If you’re interested in social justice, what could be more interesting – or more morally compelling – than looking at the inequalities that ultimately matter, such as how long and how happily people live? Why then, do so many people pontificate about injustices and social inequalities without reference to longevity or happiness?

The Dutch happiness researcher Ruut Veenhoven proposed that longevity and self-reported happiness clearly matter more than anything else. Apart from their evident importance, both of these can be measured far more easily and more reliably than income, health, or just about any other factor involved in wellbeing. And combining the two gives us a rough and ready indicator of the ‘happy life-years’ that any given population enjoys. From these figures we can get a good sense of the distribution of wellbeing outcomes. This won’t in itself tell us much about social justice, but it seems about as good a starting-point as any.

Strangely, Veenhoven’s powerful idea hasn’t really caught on. It seems barely to have been noticed by people who claim their main interest is social justice. Perhaps, like Amartya Sen, they simply don’t trust the happiness statistics because they are worried about the moral hazards associated with the ‘happy slave’, ‘happy downtrodden housewife’ and ‘miserable millionaire’ phenomena. Still, it’s hard to argue that happy life-year measurements are entirely irrelevant to understanding distributional justice, or to our shared duty to make the world both a fairer and a happier place.

Another reason justice campaigners may fear the ‘happy life-year’ measurements is that they may appear to contradict cherished assumptions about patterns of social disadvantage. Moral crusaders tend to love simplicity and fear complexity. And yet the puzzles thrown up by wellbeing statistics could immensely enrich our understanding of the moral issues that should matter to all of us. For starters, we all know that in lots of ways women are systematically disadvantaged vis-a-vis men everywhere in the world. Yet longevity patterns worldwide show quite substantial male disadvantage (the biggest disparity being 12 years less life for men than women in Russia), and happiness self-reports tend to show patterns of slight male disadvantage.

This doesn’t mean we should take our foot off the gender justice pedal. But we insult our own intelligence and call our own integrity into question if we don’t acknowledge, study, and try to learn from women’s astonishing success worldwide in living long and happy lives. For some countries, information on gender differences in happiness and longevity has been around for decades already, yet it hardly ever gets considered in texts on gender. This is, quite frankly, a major embarrassment to feminism and to gender studies. It’s pretty irresponsible not to pause to consider the moral implications of this information. Regarding longevity, we presumably ought to want to see if men could emulate women’s success in this regard, even if at least some of the difference is attributable to innate biological destiny.

Regarding happiness, unless we simply disbelieve the survey findings, we surely ought to explore whether men can learn some useful things from the psychological and social factors that allow women to be as happy or happier than men despite their many material and political disadvantages. And when we find women reporting themselves to be just as happy as men even in countries with appalling socioeconomic and political gender disadvantage, you would have thought that any gender researchers worth their salt would want to explore that puzzle and come up with some plausible explanations if not also policy lessons.

Longevity and happiness information can also shed a different light on ethnic inequalities. In the USA, for example, despite the brief euphoria of the Obama presidency the main public message on ‘race’ seems to be that there’s been no progress. Yet in a paper on ‘subjective and objective indicators of racial progress’, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers showed statistics indicating extremely rapid closing of the self-reported happiness gap between ‘black’ and ‘white’ people since the 1970s, despite limited progress little progress in closing gaps in income, employment, and education. To sustain interest in ethnic disadvantage, and commitment to reform, it is crucial to notice and celebrate social progress, and both happiness and longevity statistics can both show that.

More striking still is evidence on ethnic differences in health and longevity from the Scottish Health and Ethnicity Linkage Study. In Scotland, immense inequalities in health outcomes are a matter of great public concern and shame. Scotland also takes seriously the UK-wide campaign to investigate and combat ‘institutional racism’. According to the Public Sector Equality Duty in Scotland, public authorities (including health-promoting organisations), are required to promote equality. So this study was specifically aimed at providing useful evidence on ethnic differences that can be used to fight inequality, as well as improving health outcomes. But the study’s most headline-grabbing finding doesn’t fit the normal understanding of ethnic disadvantage: ethnic minorities live longer than the rest of the Scottish population. For example, White Scottish men live six years less than Indian Scottish men, and nine years less than Indian Scottish women, who live four years longer than White Scottish women. Ethnic minorities also generally have lower rates of diagnosis of most mental illnesses, although it’s not clear whether this actually means they suffer less mental illness.

Such information will be disconcerting to anyone who likes a simple narrative about justice and inequality. Haven’t we also just learned about extreme levels of socio-economic and material disadvantaged suffered by Scotland’s ethnic minorities? According to a recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on race equality tells us that Scotland’s ethnic minorities face much worse rates of poverty, unemployment, and domestic overcrowding. And yet they seem to live good long, healthy, happy lives. No-one’s yet done ‘happy life-year’ calculations for Scotland’s ethnic groups, but it’s a fair bet they would show minorities living better, not worse, than the majority ‘white’ population.

Does such evidence on life outcomes contradict efforts to fight institutional racism or ethnic inequalities in living conditions and opportunities? Does the female longevity advantage contradict campaigns for gender equalisation in other objective or subjective goods? Of course not. But these findings provide extremely important information that is of moral and practical relevance to any serious discussion of ‘inequality’. Clearly, Scottish ethnic minorities and women have something important to teach the rest of us about how to live well. And anyone who wants to discuss inequality in plausible ways is obliged to embrace and not avoid moral complexity.

Women world-wide tend to enjoy many more happy life-years than men do. ‘Racial’ disparities in wellbeing in the USA have been dramatically reduced since the 1970s. Ethnic minorities in Scotland outlive the ‘white’ population. If such information complexifies our understanding of ‘inequality’, what should we do about it?

2 thoughts on “Happy life-years and moral complexity.

  • October 4, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    I do not agree that happiness and longevity are the factors that ultimately matter most. Happiness is variable day to day and through a life according to our nature, our experience, our mood, even the weather. As for longevity I do not want or seek it, I do not think it is part of my wellbeing. I love life and have intentionally made healthy lifestyle choices to live my life well, however long I live. I do think that social justice matters. It might be that people experiencing injustice might actually be happy, in some instances happier than the more privileged. That is not an excuse to walk away and leave social injustice. Social justice is something concrete that should be deliverable and that we should pursue until it becomes a constant ongoing reality for all people.

    • October 20, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      A fair argument. Insofar as social justice is part of what we expect of a good society, then it’s also part of our own quality of life. Nonetheless, my argument is meant to prompt serious discussion about what aspects of justice we really value and why. This could make our social justice campaigns more intelligent, more considerate, and more effective.


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