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Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development Hirata, Johannes 2003

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Johannes Hirata*
Gross National Happiness (GNH) has only recently appeared
on the international stage,2 yet it was immediately met with
sympathy by scholars, political activists, and politicians
around the world. What is the reason for this strong appeal of
this concept?
In a historical perspective, the reason is probably a
disillusionment with the broken promise of economic growth
to truly improve people's lives and bring about a more
equitable society. After a multifold increase of Gross National
Product in many societies thanks to almost continuous
economic growth over more than a century, even the
wealthiest societies are still plagued by grave social problems
like unemployment, child poverty, stress etc., and they are
disappointed that the hoped-for benefits of economic growth
largely failed to materialize.
In a philosophical perspective, however, the reason for the
sympathy extended to GNH seems to be based on an -
intuitive or conscious - ethical endorsement of GNH as being
1 I am grateful for valuable comments by the members of the
"Berliner Forum" on a first conceptual draft of this paper and for
suggestions by Peter Ulrich on section six. All remaining errors are
my own.
* Johannes Hirata is currently attending the Institute for Business
Ethics at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.
2 Apparently the most conspicuous occasion at which GNH was
presented to a wider audience outside Bhutan was the address by
His Excellency the Prime Minister, then Chairman of the Council of
Ministers, Lyonpo Jigmi Y. Thinley to the Millenium Meeting for Asia
and the Pacific in 1998 (Thinley 1999).
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
conducive to good development, with "good" understood in a
comprehensive, ethical sense. This implies that in order to
endorse GNH, one must already have a normative frame of
reference that allows one to make such a judgment in the first
The question that arises then is if GNH is, or can be
conceptualized as, an exhaustive concept of good
development that entirely fills in the ideal notion of good
development, or whether GNH is just one aspect of good
development that has to be complemented by additional
normative concepts in order to appropriately substantiate the
idea of good development.
Whatever the answer to this question, the merit and the
potential of GNH to serve as a development concept is worth
being investigated. To do so, the meaning of GNH has to be
specified since no generally accepted interpretation seems to
exist. This is not only a disadvantage of course as this
conceptual openness invites a constructive debate on what
GNH should stand for and how it should be operationalized.
These two - essentially ethical - questions will be at the center
of discussion in this paper.
The paper is structured as follows: the next section will
discuss the nature of happiness and its relation to human
behavior and decision making in order to shed light on the
relationship between happiness and ethics. I will then briefly
present my understanding of (deontological) ethics, before
examining the relationship between happiness and economic
growth on the basis of empirical evidence. I will then propose
a particular interpretation of GNH and relate it to the concept
of good development. Towards the end, I will point out some
implications of my interpretation of GNH for its
operationalization before I synthesize the main arguments
into five succinct statements in the conclusion.
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
Happiness, Human Behavior, and Ethics
At least since Thomas Hobbes, the belief that people's
behavior and choices are motivated ultimately and exclusively
by the desire to experience a maximum of happiness has
gained wide currency not only in the social sciences but in
popular wisdom as well. In economics, this belief in
"psychological hedonism" has been particularly influential
and practically became the anthropological basis of economic
theory as a whole. As a deterministic model of human
decision-making, it allows economists to subject human
behavior to rigid, quantitative analysis.
While I shall not concern myself much with the peculiarities
of economic theory, I will use psychological hedonism as a
reference point to clarify my understanding of happiness and
of its connection with ethics.
