The Good Life

I take Alan’s point that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify all experiences economically. Nor should we account for lives and societies purely on the basis of lucre.

Yet it doesn’t strike me that the Human Development Index is at all wrong in using (relatively) easy to quantify measures of human physical progress — health, education, and income — as key indicators of social progress. It is, after all, these measures that government is primarily tasked with improving.

Moreover, in the Leon Kass speech that Alan cites, I see a troubling tendency — not merely a recognition that wealth is not the only way to measure a good life, but an unsubstantiated romanticization of the hard, sad lives of the economically destitute.

Kass glorifies and elevates the poor and uneducated, granting them, purely on his own relatively brief observations, a special moral standing. They are Noble Savages, Poor But Good, living the glorious Simple Life, exemplars of the sort of lives the well-off might live should they ever get Back To Nature. It’s a habit that’s rather common amongst environmental advocates (who also tend to shy away from economic views of human development), as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger pointed out in their excellent TNR piece, “The Green Bubble”:

Nonetheless, it has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development—never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty.

It’s a view that, frankly, can easily slip into condescension: Kass actually seems impressed that these lowly, uneducated people could manage to lead honorable lives, and drawing comparisons to the petty behavior of his Harvard cohort, seems to suggest that their decency and their poverty are connected. I don’t think we have any reason to believe they are. It’s not hard to concoct nostalgic visions of a simpler, more communal life free from the headaches of modern life. But ask those struggling farmers — or the Third World poor — which life they’d rather lead: their lives, or the lives of middle class ease and comfort shared by Kass and his educated colleagues. I think the answer is obvious. And I think that the vast majority of the privileged middle class would answer the same way, too.

I might be more sympathetic to Kass’s viewpoint if he could actually back up the claim that the poor he encountered were of greater moral character. But he has nothing to offer except his own observations. It’s a difficult thing to quantify, admittedly, but what evidence we do have suggests that poverty does not, in fact, result in tougher moral fiber: poorer societies tend to be more corrupt and produce more human rights abuses than richer countries.

So no matter what Kass might think he saw, there’s simply no reason to believe that being poor instills virtue. Alan’s absolutely right that economic development is “not the whole story of what it means to be human and what it means to be developed.” But one needn’t romanticize poverty, or equate it with goodness and virtue, or sour on economic progress, as Kass implicitly does, in order to understand that.