Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A letter to the Press

BBC Radio 4's Today programme, commenting on today's English newspapers, comments that CAFOD, Tearfund and Theos have written a letter (I think to the Times, though I can't recall for certain which newspaper) supporting yesterday's suggestion from the UK Government that a new, less strictly economic, measure of human wellbeing should be used. There is further relevant comment at Bridges and Tangents.

This is not an opportunistic response on the part of these three organisations, as they have just published a paper on precisely this topic: Wholly Living: a new perspective on international development. This can be downloaded from CAFOD's website. The notion of "human flourishing" that it develops has relevance to the Pope Paul VI lecture this year, though, without seeing the original text of that lecture, I am not sure that it was this paper that was being referred to. I expect that the letter will welcome the idea that the measurement of human well being is more than a question of economic indicators - but the paper itself goes further than just recognising this point.

The media, of course, will make of the letter what they want. To ridicule the intention of the letter as supporting some sort of "happiness indicator" is a serious instance of mis-representation. Whether the Government's proposal really does come up to the idea of "human flourishing" being developed in the CAFOD/Tearfund/Theos paper is yet to be seen, but the paper itself suggests much more than a superficial measure of happiness. Indeed, it refers to a rather different notion in talking about "human flourishing", though that notion might be seen as having an aspect that can be termed "happiness". And the context of the paper is that of overseas aid programmes, and how they should be undertaken and evaluated.

Without a detailed study of the CAFOD/Tearfund/Theos paper, I offer the following quotation from the Foreword:
If now is not the time to look beyond material indicators of well-being to an inclusive economic system that improves the quality of our relationships and embeds the practice of virtue in its intellectual and religious forms - then when?

We believe an economy re-stitched with the old, failed concepts of individualism and self-interest will continue to fail the people. We call for a new fabric which weaves into its global patterns the right social conditions for human flourishing.
And the following from the executive summary (in which the explicit reference to the religious forms of virtue of the Foreword is absent - though, of course, that the religious dimension is a vital part of "human flourishing" might well be a key part of a Christian understanding of that idea):
While recognising that money, freedom and choice are important, the report contends that our obsession with them has resulted in a radical devaluation of the social, cultural and environmental relationships that form us and that enable us to flourish as human beings. Human beings are not disconnected atoms, floating free in society, unencumbered by personal commitments, whose only good is to get the best deal for themselves. To treat them as such is to do them and the planet they inhabit a gross disservice. We need a more satisfying and more realistic vision of human flourishing on which to base our political and economic thinking.

Wholly Living argues that this can be located in the Christian understanding of human nature and of what it is to live well. This is a vision in which all humans are intrinsically creative and productive; all have the potential to contribute to our common good; all are relational, formed and fulfilled by a complex web of relationships; all are moral, with an ineradicable responsibility for one another; and that all have a vocation to cultivate the natural world conscientiously and sustainably. Ultimately, we flourish as humans when the conditions that allow us to live in right relationship and contribute generously to our common good are met.

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