Why do you do what you do?

Vicky Clayton
Aug 14, 2017 · 6 min read

A lot of people I meet are very passionate about particular causes, and I always find it really interesting to dig into the “why?” Sometimes it’s a personal experience — my education got me really far and therefore education is “a good thing”. Or sometimes it’s a sense of the world not being perfect and it being the cause they think they can gain most traction on. Or sometimes it’s rage at an injustice they’ve witnessed.

Picking a cause and how you go about solving it involves a bunch of assumptions about what you think makes a good life and whether that translates to other people. These affect what we think is worth working on and how we go about working on this issues. I’ll go through some different perspectives and how they might affect the decisions that you make. You might find that as you read the first one you think “yes, that’s me! That’s what I think” and then have the same experience as you read each of the different approaches and end up confused. But at least thinking about it is somewhat progress. I focus on different conceptions of welfare but there are also rights-based approaches (which is obviously also important but I exclude them simply because I know less about them).

Objective List approach

There is an objective list of things which are “good” — things like having a roof over your heads, enough money to secure adequate nutrition, access to clean water, healthcare etc. This is the approach taken by most frequently in development — measures like the Human Development Index or the Multidimensional Index of Poverty. They are often pretty basic things which you’d expect and have the advantage of being able to be collected as part of administrative data, and not requiring the collection of surveys in logistically difficult environments, or more politically fraught environments where we wouldn’t necessarily trust the opinion reports. However, it raises some question: “who gets to choose the metrics?” The ODI recently asked people about their priorities and they were different than expected. The objective lists also often reflect health priorities and concentrate on the individual, ignoring the cultural context of the community being a lot more important in many places. It also gets more difficult for everyone to agree beyond the basics, which is probably why it’s not often used in developed countries — once compulsory schooling comes into force, the metric stops being useful to track progress. But then is it fair that people in different countries have different standards set for them?

Preference account

Preferences are traditionally what economists feel most comfortable with. They think it lets them off the hook a bit in terms of defining what a good life is as it puts the question to the individual “what do you prefer?” This is partly why economists’ work is often focused on money: as well as it being easier to measure, it is the most “fungible”. People can exchange it to get whatever they prefer. But of course, they are not completely off the hook because it’s still assuming that what individuals prefer is what is best for their welfare. Various studies show that people are not particularly good at predicting their long-term happiness. And of course people’s preferences change — people are time-inconsistent and affected by environmental influences (e.g. people eat a lot more when eating with friends). This time-inconsistency is at its worst in the face of addictions — are we really wanting to say to the heroin addict “if that’s what you prefer, go ahead!” Given these caveats, the benefit of the approach is that it demonstrates the things people care most about — what they are not willing to trade — it’s very easy for everyone to say “yes, I want more healthcare”, “yes, I want a better education for my children” etc etc but the trade-offs inherent in this approach means that it tells you what people really care about.

Subjective Wellbeing

The subjective wellbeing account argues that what is best for a person is what brings them higher subjective wellbeing. These may be things we are not even aware of, for example, spending time in green spaces is good (on average) for someone’s subjective wellbeing but someone may not be aware that their walk through the park on the way to work is important to them and something they should fight for. The nice thing about this approach is that it captures these things which are important to us but that we’re not aware of. There is the question though of what type of subjective wellbeing we care about. Generally, the extreme hedonistic account is fairly easily dismissed — living a life of drugs and hookers is generally agreed not to be the path to greatest happiness. Nozick’s thought experiment of a pleasure machine also raises the question of whether authenticity and truth are important: (effectively) if you had the choice to be plugged into the matrix and everything be great, would you take the opportunity? A large majority say no and usually argue on the basis of fake experiences being less valuable. (However, if you switch it so you start off in the matrix and would switch to the pain of the world, most people choose to stay plugged in so the results of the thought experiment might boil down to a preference for the status quo). Generally, it is recognised that there are other things that are important than pleasure. Paul Dolan would argue it’s a balance between the two, and the balance is different in different times of our lives (although this imposes more of a structure on it than other wellbeing economists would). Even if we’re agnostic about what goes into that wellbeing, are we more interested in the emotions we experience moment to moment, or more of the satisfaction that comes on the deathbed from a life well lived? If we were working to maximise the wellbeing of Nelson Mandela or Ghandi; we probably would have advised them to forget their fights. The approaches so far (apart from the preferences approach) don’t really value the sacrifices people make to be part of something greater than themselves.

Virtue Ethics

All of the above sit within a consequentialist framework — focusing on the outcome instead of the way you go about doing things. Virtue ethicists take the approach of a life well lived being defined by the “how”. Have you been honest? Have you been humble? It is often associated withh Aristotle, and fitted within the Greek framework of philosophy where the answer to “how to have a good (enjoyable) life?” was one and the same as “how to live well (ethically)?” This approach has resurfaced a little bit recently through books like The Road to Character.

Why does any of this matter?

The reason understanding your first principles is important is because it fundamentally changes what you aim for in life and in social impact work. For example, mental health features pretty low on the list of priorities in all accounts except the subjective wellbeing approach. Those who follow the preference and subjective wellbeing accounts are much more willing to trade off individual factors that contribute towards the broader aim of fulfilling their preferences or subjective wellbeing. Since there is no list of requirements, there is more flexibility in accepting less or something to get more of something else. Your first principles also define your approach. A virtue ethicist would not accept money from a source he didn’t agree with — the “how” is just as important as the “what”. Each of these has their flaws, and I think it partly comes down to which flaw you’re happiest accepting. Are you most comfortable with:

· Someone deciding a list of things that are important for some people but not others? (Objective list)

· Or, conversely giving the responsibility all to the individual to maximise their preferences? (Preference account)

· Or trading off different areas of life — job satisfaction for family satisfaction? (Wellbeing)

· Or making the choice not to tell the white lie to achieve a very good outcome? (Virtue ethics)

These decisions also feed into how we measure the outcomes because after all — we’re simply measuring whether we’re got what we aimed for — although that’s the story for another post.

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