The Goal of a Human Economy—What is the Good Life?

What is a human economy? One suggestion that appeals to me is an economy that offers every child the opportunity to live what he or she comes to consider a good life, a life that combines simple pleasures and meaningful fulfillment of some larger purpose. Of course, however, not everyone sees the good life in similar terms, and what I take to be simple pleasures and meaningful fulfillment may be quite different from what someone else prefers. Anthropologically speaking, the possibility that different cultures may embody different visions of the good life is a topic to be explored, not a question to be decided a priori. 

I have read other books on this subject. Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self is a classic survey of possibilities that evolved over time within what is labeled the Western tradition: from heroic selves in the Iliad to bourgeoise and artistic selves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gordon Matthews' What Makes Life Worth Living a comparative study of Japanese and American aspirations also comes to mind. 

Just today, however, I stumbled on a manuscript online, Edward F. Fischer's German Eggs, Guatemalan Coffee, and the Good Life: An Anthropological Look at Markets, Values, and Wellbeing that looks like a worthy addition to this list and has the advantage of for anyone new to the topic of including in its first chapter (all I have scanned so far) a good overview of recent research in happiness studies (did you know there's a field called "happiness studies"?), not to mention the philosophy of John Rawls and the capabilities approach to development articulated by Amartya Sen. It also has the advantage of being a downloadable PDF that you can read for free. 

OK, I really like the title, and my quick scan of the first chapter reveals a style I find enjoyable to read. Anyone care to join me in reading it? Seems terribly relevant to many things discussed on OAC.

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Comment by Erin B. Taylor on August 30, 2012 at 7:02pm

Excellent! Looking forward to it.

Comment by Ted Fischer on August 30, 2012 at 5:16pm

John (and Keith): indeed, these are all great topics, and ones that I think lots of anthropologists have lots to say about.  I would love to do a seminar, or continue the discussion on here, whatever is better. I am still a newbie to OAC, but have quickly become a convert to its charms.

Comment by John McCreery on August 29, 2012 at 3:30am

If Ted Fischer is agreeable, three topics addressed in his manuscript are of particular interest to me.

  1. Stated vs revealed preferences. If economists overweight the latter, cultural anthropologists appear to me, at least, to overweight the former. How to examine their interaction is a topic of serious interest to me.
  2. Provenance. We are talking here about a concept that overlaps with genealogy, patina, identity, branding. Lots of stuff to explore here.
  3. The relationship of anthropological research to bigger moral/political debates. Keith will certainly have a lot to say about Kant. But Fischer also cites John Rawls and Amartya Sen. It would be fascinating to learn more about how their approaches could inform anthropological research.


Comment by Erin B. Taylor on August 28, 2012 at 2:12pm

I second Keith's suggestion of an online seminar on this topic. Sorry for my delay in responding, but a close friend of mine passed away. Talk about a reminder of what 'the good life' is - at the very basis, it has to be life itself. 

Comment by Keith Hart on August 24, 2012 at 10:53am

Ted, thanks for these lucid and balanced comments with which I am entirely in accord. On the subject of the relationship between the good life and happiness, Anna Grimshaw and I touched on this in our introduction to CLR James' American Civilization (1993). I quote because we spent longer choosing our words there than is usual in a comment on a blog post.

“James approved our initial editorial decision to retitle his 1950 text The Struggle For Happiness, drawing on a chapter heading from the original work. Since James’s death this title has become the symbol of a wide-ranging dispute over the status of the text as a whole. [Our title was dropped on the insistence of the literary executor.] We contend that James, like Saint-Just in France in 1794, brought to the world from America the idea of happiness as a revolutionary goal to be added the European legacy of freedom (bourgeoisie) and equality (peasants/workers). Happiness became a word which appeared repeatedly in James’s later writing, from his assertion that Marx and Hegel “believed that man is destined for freedom and happiness”, to his lengthy exposition, in a letter to the literary critic, Maxwell Geismar, on the centrality of happiness to American society and culture, in contrast to Europe with its sense of the tragic. The notion of happiness lay too at the heart of his volume Modern Politics [1960], but there James called it “the good life”.

“Conventionally, ‘happiness’ has been understood as a trivial thing, as a moment of pleasure which is necessarily fleeting. As James himself recognized, the notion was often reduced to mean simply material satisfaction. He took his lead, however, from the conceptions of the eighteenth century, where the pursuit of happiness in this life was contrasted with religious passivity in the face of earthly suffering. Although he nowhere defined the concept closely, the idea permeated American Civilization; for he held happiness to be as essential to the human experience as the desire for freedom and equality. It was the desire of the modern age, “what people want”, expressive of complex and deeply rooted needs of human beings for integration, to become whole, to live in harmony with society.

“For James then, happiness had two facets, the freedom to be a fully developed, creative, individual personality and to be part of a community based on principles conducive to that aim. This was the unity of private interest and public spirit which de Tocqueville [ ] had found in the early American democracy and which James believed was still the palpable goal of the American people in the twentieth century. It is significant in this respect that James used “The Struggle For Happiness” as the title for the chapter on the industrial workers. As he makes clear in the text, the integration of individuals in modern society would require a fundamental reorganization of the way people experience work. America contributed the idea of happiness to our understanding of civilization itself. Today it has become a universal goal; and with the emergence of the people of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa as the potent symbols of the collective force of humanity in its opposition to the forces of oppression, we are reminded again that happiness is inseparable from the active struggle for its attainment.”

I would like to pursue with you the possibility of an online seminar, as John suggested. Check out our Working Papers series at the OAC Press and contact me if you are interested.

