The topic of 'happiness' seems to be attracting quite a lot of attention
in Singapore blogosphere. In this essay I focus on the debate between those who argue that the government's role in cultivating societal happiness is restricted to economic management and those who argue that the government's role is broader than those listed above. The former group argues that people are 'diverse', and because they are diverse and want different things, the government can 'never please everybody'. Since this is the case, the reasoning goes, the next best thing to do is to simply secure the minimal conditions for happiness - that is, focus on economics, law and social order. As a response to HuiChieh's post
on this topic, I presented a two-part argument comprising the following points (in his comments section):
I argued that the problem with the view that the government's role should be restricted to economic management is the following one (which I shall elaborate on over the next three paragraphs). Some citizens only wish to have a good Life, in the individualistic sense, while others wish to have a good Society. The happiness of the former group is more easily secured as long as (a) the economy is doing well, (b) infrastructures are good/surroundings are beautiful, and (c) the place is safe. For this group, there are only three 'necessary' conditions. For the latter group, there may be more, or different, 'necessary' conditions, which may or may not include (a)-(c) above. For them, perhaps the necessary condition for happiness is not (just) a good individual life, but a good society. Now, the tricky part lies here: (1) it is not that the former group discussed above does not Want
to have a good Society, it's just that for them to be happy, they only need to be in a place - any place in this world - where they can make money, enjoy physical
safety, and so on. And (2) they Want a good society but they do not 'will' it (as philosopher Immanuel Kant
would've put it). That is, they do not want it badly enough to do what's necessary to achieve it, and instead just go about their daily lives in a rather apathetic manner. This does not mean, however, that they will not be happy if they could see their Society progress in terms of cultural and political development (e.g. 'opening up'
), and they may even agree with the latter group regarding the elements of the good Society.
I believe that the latter group performs an important role in society precisely by urging people to shift their focus from the good Life to the good Society, to be less 'utilitarian' and more 'Kantian'. Dansong in his essay
has gone even further, talking about the good World characterized by a global ecological sensitivity. So what exactly is good? For the first group discussed above, the good life is secured by good economic management. For the second group, the good life has 'the good Society' as a necessary condition, which means the government cannot say that they've done a good job just because the economy is doing well, for the 'society' is broader than the 'economy'. The fact that there is a coupling between Life-Society for the second group and an absence of coupling for the first group creates a fracturing in society. If the first group still forms the majority, yes, one could say that the 'majority is happy', but this would then amount to a 'tyranny of the majority'
, for the intensity of the Unhappiness of the minority (perhaps not even a Small minority) could be very high indeed.
My arguments presented in the three paragraphs above have been rebutted, but I shall present a counter-rebuttal here. Essentially, the objections hinge on the claim that there is indeed a vast 'diversity' of views concerning the 'good Life' and the 'good Society'. This objection appears convincing on the surface, but its convincingness is based on a vagueness that translates into an apparent accuracy of description. Both HuiChieh
and The Legal Janitor felt that any society, including Singapore, will definitely be diverse enough to make their arguments stand, and that empirical research will definitely not produce evidence to challenge the diversity-argument that has been marshalled in the rebuttal. HuiChieh nonetheless presented some observations concerning the 'multicultural diversity' that characterizes Singapore, and inferred from that very multiculturalism that there is indeed 'sufficient diversity' to make his original argument stand. Thus, we are led all the way back to square one - to the suggestion that the role of the government is really just to do a good job in economic management, law and order maintenance, and minimization
of all kinds. Is that really true? I argue that it's not, for the following reasons:
First, the diversity-argument amounts to little more than an assumption or hypothesis, and it conflates various kinds of 'diversity'
. For example, just because a country is multicultural does not mean that it cannot at the same time be 'one-dimensional'. This one-dimensionality could be characterized by a pervasive culture of consumerism, political apathy, 'kiasuism', and so on. Ethnic, religious, and nationality-based 'diversities' and other kinds
of diversity may or may not
be correlated with diversity regarding conceptions
of the good Life and Society, and they are not effective defences against the pathological effects of one-dimensionality. But at the same time, thankfully, they are also not necessarily factors that will always make agreement concerning the good Society impossible.