Even though every language seems to have a word for
happiness or satisfaction and people from all cultures
apparently have no difficulty understanding its meaning -
albeit with slightly different nuances - the idea of happiness
defies a precise definition. Depending on context and
perspective, happiness may be understood in a variety of
ways. For the purpose of this paper, a distinction between an
empirical and a normative concept of happiness appears
The empirical concept of happiness falls into the domain of
psychology where the term "subjective well-being" (SWB) has
been coined to describe an individual's subjective, self-
reported overall happiness as expressed along a one-
dimensional scale. To preempt the most frequent source of
mistaken skepticism, it is crucial to appreciate the meaning
of the attribute 'subjective'. It means that SWB really is the
unquestioned perception of each individual himself taken at
face value, rather than a normative concept of "actual well-
being". When it is stated, for example, that the SWB of person
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
A is higher today than it was yesterday, this does not - at
least not necessarily - mean that this person is actually faring
better today than he was yesterday {i.e., "faring better" in a
normative sense of 'quality of life'). It does mean, however,
that he judges his well-being more favorably today than he
did yesterday.3 SWB alone, therefore, does not suffice to tell
us how happy an individual is in an absolute, moral sense (in
the remainder I will refer to this as "actual well-being" or as
"the happiness we actually value"). SWB is not meant to
replace such ethical concepts as eudaimonia (Aristotle 1998),
the good life, or quality of life (Nussbaum & Sen 1993). Of
course, it is plausible to suppose that SWB is closely
correlated with "actual well-being." Indeed, once SWB data
are interpreted in a specific context, one may find compelling
arguments for specific conclusions about "actual well-being".
As long as one is looking at raw data, however, SWB should
simply be taken at face value, namely a subject's statement
on her perceived degree of well-being. In this sense, subjective
well-being is a fairly objective concept. While the data
themselves rely on subjective assessments by the respective
respondents, the methodology is perfectly objective and
independent of any researcher's personal evaluations.
As a normative concept, on the other hand, happiness
requires not only an instantaneous positive mental
experience, but also the reflected approval of its propriety by
the respective person herself in the presence of all relevant
information. Happiness in this sense will be called "happiness
that is actually valued", or "valued happiness" for short, and
it is to be understood as a judgment. To illustrate what this
entails, consider the thought experiment of a happiness
machine that can give you pure and unlimited pleasure for an
arbitrarily long period   (Nozick   1989).4  What  is  more,   this
3 A case where reported happiness and actual quality of life
obviously diverge in this sense is the case of Olympic silver medal
winners who on average report lower SWB than bronze medal
winners (Schwarz & Strack 1999: 67).
4 This idea is no pie in the sky anymore. In the brain of rats, a
pleasure    center    could    be    identified   which,    when    stimulated
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
machine generates not just dull pleasure but the perfect
illusion of happiness. The person connected to this machine
will experience a perfect illusion of friendship, love, good
music, delicious food etc. and will actually believe to be happy
for these reasons, completely unaware of being locked into
that machine. There would be no negative side-effects of
using this machine and its use would not imply any costs,
nor would it be addictive.
Imagine a person uses the machine while mourning the death
of a friend. Even if, while using the machine, he forgets about
his friend's demise and experiences pleasure, we certainly
would not call this person happy because the happiness we
actually value is more than the sensation as such. Happiness
is inseparable from the particular reason that makes us feel
happy (Spaemann 1989: 41, 73) and in this sense it is not an
end that is achieved through means (which would not have
any intrinsic value) but rather a symptom that indicates that
a person has some intrinsically valuable reason for being
happy. When we are happy for a friendship, for example, we
do not only care about the effect this friendship has on our
psychic well-being, but also and primarily about the
friendship itself as the reason for our happiness. Similarly, we
do not only want to experience love, we want to actually be
loved - and we even hate to experience love that is just
pretended. Put differently, we do not only want the pleasure
generated by the feeling to be loved, we also want this love to
be genuine, to actually be the case (Nozick 1989: 106). In the
same vein, someone who finds out about her husband's
infidelity is not unhappy for having discovered it but for his
being unfaithful. In short, the sensation of happiness is not
separable from its underlying reason. The event that makes
electronically, makes the rats show all symptoms of pleasure, and
this effect does not wear off over time. The rats even neglect food
while being in such a state. Technically, the same effect could be
exploited in human beings, as seriously advocated by Ng (1997:
1849) who sees the promise of "increasing our welfare by a quantum
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
me feel (un)happy is not the substitutable cause of my
happiness but its irreplaceable content (Spaemann 1989).
