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Goodwin – Components of wellbeing

A commentary on Economics and society

[From: Chapter 1 Section 2.4 of Goodwin, N. R., M., H. J., Nelson, J. A., Roach, B., & Torras, M. (2014) Principles of Economics in Context. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe]

We define economics in terms of enhancing well-being, but what exactly do we mean by this? We have mentioned that well-being is about a good quality of life, recognizing that this concept has many normative components. But we suggest that some components of well-being are common to all living things. Evolution has instilled in all living creatures a preference for survival, along with an aversion to pain, hunger, thirst, and other sensations that signal a threat to survival.

Evolution has operated not upon individuals but upon gene pools. Thus the survival imperative works to motivate behavior that will enhance group, as well as individual, survival. In the human species, the group survival imperative is expressed through culture, values, and goals. Thus it is normal for human beings to hold values that would lead us to preserve the health of the society in which we live as well as the health of the environment, on which, ultimately, the future survival of our species depends.

We can distinguish between the things that make life possible (our true “needs,” or survival issues) and the things that we feel make life worth living (quality-of-life, or well-being, issues). Even this distinction involves some normative judgments. Some evidence indicates that when the things that make life worth living are removed, many individuals go against the dictates of survival and even risk their own lives for a higher purpose (see “Goals beyond survival” below).

In Table 1, we present one possible list of the final goals of economic activity, summarizing the careful reflection of a number of thinkers but not attempting to represent a final consensus. The first five goals on the list are related to individual concerns; the last five are related to social concerns. Some of the goals (such as the first one) involve making life possible, some (such as the third) involve making life worthwhile, and yet others involve both types of concerns. You may believe that some of the elements on this list are less important than others or could even be omitted, or you may believe that other important goals should be added. Normative analysis is not something that is set in stone forever; rather, it develops with reflection, discussion, experience, and changing circumstances. In any case, it is clear that any reasonable discussion of the quality of life must go beyond the simple notions of wealth or efficiency.

Table 1: A Potential List of Final Goals

Satisfaction of basic physical needs, including nutrition and care adequate for survival, growth, and health, as well as a comfortable living environment

Security: assurance that one’s basic needs will continue to be met throughout all stages of life, as well as security against aggression or unjust persecution

Happiness: the opportunity to experience, reasonably often, feelings such as contentment, pleasure, enjoyment, and peace of mind

Ability to realize one’s potential in as many as possible of the following dimensions of development: physical, intellectual, moral, social, aesthetic, and spiritual

A sense of meaning in one’s life—a reason or purpose for one’s efforts

Fairness in the distribution of life possibilities, and fair and equal treatment by social institutions (fairness is a universal goal despite cross-cultural differences in how it is defined or assessed)

Freedom in making personal decisions (limited by decision-making capacity, as in the case of children); also, not infringing on the freedom of others

Participation: opportunity to participate in the processes in which decisions are made that affect the members of one’s society

Good social relations, including satisfying and trustful relations with friends, fellow citizens, family, and business associates, as well as respectful and peaceful relations among nations

Ecological balance: preserving natural resources, and where needed, restoring them to a healthy and resilient state

Example: Goals beyond survival

A simple view of evolution might suggest that the individual survival imperative would always prevail over any other motives. Yet even among animals this is not true, as illustrated by stories of dogs that lie down and die when they have lost their master or of birds courting danger as they try to lure a predator away from the young in their nest.

Many famous stories of human heroism also illustrate human choices for quality of life over life itself or the sacrifice of present survival for the sake of future generations. A true story of such a choice occurred during World War II, when Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was under siege and starvation was widespread. A researcher at the university who had been developing improved strains of seeds locked himself in his laboratory. At the end of the war, his starved body was found there, among the containers of seed corn that he had protected for future generations.

Commentary added 1 December 2015

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