Philosophy, Public Policy & Education

In the first week of April, I was at a conference titled “The Asian Conference on Ethics, Religion & Philosophy” in Kobe, Japan. I presented on the need to make public policy from philosophical positions about well-being. There are a few reasons why well-being has been missing from the heart of policy-making:

First, a country’s progress is often measured by GDP growth instead of happiness.

Second, as Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1968, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”. Some believe that a country cannot promote  both poetry and progress concurrently.

Third, well-being is a difficult concept to define. From the field of Philosophy, there are three conceptions of well-being: Hedonic, Eudaimonic and the Capability approach. The first approach sees life as a pursuit of pleasurable experiences. This focuses on the outcomes.

However, from a Eudaimonic perspective, achieving happiness does not necessarily contribute to  the flourishing of one’s life. Life should more importantly be about personal fulfilment and realising one’s potential. Accordingly, the process to achieve well-being is more important than the end results.

Amartya Sen proposed another way to understand this topic. She argued that discussions of well-being should focus on one’s capacity to achieve flourishing, such as having the freedom to do so.

From the field of Psychology, there are four ways to understand well-being: Positive psychology, Flow, Subjective well-being, and Mindfulness.

Fourth, some aspects of well-being, such as empowering people to have the freedom and autonomy to make choices, do not serve authoritarian governments well.

While some countries like the UK, Australia, Canada and US have paid attention to its citizens’ well-being, their understanding still stem from an instrumentalist perspective.

There have been international efforts as well. For instance, the World Happiness Report, United Nations Human Development Index, which is inspired by the capabilities approach, Gallup State of Global Well-being Report and the Happy Planet Index by the New Economics Foundation in the UK.

Despite the differences in definitions, underpinning each perspective is its own principle. Having a guiding Philosophy helps governments – even “pragmatic” ones like Hong Kong and Singapore – decide what to do and what not to do.

Philosophy is also important from citizens’ point of view. According to Easton (2006), 81% of the people believed that directing policy towards promoting greater happiness should be the government’s primary purpose. The Office of National Statistics in the UK (2011) also published statistics reflecting similar sentiments among its citizens – 79% endorsed “life satisfaction” as a measure of national well-being compared to less than 30% who thought economic measures, like the GDP, were important.

The key challenge is that the link between happiness, flourishing and well-being has not been substantially explored, especially in the public policy realm. For instance, few governments formulate education policies by drawing from philosophical questions about what education should be. In East Asian countries, scoring well in international tests such as PISA and TIMMS is perceived as a determinant of a “good” education system.

What governments should do is to take charge by stating clearly and explicitly what they mean by “well-being”  and human “flourishing” and how these notions can be policies’ ends.




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