Happiness is just one among many different things we can emphasise when we look at the world around us, or engage in evaluative debates, or try to plan better futures. It’s whoppingly important, of course, but other things matter too so we do need to ensure that talking about happiness doesn’t drown out other kinds of consideration like justice, or freedom, or beauty, or creativity.
Philosophers consider various possible abstract terms for ‘ultimate’ values. They consider things like beauty, truth, wisdom, and achievement as panhuman goals that aren’t (quite) encapsulated within the happiness catch-all. Any of these can be used as a ‘lens’ or ‘perspective’ from which to view and evaluate things. For example, you might say a building was really beautiful and valuable as such, even if it was rather cold and unconvivial and so not good for happiness. Or a person might be admired as a high achiever even if they were neither wise nor beautiful.
Similarly, in debates about moral or practical matters, we might ask what other ‘lenses’ people should use either instead of, alongside, or in combination with a ‘happiness lens’. Browsing online for documents on social planning or ethics that use the term ‘lens’ , I see texts on resilience; human rights; poverty; justice; gender; race; diversity; disability; mental health (i.e. illness); health; security.
Then there are lenses which try to steer our attention not to specific issues or target populations, but rather to particular viewpoints or levels of analysis – thus a ‘family’ or ‘community’ perspective might be contrasted with a ‘national’, ‘international’, or ‘global/cosmopolitan’ perspective. In environmental planning, people have tried (rather unsuccessfully) to propose a ‘biocentric’ alternative to the default (and in my view unavoidable) ‘anthropocentric’ perspective.
If we look for lenses that are highly contrastable to the happiness lens, the most obvious examples (though these are rarely made explicit) would the deficit lens (looking for things that are missing in people’s lives), or a pathology lens (looking for things that go wrong in people’s lives). Also contrastable are the productivity lens (or economic lens, or efficiency lens) which looks at production of instrumental goods like food and buildings, and the capabilities lens (which looks at what people are able to do, but stops short of considering whether they use those capabilities to good effect).
Another lens that might be contrasted is the therapeutic lens, which is sometimes confused with a happiness or wellbeing approach. Considering the value of something as ‘therapeutic’ is a kind of remedial lens, looking at repair or recuperation but not looking aspirationally at the pursuit or achievement of happiness.
Two other lenses commonly contrasted with the happiness perspective are the libertarian lens and the anti-authoritarian lens, both of which inspire questioning of any state or private organisations that try to tell people how they should pursue happiness.
Then there are an innumerable number of special-interest lenses that people adopt when they try to make links between any topic and those aspects of life they’re most interested in. This might be very general – for example if gender justice is your main concern you can use the gender lens to steer just about any kind of conversation. And your particular version of that lens might be further influenced by a female or a male perspective. But your gender lens might be broader still – your main concern might be about gender segregation or gender relations, not mainly about gender justice.
An ‘aging’ or ‘age-friendly’ lens is common in people who have noticed that extended lifespans are everywhere in the world requiring us to rethink our economies, our values, and our norms. An ethnicity lens (or, unfortunately in some countries, a ‘race’ lens) is a way of steering attention towards differences in cultural heritage, and towards relationships and justice issues concerning inequalities between ethnic groups.
So when you’re trying to think your way through complex moral debates or social dilemmas, what kinds of ‘lens’ or ‘perspective’ do you deliberately try to adopt? Why do you find them useful? Can you spell out their virtues?