Comment by John McCreery on August 24, 2012 at 4:57am

Ted, thanks so much for joining the conversation. Serendipitously, I am at that point in the year when I get to work on an insert for Campaign magazine describing my old employer Hakuhodo's latest research in Asia. The following are some notes from a first round of briefing material that you and others here might find interesting.


  • Japan is rapidly becoming the world’s most aging society. By 2020, however, Korea and Singapore will also surpass the rest of the developed world, and China and Thailand the rest of the developing world. 
    • WHO data: % of population 60+ and average age
    • Japanese government data (line graph)

  • Group 50-59 age cohort and identify distinctive features of this cohort in Tokyo. Three groups: Want to stay young, happily aging, neutral.
    • Scatter plot of 50-59 cohort in other parts of Asia. Value placed on youth, regardless of size of economy.

  • Distinctive features of Tokyo 50s (roughly speaking, from HABIT data)
    • Don’t feel extremely happy, but moderately satisfied overall. Looking for a quality lifestyle.
    • Want home security systems and environment-friendly cars: tools for a safe and stable life. When making purchase decisions, they are only somewhat concerned about country of origin and the environment and pay more attention to corporate contributions to society than to product specs per se. 
    • They want good information; advice from knowledgable sales people is one possible source. Access to information makes them highly price-conscious. 
    • Hobbies and interests afford us glimpses of what they consider a good life. This age group shows strong interest in entertainment, rakugo (traditional Japanese comedy), art, jazz and gardening. In terms of where they want to spend money, travel and cultural activities score high. 
    • Reflections of the aging society can be found in strong interest in nursing, health and home care services.

  • Consumption by the 60+ cohort now exceeds 100 trillion yen per year, 44% of Japan’s total personal consumption. Projects based on population distribution suggest that adding consumption by those in the 50-59 group raises the total to 140 trillion yen, or 60% of total personal consumption.
    • Many new products and services are competing for shares of this market. 
    • Having the time and money to enjoy life is important to this group, the Beatles generation. 
    • A sign of the times: Shibuya, long a mecca for young people, is reinventing itself as a mecca for “new adults.”


To me what this adds to our discussion is age and life course, two factors orthogonal to the consumer (German) vs producer (Guatemala) dimension that pops out in my first quick scan of your manuscript.  I am reminded that what I think of as a good life now is different in several important ways from what I thought a good life might be when I was in my twenties.

Comment by Ted Fischer on August 23, 2012 at 9:48pm

I think we could consider "the good life" a universal concept, although like all such universals a lot rests on just how that is differently interpreted around the world.  In happiness studies, it is often glossed as "happiness," although what I find compelling about "the good life", or what development economists often term wellbeing, is that is isn't just about being "happy" as a typical American, say, might interpret it.  It is much closer to the "buen vivir" or Aristotle's eudaimonia: a fulfilling and meaningful and balanced life.  Striving for the good life is actually hard work, and that labor makes it meaningful.

Huon and Erin rightly point to the central role of opportunities and capabilities--to paraphrase Douglas North: institutions and structures matter.  It is not all upbythebootstraps force of will or psychological states of being.

The discussion between Keith and John below point to another core element.  I do think most folks around the world "want to be good" or at least defined themselves in relation to their notions of good.  And that in this way the good life does invoke moral imperatives. (I like Arthur Kleinman's definition of "moral" as what matters most to people--much more anthropologically ecumenical: the specific valences can vary pretty widely, but people everywhere and always do make moral valuations of good and bad that frame and orient behavior and worldview.

Indeed, as I argue in my manuscript that John generously cites below, commitment to moral projects (meaningful projects that transcend the self and narrow self-interest) is a key element of wellbeing in cultures as varied as urban Germany and rural Guatemala.

Comment by John McCreery on August 20, 2012 at 4:23pm

An ethnographic query, if I may. In my English idiolect, "a good life," "the good life," "living well," and, now, of course, "doing good and living well" mean rather different things. Which is these is "buen vivir" closest to? What about other languages?

Comment by Huon Wardle on August 20, 2012 at 2:16pm

OK. This is a core topic for the OAC as John says. I have been talking to Nadia Farage here in Brazil. She points out that the concept of 'buen vivir' is now a central concern in Latin American localist development thinking- so we cant say this is some issue of Western philosophy - Rousseau and friends being imposed on the others. My thought is this, understanding the 'good life' necessarily involves exploring the relationship between the community of my imagination and how compatible this is with the possibilities for living as these exist pragmatically. Like Erin says, we have to look at the interface between people and a field of opportunity. I would add to that the role of imagination; a good life is a situation where imaginative expectations are fulfilled and extended at least some of the time. As in - for me watching student friends dancing samba really well, even though I can't dance samba,becomes an aspect of a good life. For someone positioned differently, that is a deficit and certainly not a good. So, in thinking about the good life I want to consider it in a subject-oriented way whereby people move into the future opening new possibilities for relationship, extending their imaginative communities; and these life trajectories are not radically inhibited by the field of opportunities, including by others around them. The field of opportunity does not have to be infinite, it simply does not actively destroy the possibility for actually living this good life I imagine for myself in the company of others.

Comment by John McCreery on August 20, 2012 at 3:29am

I'll join Keith in holding back to make some space for others to join in. Can't resist, however, pointing to my discussion with Chelsea Haymanconcerning her thesis abstract, noting that I am likely to raise similar methodological points here. The central point is that I strongly believe we must get beyond "look here NOT there" debates to "look here AND here AND here...." discussions. It may be time to revive the idea of cultural patterns or configurations, tracing threads that connect, for example, my brother talking about taking a shotgun and  spending the night guarding his crab pots against thieves and Chinese and Japanese nationalist planting their flags on the Diauyutai/Senkaku islands that both countries claim, while recognizing that the treads can be woven into different fabrics.


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