Understanding happiness this way does not mean to look
down upon spontaneous pleasure for the sake of an
"intellectualized" concept of happiness. Pleasure, which I
understand here as an immediate, pre-reflective positive
mental experience (such as enjoying tasty food, listening to
music one likes etc.), is in itself valuable and needs no moral
justification. Nevertheless, for pleasure (as a pre-reflective
experience) to become happiness, (as a judgment), the person
must at least not morally disapprove of the experience she
finds pleasurable - a vegetarian, e.g., might stop enjoying his
food when he discovers that it contains meat, even though he
would otherwise enjoy the taste.
The distinction between the empirical concept of happiness as
SWB and the normative concept of happiness as "valued
happiness" is best understood as a distinction between a
solipsist and a self-transcendental perspective. In the solipsist
perspective, the person cares only about his inner mental
states as recorded in some pleasure center within his brain
and is entirely indifferent with respect to both (i) the reasons
that bring about these inner mental states and (ii) anything
that does not become part of his experience (and hence does
not influence his inner mental state). Such solipsism is in fact
the distinguishing feature of hedonism in general (not only
psychological hedonism as a specific hypothesis). In the self-
transcendental perspective, by contrast, a person is seen as
caring also about (i) and (ii) and as in this sense transcending
his self.
Linking Happiness with Ethics
The link between happiness and ethics can be thought of as
twofold, making a distinction along the lines of the classical
separation between teleological ethics - basically the "private"
questions of the good life, of who I want to be and how I want
to live - and deontological ethics - the "social" question of
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
legitimacy, of one's rights and duties vis-a-vis other moral
Psychological hedonism, to take up my point of departure,
supposes a very mechanical relationship between happiness
and ethics. With respect to teleological ethics, it says, first,
that happiness is the only thing that counts when it comes to
choosing who one wants to be and how one wants to live,
and, by implication, that the things from which a particular
person derives happiness are predetermined by nature and
therefore beyond this person's own will. To use economic
terminology, a person is assumed to simply have, rather than
choose, a consistent set of preferences that provide the
algorithm to calculate, in any given situation, the optimal
decision, i.e., the decision that will maximize her happiness.5
The kind of rationality involved here is purely instrumental
rationality, i.e., it is a matter of optimization with respect to a
given end.
With respect to deontological ethics, the deterministic nature
of psychological hedonism renders the very idea of rights and
duties meaningless because one cannot sensibly demand
from predetermined beings (which resemble a clockwork more
5 Two likely objections to this account of utility maximization can be
anticipated. First, economists are sometimes reluctant to identify
utility with happiness. In the context of the present argument,
however, the precise meaning of utility is irrelevant. It is identified
with happiness simply for the sake of terminological consistency, to
avoid introducing redundant terms. Second, some economists
propose a distinction between ordinary preferences and meta-
preferences and claim that it is not necessary to make any
assumptions on the origin of meta-preferences, i.e., whether these
are predetermined or chosen. Yet, while this distinction may be a
useful heuristic device to separate instrumental and volitional
rationality (more on this below), it cannot be maintained on a more
fundamental level because it is logically impossible to derive
deterministic outcomes (in this case: decisions) from an
indeterminate basis, unless further artificial assumptions are made
(such as a rigid temporal separation between an indeterminate and a
deterministic phase of life).
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
than a person) to behave in another way than that which they
are programmed to follow, the reason being that morality as
such requires indeterminacy of human behavior. In general,
therefore, whether others are affected by one's choices or not,
psychological hedonism claims that an individual's decisions
are always and exclusively the deterministic manifestation of
one's preferences, whatever these happen to be. Thus,
psychological hedonism subscribes to a solipsist conception
of the person and does not know the concept of morality.
In a self-transcendental perspective, by contrast, the
teleological question of the good life is not a matter of
maximization. In this perspective, it is strictly impossible to
maximize happiness, even if it was proclaimed as one's
strategy, because people simply do not from the outset
dispose of a given set of preferences. Rather, they have to
choose and continuously reaffirm, or revise, their preferences
without knowing which selection of preferences will leave
them happiest. Having no pre-established set of preferences,
there is no way they can optimize their choice. Instead they
will have to decide by virtue of their free will, i.e., by volitional
rationality, which preferences they consider worth having.
