Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Questioning the Quantified Life

The Calculus of Ought

Quantification is more than merely a means of communication and persuasion in a fragmented culture.

James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky

Detail from an illustration by Julia Geiser, used by permission.

There was a time not long ago when most educated people believed that science would one day explain everything—not only the workings of the physical world but also the secrets to the good life. Such confidence perhaps peaked in the early nineteenth century, when Jeremy Bentham proposed utilitarianism as a way of making happiness quantifiable and the positivist Auguste Comte sought a social physics to apply immutable scientific laws to all aspects of human life. But by the early twentieth century, that boundless faith in science had been badly shaken. Within the academy, philosopher G.E. Moore was widely thought to have refuted empirical approaches to ethics. Within the Temple of Science, the pace of new discoveries forced researchers to acknowledge how tentative and contingent their findings were. And ever newer sciences such as quantum physics made people wonder whether there was anything regular or predictable (or even ultimately material) about even the physical world. As for relying on science and the calculus of the greater good to tell us how to live our lives—particularly after the serial horrors of two world wars—that notion increasingly met with skepticism, if not outright derision. Today, most thoughtful people dismiss the old scientism as crudely reductive, and certainly irrelevant as a source of moral and ethical guidance. Except….

Except, as it turns out, when it comes to a new kind of moral science that dare not speak its name. Growing out of an assortment of social and psychological sciences, with a fair amount of neuroscience thrown in, this new “science of human flourishing” purports only to identify and quantify the ingredients of human thriving and well-being, but, in doing so, implicitly (and often inadvertently) ends up sneaking moral prescription through the backdoor. Today, to cite a major example, an entire school of academic psychology—positive psychology—and a broad swath of behavioral economics are given over to the science of well-being, a doctrine that researchers elaborate and promote in such prestigious academic centers as the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Boston College, the University of Southern California, and Columbia. In these institutions and elsewhere, hundreds of quantitatively oriented professors and postdoctoral students toil in the vineyards of highly dubious psychological research, much of which draws its data solely from college students’ self-reported accounts of happiness. These departments, laboratories, and programs connect via such pan-university networks as the Moral Psychology Research Group, the Moral Research Lab, and Those networks, in turn, receive generous financial support from a host of deep-pocketed foundations.

To be sure, few serious scholars involved in these enterprises would defend the idea that their rather modest descriptive science can be justifiably linked to moral and ethical prescription. But in popularizing this work, researchers and science writers consistently tend to overreach, making the findings sound more robust than the evidence warrants, and thereby leading the general public and policymakers to draw sweepingly unfounded inferences.

Take, for example, a special edition of Time magazine published this past December, “The Science of Success.” Here, in some 100 pages, successive articles tout the importance of grit, attitude, the right sort of relationships, and the determinative influence of brain chemistry. The magazine wraps things up with a glossy tableau and inscription: “Continued research shows how the right measures of grit, optimism, experience, and a dash of self-made luck can add up to success in all walks of life.”11xEditors, “The Science of Success,” special issue, Time, December 20, 2019, 5.

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