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Achievement and the welfare of children

A report commissioned by the Children’s Society claims that the aggressive pursuit of individual achievement is damaging the interests of children in the UK: The principal author is Lord Richard Layard, whose book *Happiness: Lessons from a New Science* (Allen Lane, 2005) is the best account of the last few decades of research on happiness.

Those who pursue individual achievement are often motivated by the thought that such achievement will advance their own personal well-being or ‘good’, and this thought finds support in much past and contemporary philosophy, according to which accomplishing something with your life in itself makes it a better life for you.

According to another view of well-being, this is a mistake. This view also has a long history, though it is currently less popular than at many times in the past. Rather ironically (since individualistic  ‘hedonistic’ lifestyles of parents are said to be partly responsible for the problems faced by today’s children), this view is called hedonism. (The ancient Greek word for ‘pleasure’ is hēdonē.)

Philosophical hedonists do not have to claim that the best life for you is one of sensual indulgence. Rather, the best life could be that which contains the greatest balance of enjoyment over any kind of suffering, and enjoyable activities could include all sorts of things – yes, sensual pleasures and achieving things, perhaps, but also spending time with your children or helping others.

Hedonism can also incorporate the idea that some kinds of enjoyment are ‘higher’ than others – helping others, for example, or listening to a late Beethoven sonata might be said to be qualitatively superior to an evening of beer and action movies. The main objection to it was stated most famously by Robert Nozick in his book *Anarchy, State, and Utopia* (Blackwell, 1974, 42-3): ‘Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain … Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?’

One obvious thing that might seem to matter to us is genuine personal achievement: that we really accomplish something, rather than just think we have. But according to hedonism this can’t make a difference, if you enjoy your experiences on the machine as much as you would in the ‘real world’.

The jury is still out on hedonism, however, since the experience machine objection is no stronger than other ‘counter-intuitive’ thought experiments dreamed up as challenges to other independently plausible philosophical positions. Hedonists can make various points in an attempt to defuse the power of the example. First, most of the non-hedonic goods cited by anti-hedonists do tend to be things we enjoy. The anti-hedonists might be missing what really makes them worth having. Second, it is a well-known fact that trying to maximize enjoyment is often self-defeating. So aiming for goods such as achievement might actually produce more enjoyment than directly aiming at enjoyment itself. Again, perhaps the anti-hedonist is mistaking what is really good in itself in what we aim at. Third, we should remember that our values have evolved over time. It is easy to imagine how valuing personal achievement may have had ‘survival value’ in past societies. This does not debunk any claim personal achievement has to be being valuable, but it does force us to hold that claim up to the light. Fourth, would you really want to live a life of personal achievement which you didn’t enjoy at all? Fifth, unlike enjoyment, the significance of personal achievement can seem to disappear when we consider it from the ‘perspective of eternity’.  Sixth, personal achievement values doing over allowing. But this is a notoriously difficult idea to defend. Perhaps what matters is not what we do, but how well the history of the world as a whole goes. Finally, if personal achievement is plausibly to count as a value, we must have some kind of responsibility. Again, however, there are powerful arguments to the conclusion that our actions are the result of blind causal processes for which we cannot claim any personal credit.

None of these is a knock-down argument against the experience machine objection. But collectively they are enough to show that hedonism is still a live option. And if hedonists are right, then a single-minded focus on personal achievement may be harming not only children, but the achievers themselves, who might well be happier working less hard and living a more relaxed life with their partners and children.

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