Handbooks of Research Methods and Applications series
Edited by Luigino Bruni and Pier Luigi Porta
Chapter 8: The history of the idea of quality of life
In the present chapter the idea of quality of life is traced back to Aristotle, whose analysis of the good life is remarkably comprehensive and still nowadays constitutes one of the main approaches to the issue. Aristotle’s account of the good life is objective – and actually quite constringent, as many individuals are excluded from the happy life – and multidimensional. Other lasting features are its subtle understanding of the nature and role of individuals’ agency and intrinsic motivation, and its stress on the importance of institutional conditions, particularly education, aiming at perfecting human beings’ nature. Thomas More, in line with previous Christian thought, democratizes the idea of the good life. In addition, he reinforced the importance attributed to the institutional framework as external control at the expense of both individuals’ agency and intrinsic motivation because he does not agree with the thesis of the perfectible nature of human beings. Tommaso Campanella recovered this thesis, although not completely, as he asserts the need for eugenic policies. Other contributions of Campanella to the idea of quality of life are his comprehensive understanding of health; his intuition as regards the importance of erecting a universal community of human beings to avoid war; and the role attributed, anticipating Francis Bacon, to techno-scientific development. Bacon’s New Atlantis supposed a Copernican shift in the idea of the good life because the focus is set on the utility of individuals, instead of on their agency. As a consequence, as regards health, Bacon seems to weight treatment more than life style. In the Enlightenment the new focus on utility would lead economists to consider social relationships instrumentally. Otherwise, moral philosophers of the Enlightenment recovered the Aristotelian idea of the good life completely, now excluding only women. The utilitarian approach was developed systematically by Jeremy Bentham, who took pleasure as the basic element of happiness and does not distinguish among its sources. Besides, material well-being is definitively considered the fundamental component of happiness by him, to the point that he proposed money as its measurement unit. Arthur Pigou develops this thesis further. Thus, although Pigou distinguishes between economic and non-economic well-being and considers possible trade-offs between them, and even is sensitive to non-utilitarian aspects, he finally states that for the time being economic growth is a good proxy of total well-being. Richard Easterlin tested this thesis based on subjective measures of well-being, thus adopting a substantive utilitarian approach, and found that it was not the case. He used psychological measures of well-being that are now widely accepted and have given rise to the happiness approach to quality of life. Otherwise, Amartya Sen has developed the capability approach in line with that of Aristotle and the moral philosophers of the Enlightenment. Finally, current developments in quality of life research as regards possible connections between the happiness and capability approaches are mentioned.
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