This is pretty much what people colloquially mean when they
say that they have to decide what they really want. This
choice is in a fundamental sense indeterminate and
unpredictable and, by its very nature, cannot be explained in
the same causal way as decisions of instrumental rationality.
Furthermore, in terms of deontological ethics, the very idea
that people are so dominantly motivated by a concern for
being happy (or avoiding unhappiness) seems to be overly
rigid and far removed from our everyday experiences. For
example, economists typically explain the phenomenon that
people spend effort and time in order to cast their vote in
political elections, despite knowing that their vote will make
virtually no difference to the overall outcome, by a motivation
to avoid the pain of a bad conscience that would result from a
good citizen's failure to vote. This argument, however, raises
the question why somebody who failed to vote would have a
bad conscience, and why she would want to be a good citizen
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
in the first place. Why would such a person notjust get rid of
this "preference for voting", given that she does not benefit
from it anyway? An economist might continue assuming the
presence of some higher-order preferences, but ultimately
would have to concede that he can only assume, but not
explain, the presence of such preferences. In a self-
transcendental perspective, by contrast, voting would be
explained - to the extent it is explainable - by an intrinsic
motivation to act in accordance with those moral principles
which one has found to be irrefutable. Of course, living up to
these principles will most often be a reason for a person to
feel satisfied, but then only as a symptom of one's successful
commitment to one's principles, rather than its cause or
motivation {cf. above p. 82). Or more generally, as Frankl
(1978) put it: rather than seeking happiness, we seek a
reason to be happy, and the more we directly chase after
happiness rather than after a reason for happiness, the more
we get removed from it. "Happiness cannot be pursued, it
must ensue" (Frankl 1978: 288).
Defenders of psychological hedonism might claim that this
postulate is entirely speculative and cannot be falsified (and
hence would not qualify as a scientific theory in the sense of
Popper [1959/1934]). Such critics would be perfectly right
with this claim, but should not overlook that the same is true
for psychological hedonism as well, and in fact for any
anthropological decision theory. One simply cannot do
without such speculation when theorizing about human
behavior. What I attempted to show is merely that the
speculative assumptions of psychological hedonism have little
plausibility because they imply that people are completely
determined and have no free will, while the - equally
speculative - assumptions of the self-transcendental
conception of behavior are closer to our self-perception as
autonomous persons who act upon reasons rather than being
pushed around by causes.
To the degree people have a free will, then, they can actually
choose different preferences than those they actually hold at
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
a given point in time.6 To be sure, human beings cannot
choose their preferences entirely arbitrarily. The natural
liking of sweet and distaste for bitter tastes, for example, can
apparently not be reversed at discretion. Nevertheless, there
seems to be some scope to choose our preferences - we can,
so to speak, learn to like our coffee with or without sugar.
When our preferences are not just about the sugar in our
coffee but about things that affect other people, this is where
deontological ethics comes in. A murderer, to illustrate this
point with an extreme example, must be acquitted by the
defenders of psychological hedonism because, in their view,
his lethal preferences were forced upon, rather than chosen
by, him (through his genetic disposition and environmental
influences). When it is believed that human beings have a free
will, however, he can be held responsible for not having
chosen more benign preferences (or for having failed to
contain his wicked preferences), because he could have
refrained from killing; there was nothing, in particular no
preference map, that forced him to kill. Positively speaking, a
socially responsible person will, in this view, act responsibly
not in order to feel good. Rather, she will feel happy because
her successful living up to her moral principles and her
sharing in the happiness of others are reasons for her to feel
so, and this is so because she has come to accept these moral
principles as irrefutable. Why she has adopted these
benevolent principles while others have not done so may
partly be due to education, socialization etc., but ultimately
remains a matter of an indeterminate free will and is therefore
beyond complete causal explanation.
Two major conclusions follow from these considerations: first,
that individual well-being is not a static function ingrained in
human nature but an ultimately free judgment dependent on
the values and preferences a person has chosen. This implies
- as is also supported by empirical happiness research - that
6 I continue using economic terminology for the sake of cross-
disciplinary communication, even though it does not do full justice
to the phenomena discussed.
