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

 

Abandon hope

29 Nov

oliver-burkeman I’m pleased to learn that journalist Oliver Burkeman shares my sceptical attitude to hope. Last week on Radio 4, in a series on the power of negative thinking, he pointed out that relentless optimism can be quite dangerous. If you’re a safety supervisor on an oil rig, for example, just hoping that everything will be OK would be really stupid. Rather, you have to plan for disaster. If the worst case scenario actually happens, then you’ll be far better equipped to deal with it.  

Hoping for the best can be a sloppy approach on quite a few levels of existence. It doesn’t work all that well in your personal life, and it certainly doesn’t work  if you’re trying to tackle major global problems. Climate disaster isn’t going to be averted if we think, ‘Oh, it probably won’t happen.’  Hope robs us of our agency – our will and power to change things. Don’t shrug and hope for the best – do everything you can to halt it. 

Burkeman ended his programme with a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, my favourite constructive pessimist. ‘Cease to hope,’ Seneca wrote, ‘and you will cease to fear.’ (Moral Letters 5)

Objective lists

20 Oct

listAccording to ‘objective list’  theorists, if we itemise the things which contribute to our well-being, we will often find that not all the entries on the list relate to pleasurable experiences or desire-satisfaction.  So neither hedonism nor desire theories work all that well as an account of  the ingredients of individual well-being.

There are problems with lists, of course – particularly with the stipulation ‘objective’. In the words of the contributor to Stanford’s ‘Plato’ entry, how do we decide what should  go on the list?  “It is important that every good should be included.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being/#ObjLisThe).  This often seems to come down to a question of who decides what goes on the list.

Most of us can probably come up with some reasonable suggestions. A year ago I heard  Professor Andrew Oswald present a convincing check-list of factors which we need to be aware of in any quest for well-being. These include items such as employment, exercise, and friendship (see this blog, 4 October 2015). Exercise may provide a good example of what objective list theorists are talking about. Some people hate it – they neither enjoy it nor want it. But somebody is telling them that they need it if they’re going to achieve well-being.

Hedonists may protest at this point that objective list theories are elitist. The theories are claiming that certain things are good for people even when those people don’t want them, and don’t derive pleasure from them. We might get round this by arguing that deep down people do enjoy what’s good for them. I don’t really like spinach, for example, but I do enjoy the sensation that I’m eating something that will make me healthy.  So I sort of enjoy eating spinach. In my head I enjoy it.

Another response to the elitist objection is to bite the bullet, and point out that a theory can be both elitist and true.

Even so, objective list theories aren’t necessarily authoritarian. Somebody could have a highly elitist view of what constitutes well-being, while maintaining the liberal view that it’s up to the individual to decide whether he or she wants to engage with it. No nanny state here then, just a set of ideas about what’s good for us, take it or leave it. Nobody’s forcing me to eat spinach, are they? This may be seen as the position adopted by John Stuart Mill.

While desire theories tell us that what we want is what is good for us, objective list theories tell us that what is good for us is what we want. According to Stanford’s ‘Plato’, “what is most at stake (in objective list theories) is the issue of the epistemic adequacy of our beliefs about well-being”. In other words, how do we know what is good for us?  Do we trust others to tell us?

Desire and the grass-counter

12 Oct

Pleasure and pain exist in the minds of the people who experience them, and are hard to measure. So economists interested in social welfare – who in the last ten years or so have been among the most prominent happiness theorists – have begun to link well-being with the satisfaction of desires, rather than sensations of pleasure. And since present desires are often transitory, and may evaporate quite quickly, comprehensive desires are the ones that theorists tend to concentrate on. What’s important for a person’s well-being, they argue, is the overall level of desire-satisfaction achieved in his or her life as a whole.

In thinking about desire and well-being, it’s necessary to circumvent the hypothetical situation where a drug addict can get hold of the substance he or she craves, very easily and at no expense, for a whole lifetime. Drug addicts generally aren’t happy, even when their desires are satisfied. So we probably shouldn’t measure well-being through straightforward desire-satisfaction. Rather, it’s suggested, we need to give desires a ranking, so that the more long-term desires – ones that encompass the shape and content of one’s life as a whole – are given priority.

So what about the people whose desires are very limited, because they have very little knowledge of what’s on offer in the world at large?  Like John Stuart Mill’s pig, they may be satisfied with very little. This prompts an informed desire version of the comprehensive desire theory: the best life is the one which we would desire if we were fully inforgrassmed about all the possibilities.

The American philosopher John Rawls has come up with an objection to this, which we can term the grass-counter example. Imagine that a brilliant Harvard mathematician, fully informed about all the options available to her, develops an overwhelming desire to count the blades of grass on the well-trimmed lawns of Harvard. Is a life of grass-counting really the best thing for her, even though it’s what she wants? (Theory of Justice, p. 432).

Rawls himself is inclined to conclude that such lives can be good for the people who are living them. But we can see what the problem is. Hence we come to objective list theories. These lists may include stuff that people neither want nor enjoy, but which even so may contribute to their well-being … 

Hedonism part 3: John Stuart Mill. The Opera House wins

6 Oct

john_stuart_mill_by_london_stereoscopic_company_c1870

Like his teacher Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) believed that happiness is the highest good. Like Bentham, he defines it as the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. His hedonism differs from Bentham’s, however, when it comes to the issue of quality. According to Mill, happiness must be distinguished from contentment, and is of higher value:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” (Utilitarianism, Chapter II)

Mill argued that pleasures can vary in quality – intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures). The pleasures of listening to opera or of acting virtuously, for example, are superior to the pleasures we get from food or sex. So for Mill the happiness of the thinking human being is definitely preferable to the contentment of the satisfied pig. People who have had the chance  to experience both types of pleasure know this – so we mustn’t allow the population at large to be fobbed off with a diet consisting entirely of inferior pleasures, is the implication. The opera house definitely wins out over sport.

Mill’s  philosophy of pleasure is sometimes referred to as qualitative hedonism, to distinguish it from the quantitative variety propounded by Bentham. ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’  might well sum up Bentham’s approach to pleasure, but it would never have been adopted as a motto by Mill.

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.