Spinoza in the charity and policy sector

We met this week with three groups that we hope to include in our project Advisory Panel: the New Economics Foundation, a UK think-tank promoting social, economic, and environmental justice; housing and homelessness charity Shelter; and The Equality Trust, which campaigns for greater income equality in the UK. All three do important work on equality, wellbeing, and housing, though in different ways.

For me, one of the most interesting things to emerge from our discussions was the assumptions that underlie new housing developments in Britain. Much new housing is designed to be suitable for two people or four people (for example), and does not include either the recognition that changed circumstances may lead to different occupancy, or the flexibility to allow living space to expand or contract according to circumstances. This seems to me to be based on certain assumptions about individuals – that they are fixed, rational choosers in a free market who are unencumbered by changing circumstances. The same assumption underlies many drivers of inequality. How might housing design change if we started with a different (Spinozistic) understanding of the individual, defined by its waxing and waning power in relation to other powers and the whole community? How might outcomes – including housing inequality and overcrowding – change?

The meetings were positive and productive, and we look forward to working with these groups further. It was also apparent that there are challenges of knowledge-exchange between philosophy and the charity/policy sector. I found it difficult to explain the project in terms that made it seem significant and worthwhile for those who work with empirical data and political realities. I need to think more about how best to translate the research and identify what, within it, could be useful. Meanwhile, we discovered this week the delightfully named Fabrique Spinoza, a French think-tank focused on wellbeing based on Spinoza’s philosophy. Aside from the uncanny similarity to our project, it’s great to see an example of philosophy at the heart of public policy-oriented research. In France, philosophy tends to be embedded in public life from the start; in the UK, we have to try to make the connections later on.

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How do we measure happiness and define wellbeing?

A couple of interesting items came through my inbox today. First, this Observer article about the mathematics of happiness highlights the problems inherent to reducing happiness to ratio (with thanks to Tiff Thomas for forwarding this). It’s largely an “academic debunking” story but I was struck that the psychologists discussed in it had arrived at a mathematical ratio for happiness: namely, a positivity-to-negativity ratio of 3-to-1 that “would distinguish those who flourished from those who didn’t.” We are interested in the concept of ratio in this project in relation to wellbeing, but certainly not that kind of reductive formula. While the article is largely about the student who took the psychologists to task for their maths, it indicates that measuring wellbeing can easily become reductive, reducing complex socio-cultural phenomena like “happiness” to numbers that then become prescriptive. That’s partly why we think the interrelations between happiness, wellbeing, and ratio need to be assessed as philosophical concepts.

Relatedly, in advance of our meeting with the New Economics Foundation later this week, I was interested to read Charles Seaford’s blog post, “What do we mean by wellbeing?” on their website. The NEF have done a lot of good and interesting work in measuring wellbeing. This post reminds us that defining wellbeing is a philosophical task; it cannot be discovered empirically from what people choose (in the marketplace) or appear to want. And policy about wellbeing would benefit not only from measuring, but from philosophical thinking and discussion about, wellbeing.

‘Measuring Happiness?’–A Panel Discussion at the LSE.

Last night saw a transdisciplinary panel of Economists, Neuroscientists, Behavioural Scientists and industry specialists, all debating the possibility and social benefits of measuring happiness and wellbeing.

With discussion ranging from what makes individuals happy, similarity in happiness patterns between the great apes and human beings, and the difference between moment to moment happiness and what we think should make us happy, the dialogue was far reaching and raised many questions regarding wellbeing and the individual, as well as the wider undertaking of measuring the happiness of a nation.

With few certain agreements, the panel were unanimous in distinguishing between a nations’ wellbeing and its GDP meaning that the question of ‘happiness’ is at the fore of political and public concern in our present era of austerity.

Need for housing standards

Owen Hatherley’s article on housing standards in today’s Guardian argues for the need to return to the ‘Parker Morris’ space requirements, echoing questions which underpin the starting points of our research, and also connecting with the work that Alex Mae (Advisory Group Member) has undertaken for the RIBA (Case for Space Report 2011), and the London Housing Strategy.