar-coating of positive thinking. Nietzsche, he told us, maintained that  ‘man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does that’. This came as a surprise to me, and to the show’s presenter John Humphreys; but apparently Nietzsche was offering here a critique of the British philosophy of utilitarianism.  (I looked it up later: Nietzsche said this in The Twilight of the Idols). According  to Brinkmann, positive thinking is an ideology which grew out of an individualistic society, and it should  be resisted. People craving self-improvement are bound to fail, and then they will feel worse.

Seldon at first appeared to agree with him. An obsession with the positive can infantilise us and waft us away into la-la land, he said. But true positive psychology, rather than infantilising us, teaches us to cope with the terrible things that we’re almost certain  to encounter in life. He compared the traditional approach to therapy  with a waterfall: generally we wait till someone hits the bottom before we attempt to deal with the problem. By contrast positive psychology is  about prevention – about building the capacity to face adversity.

In the end there wasn’t that much disagreement between these two. Brinkmann  said he wasn’t really worried about positive psychology, but about the people who implement it  – about the coaches, team-leaders etc, who compel us to be upbeat all of the time. The defining mood of our age – if you’re unhappy you’re a loser – does not allow us to focus on the negative aspects of life.

But good positive  psychology, Seldon countered, tells us to embrace the real.

I like and respect Brinkmann’s  enthusiastic acceptance of the negative. But I also find it hard to disagree with Seldon. In the end it probably comes down to emphasis. We need to steer clear of the idea that everything in the world’s garden is simply lovely – it isn’t. To believe that we can think ourselves into being wonderfully fulfilled all of the time is also clearly idiotic. Ditto, the belief that every single person on the planet can be similarly happy and fulfilled, if only he or she tries hard enough.

But at the same time, we do surely have to try to steer people away from the pits of despair  into which it is so easy to fall. Mental health problems are not a joke, and if positive psychology can help some people survive them, I’m not inclined to argue against it. As long, that is, as it doesn’t blind us to all the real suffering that goes on around us, day in, day out. 

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The greatest happiness – Harriet Martineau

8 Dec

harriet_martineau_by_richard_evansThe early sociologist Harriet Martineau became a hero of mine a few years ago, when I was writing a play about The Crystal Palace. Since Martineau was a great defender of ‘The People’s Palace’ and its educational potential, I decided to make her a major character in the drama. As a strong and outspoken woman, I found her a delight to work with.

Now I discover that she was also a disciple of Bentham and his philosophy of utilitarianism. For her, as for Bentham, the greatest happiness of the greatest number was a guiding principle in her prescriptions for economic and social reform.

In her work Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, she announces that ‘the ends of life are virtue and happiness’ (vol.2). The promotion of happiness was a duty which should be undertaken by all governments. Want, she says, chills people’s affection for their country, and ‘hardship is fast breeding hatred to the powers which have not hitherto succeeded in securing the happiness of the people’ (vol.4).  

Never a proto-socialist, Martineau’s aim was to popularise the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism.  ‘Where consumers abound in proportion to capital,’ she writes, ‘it is obvious that the way to bestow most happiness is not to take away one man’s share to give it to another, but to do what is possible towards creating another share in such a way as not to cause more want.’ (vol.9) She was living in an age when increasing industrialisation and the expansion of the British Empire meant that she identified capitalist growth as the cure for poverty at home. She was wrong, in my view – after over 170 years of capitalist growth we are still experiencing the hatred that is generated by government’s abject failure to tackle hardship. But I do admire the way in which Martineau places ‘the greatest happiness’ firmly at the centre of her political programme. 

Martineau ends Illustrations of Political Economy with these words: 

The last and best principle which has been professed, if not acted upon, by our rulers, because insisted on by our nation, is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Was there ever a time before when a principle so expanding and so enduring as this was professed by rulers, because insisted on by the ruled? While this fact is before our eyes, and this profession making music to our ears, we can have no fears of society standing still, though there be brute tyranny in Russia, and barbarian folly in China, and the worst form of slavery at New Orleans, and a tremendous pauper population at the doors of our own homes. The genius of society has before transmigrated through forms as horrid and disgusting as these. The prophecy which each has been made to give out has been fulfilled: therefore shall the heaven-born spirit be trusted while revealing and announcing at once the means and the end —

THE EMPLOYMENT OF ALL POWERS AND ALL MATERIALS, THE NATURAL RECOMPENSE OF ALL ACTION, AND THE CONSEQUENT ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE GREATEST HAPPINESS OF THE GREATEST NUMBER, IF NOT ALL

 

Hedonism part 2: Jeremy Bentham. Sport or opera houses – which should we be promoting?

15 Sep

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is associated with the brand of hedonism known as utilitarianism. He argued that happiness was the ultimate good, and that pleasure and the absence of pain were its chief ingredients.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

But happiness for Bentham was not a purely egotistical exercise. In his view the maximisation of collective happiness was the true basis for moral behaviour.

It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong …the obligation to minister to general happiness was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other. (A Fragment on Government)

For Bentham, then, only an action that appears to maximise the happiness of all the people likely to be affected by it is the morally right action. He may have borrowed the phrase ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’  from the Ulster philosopher Francis Hutcheson.

Each person’s happiness depends on the aggregate balance of pleasures over pains, and this balance is the end which individuals, moral leaders, and legislators must have in mind when they establish rules and make judgements about moral conduct. Basically self-interested individuals should be encouraged and directed to perform actions that promote the greatest happiness of both themselves and others. 

To help achieve this, Bentham devised a Hedonic Calculus, a method of measuring the value of the pleasures or pains that would probably be caused by specific actions. In the Calculus he identifies  certainty, propinquity, intensity, duration, fecundity, purity, and extent as factors which determine the value of any anticipated pleasure or pain. Taking these into consideration will help us decide whether we should  perform the action or not.

Looking at each of these factors in turn:


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Certainty  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will  be caused by the action?

Propinquity How long will I have to wait for pleasure or pain to occur?

Intensity How strong will  the pleasure or pain be?

Duration How long will  the pleasure or pain be felt for?

Fecundity  Will this particular pleasure or pain lead to more of the same?

Purity  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will lead to some of the opposite sensation, pain or pleasure?

Extent   How many people will  the pleasure or pain be likely to affect?

Bentham measured all pleasures by the same criteria.  He didn’t  give intellectual or sophisticated pleasures a higher value than basic ones. According to him,  the pleasure gained from the parlour game push-pin is just as valuable as pleasure derived from music or poetry.  If games bring the population in general more pleasure than going to the opera, then it is vital that society devotes more resources to promoting games than to running opera houses.

Some of  Bentham’s ideas were anticipated by Epicurus. He believed that we have to take into account the pains which our pleasures may cause us in the future. He also took duration into account. “Continuous bodily pain does not last long,” he writes. “Pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.” (Principal Doctrines 4)

Bentham saw his Calculus as something that people who were aware of their own interests would be able to use; but others have insisted that it is quite impractical. Bentham, however, did not expect either individuals or legislators to follow the process to the letter. Rather, the Calculus was a model of an ideal calculation, offering a set of guidelines for those attempting to maximise pleasure and promote the greatest happiness. 

Bentham’s influence is still felt in the field of economics, where the Calculus provided the basis for the development of policies based on cost-benefit analysis. And his collectivist conclusions, though modest, influenced later reformist thinkers who paved the way for modern welfare economics.