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photo: Haybron Professor Dan Haybron
Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University

Understanding the effect of policy on national wellbeing

March 2017
Despite dozens of years of research, we still know precious little about what policies increase national wellbeing.Response
It is hard to know where to start! The World Happiness Report is a good example of some of what we know. Policies that reduce social capital by weakening communities, for instance, are highly corrosive. Policies that reduce major stressors, like universal healthcare and childcare, do a great deal of good. Economic growth can do a great deal of good, though perhaps not if it is too fast, but is less important than keeping unemployment low. Of course, there are many limitations to our knowledge, and we should avoid overconfidence. What works in one locale may not work in another. But we know enough that it would be irresponsible for governments to ignore information about the likely wellbeing impacts of their decisions. Disagree strongly

In order to find out what raises national wellbeing, we need to have thousands of randomised controlled trials in all major areas of national policy.Response
That would be nice to have, but RCTs themselves have limitations and can only tell us so much. There's no avoiding the fact that policymakers will always face limited information about the specific, highly complex realities they face. (Elinor Ostrom did wonderful work on related issues.) But we already know a great deal about what raises national wellbeing--some of it fairly commonsensical (like, unemployment doesn't make people happy). We don't need mountains of new research to act--we've long since known enough to figure wellbeing into policy decisions. Indeed, some very effective policies haven't relied on research at all--just applying a "wellbeing lens" to policy and focusing directly on qualify of life issues. Humility is needed given our limited information, but that has always been the case, in every reasonable policy approach.Disagree strongly

Wellbeing Effects of Anonymous Donation of Eggs and Sperm

February 2017
Donating gametes (eggs, sperm) via clinics as anonymous donors is one of the highest return-to-effort things individuals can do to increase overall wellbeing.Response
I expect there are plenty of more efficient ways to promote wellbeing but will leave that to the economists, focusing here on some philosophical puzzles. One might think that helping create a new life does tremendous good simply by bringing a person into being. There’s a sense in which any new life worth living “increases overall wellbeing”: you’ve helped add a valuable life to the world. But we don’t ordinarily think of that as a very compelling reason to proliferate babies. It seems odd to puzzle over whether one would best promote overall wellbeing by giving to Oxfam or having a baby. Indeed, if this were a strong reason to have babies, we run into what the late Derek Parfit called the “repugnant conclusion”: it could be better to seek a vast population with barely tolerable lives than to seek a good quality of life for a merely large population. Given the sheer number of people, the quantity of wellbeing could be higher in the Malthusian world. Generally, it seems more important to make people’s lives better than to create more lives. When we think of an increase in “overall wellbeing,” we tend not to picture creating more, possibly worse-off, people. You might think the solution is to promote, not total well-being, but *average* wellbeing. But one way to raise average wellbeing is to get rid of the people with below-average wellbeing: kill the unhappy, say. This too is repugnant. Such head-scratchers can arise even if one isn’t a utilitarian (someone who thinks morality is purely about maximizing well-being). But they are among the reasons a majority of moral philosophers—about 2/3 in a recent poll—reject such moral theories.Disagree

The right of a child to know who their donor was when they turn 18 outweighs (in an overall wellbeing sense) the possibility that this right-to-know leads to a shortage of donors and reduces the number of donor-conceived children.Response
I don't have a firm view on this question, save to note that if the child does have such a right, it may take priority even if enforcing it does result in lower overall wellbeing. Generally, rights are taken to be constraints on the promotion of wellbeing. (At least in particular cases. A utilitarian might say we should protect rights because such a policy serves the greater good in the long run.)Neither agree nor disagree

Organisational structures on workers' wellbeing

January 2017
Employees in more hierarchical organisations have higher levels of wellbeing than those of flatter organisations.Response
It isn't clear, and may depend on the type of organization involved, but I suspect employees tend to do better in flatter organizations, on average. This is mostly because I would expect them to enjoy higher levels of autonomy, be more engaged in their work, and find it more meaningful--all of which are associated with higher wellbeing, especially on 'eudaimonic" approaches. This is based on the assumption that more hierarchical organizations would tend to give employees less control in their jobs, and keep decision-making at a greater remove from those doing most of the work. As well, being lower in status hierarchies is also associated with lower wellbeing. On the other hand, flatter organizations may be more stressful, with employees carrying more of the load. The situation may be akin to owning a small business, which can be more rewarding in important ways, but also more stressful. So it isn't obvious what the net effect would be, and may depend on what one takes to be most important for wellbeing, and there isn't a consensus on that. Some people would likely prefer one type of organization, others the other.Neither agree nor disagree

Tilting the tax and subsidy mix in favour of more hierarchical organisations (in a revenue neutral manner) would probably improve the wellbeing of employees.Response
Even if the answer to this question is yes, it may be a bad idea, as people may differ in what type of organization best suits them, and I think it important to respect their values even if it doesn't make them better off. But I suspect it wouldn't be beneficial on average, partly because it may diminish workers' sense of meaning, engagement and control in their work (though again, it may reduce stress). But also, it may make some organizations less efficient--and presumably will, if they are well-managed and structured in a way that works for them. In that case, employees may suffer, for instance through layoffs. Likely different organizational structures make sense in different cases, and it may be unwise for policymakers to push for a uniform structure for all cases, especially given the likelihood of unintended consequences. For instance, giving incentives to proliferate needless layers of management.Neither agree nor disagree

Wellbeing and Public Holidays

December 2016
Do you think that populations on average have higher wellbeing during major festive periods like Christmas?Response
I don't recall any research directly on this question, but I would expect higher wellbeing during major festive periods. This is in part because they tend to have a strong social component, such as celebrations with others, and because people's attention is likely to be focused on the positive aspects of the holiday--the pleasures of anticipation, for example. Common holiday activities, like singing or dancing, also tend to boost wellbeing. At the same time, there will sometimes be individuals who experience lower wellbeing, especially if someone is lonely and the holiday exacerbates feelings of isolation. In other cases individuals might associate the holiday with bad past events, such as the loss of a loved one. A further risk is that expectations of happiness may be higher during holidays, so disappointment may sometimes be higher. For example, some research suggests that people with higher expectations for New Year's Eve tend to enjoy it less. Stress may also result from the demands of certain holidays, for instance needing money for gifts, or fighting crowds to get the shopping done in time. But I expect the benefits will outweigh the negatives, on average.Agree

Do you think on balance that average wellbeing would rise if there were more mandatory public holidays in your country?Response
In the United States, it is not clear that legislating more holidays would result in an increase in major festivities, as those tend to be tied to cultural traditions and occasions people strongly want to celebrate. But I believe there is good reason to think wellbeing would be enhanced in the US by greater vacation and leisure time, which are relatively low compared to other wealthy countries. Public holidays also serve a coordination function, making it easier for people to get together with friends, family and community than if they simply had more vacation time at work. This may be especially useful in more mobile societies like the US where seeing loved ones often requires travel.Agree