Second, I present my theory of 'Life Still Goes On' in order to help me counter the rebuttals. This theory posits that for a significant number of people, cultural and political development in Society at large simply has no bearing on their happiness in their own lives (as I argued above while discussing the Life-Society coupling). As long as the economy is doing well and they are still Breathing
- that is, as long as Life Still Goes On - they are not likely to be unhappy and might even be happy. The problem with HuiChieh and Legal Janitor's dismissal of the need for empirical research in specific societies in that in different societies, the number of such people varies. For the sake of further discussion, I call them 'LEGOs
' (Life Endlessly/still Goes On), and they are a type that can be contrasted against 'LAGOs' (Life Actually Goes On). LAGOs are defined as people whose concern about Society (or even the World at large) causes them to be significantly affected emotionally by the state of cultural and political development in their nation
. Their existence in this world is accompanied by the passionate desire to see a Good Society. Now, here's where yet another rebuttal needs to be countered. It is argued by critics that what characterises the Good Society can never be agreed on totally.
It is true that there can never be 100 percent agreement
on what constitutes the good society. However, this does not mean that the main elements of such a society are equally contentious. The seemingly convincing rebuttal derives its convincingness from a strategic distraction achieved by pointing to an obvious truism, namely, that there can never be 100 percent agreement on what constitutes the good Life and good Society. Yet, the critics then forget that proponents of the original argument (e.g. myself) do wholeheartedly agree on this point. I also agree (and most people would, too) that the good Society and Life is one that is without religious, ethnic, or political conflicts of great intensity, one that is without the 'clash of civilizations'
described by International Relations scholar Samuel Huntington
. Why can't there be agreement on most
elements of the good Life and Society? Once again, the critics (a) point to the existence of a visible
diversity (of race, nationality, class, and so on), and (b) argue that this apparent diversity therefore signals an invisible
'diversity' concerning conceptions of the good Life and Society. As I have argued earlier, these are two different types of diversity; they are not the same, and the first type of diversity doesn't necessarily offer any defence against the virus of pervasive one-dimensionality
How, then, do we conclude on this issue? First, I still believe that empirical studies in actual societies must have a place in the discussion, for just as the critics believe that there is 'diversity at large', there is simultaneously a 'diversity of types of societies'
, some of which are possibly more one-dimensional than others. Second, I believe that HuiChieh's focus on economic management ends up prioritizing only one of the three categories of factors in a proper calculus of happiness, namely, 'hygiene factors', to borrow and adapt the term of management theorist Frederick Herzberg
. There is a problematic neglect of two other important factors, namely, what I'd call (a) 'happiness factors', and (b) 'disgust factors'. Hygiene factors merely ensure that people in a nation are not unhappy, but it does not make them happy. Happiness factors are required to make them happy, provided the counter-effects of disgust factors are not overly strong. Two other points need to be made: first, the temporal and developmental elements should be taken into account in trying to understand why people are happy or not. For it is not merely the state
of a society that makes people happy or unhappy; it is also the perception about the speed
And the direction
in which that society is progressing culturally and politically that affects happiness
. Second, people in a society have been treated in earlier analyses by others as discrete units of pseudo-robots
(which may well be capable of experiencing a narrow range of binary or simple emotions, e.g. either happy or sad/not), but they are not treated as complex human beings who are likely to experience ambivalence (mixed feelings), self-denial, regret-mixed-with-disappointment, dilemmas (e.g. 'I want the cake and eat it too') and other more complex
emotions. It is only through a recognition of the complexity of human emotions that one can begin to appreciate the seriousness of the problem of a society made up of seemingly-contented-but-not-really-satisfied people, living alongside seemingly-neutral-people-who-nonetheless-have-hopes, as well as physically-alive-but-soulless-worker-humanoids
(1) Harvard's Business professor
Michael Porter's 'Diamond Model
of Competitive Advantage of Nations'
(2) George Mason's Public Policy professor
Richard Florida's observations about the 'Rise of the Creative Class'
(3) U-of-Southern California/Berkeley's Communications/Sociology/Urban Planning professor
Manuel Castells's book, 'The Power of Identity'
(4) Affective Computing
robot-building projects at M.I.T.'s Media Lab
(5) Film Analysis of Artificial Intelligence
(6) World Database of Happiness
and the U.S. Misery Index
(7) Psychological research on emotions
(8) Funny/wise/interesting Quotes on 'Boredom'