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
favorable life circumstances are just a necessary, and not
sufficient, condition for happiness and that happiness
ultimately springs from a human mind. "Happiness is not
something that happens to people but something that they
make happen" (Csikszentmihalyi 1999).
Second, the human capacity to make free decisions entails
the duty to make only such decisions that are legitimate.
Among free individuals, others always are entitled to demand
from me a revision of my preferences if these, or rather the
actions they engender, violate their respective rights. Taken
together, this means that a society - or a government, or a
family - should not see as its aim the promotion of happiness
for its own sake {e.g., by distributing feel-good pills), but
rather the creation of conditions and the transmission of
values that allow people to find legitimate reasons for
Ethics: the Moral Point of View
The previous references to ethics raise the question of what
exactly is understood here under such concepts as 'morality',
'legitimacy', 'rights', and 'duties'. In what follows, I will give a
rough indication of my understanding of deontological ethics -
i.e., the legitimacy dimension of ethics, leaving aside the
teleological dimension of ethics for the moment - which is
rooted in discourse ethics as developed by K.O. Apel and
J. Habermas. For a more elaborate treatment the reader is
referred to the relevant literature.7
Systematically speaking, deontological ethics is the scientific
discipline that reflects on morality and the possibility of the
universal validity of moral principles. Morality, in turn, is the
specific, disinterested attitude that submits the pursuit of
one's personal interests, which is not immoral as such, to the
categorical   condition   of  legitimacy.   This   attitude   is   only
7   Cf.  Apel  (1973)   and  Habermas   (1983).   For  a  discourse  ethical
conception of economic ethics cf. Ulrich (1998b, 1998a).
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
genuinely moral when it is adopted out of a disinterested
recognition of the dignity of other persons, rather than out of
the calculated expectation of a personal advantage.
Tegitimacy is warranted when one's behavior conforms to
norms that are universalizable, i.e., norms that can in
principle be accepted by everyone.8 Put differently, a choice is
legitimate when it can be justified before all those potentially
affected by its consequences. This justification can be
thought of as a universal approval by an unlimited
communicative community (Habermas 1983: 99).
This criterion of legitimacy is not to be understood as
requiring a factual consensus in a real discourse. Rather, it is
meant as a regulative idea, i.e., an ideal type situation that
merely provides the "moral point of view" (Baier 1958), rather
than a "social technology" that generates solutions to moral
problems (Ulrich 1988a: 11). This lack of concreteness may
be criticized, but then this very lack is a characteristic of
ethics itself and merely reflects its indeterminacy, and the
feat of discourse ethics of having developed a firmly reasoned
moral point of view must not be underestimated. In fact, any
ethical theory offering a deterministic ethical formula that can
always tell right from wrong would promise more than may,
and should, be expected.9
In short, morality thus understood is not about altruism or
selflessness. Rather, it requires that one voluntarily
subordinates one's interests and actions to the criterion of
legitimacy by ensuring that one respects the rights of all
others in one's pursuit of one's interests. Seen from another
8 This idea of universalizability has most prominently been
expressed by Kant in his Categorical Imperative (Kant 1977/1785:
51, 62), even though the essence of this idea is much older, going
back at least to the "Golden Rule" that can be found in a variety of
holy scriptures.
9 "The idea that there is a book in heaven that contains the answers
to all moral problems seems as naive as the fear that, in the absence
of such a book, everything becomes arbitrary." (Tugendhat 1995:
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
angle, it requires that the norms of one's behavior be
universalizable in the sense that they can be accepted, or
enjoyed, by everybody equally.
Under this view, what is right and wrong depends ultimately
on people's free judgment of what they find justifiable or
rejectable, and therefore on their free choices. Consequently,
a moral discourse, even an imaginary one, is not merely a
means to find a pre-existing moral solution that is just
waiting to be discovered like the solution to a mathematical
equation. It is rather through the discourse itself that it is
established what is and is not legitimate. After all, the very
act of taking a genuine interest in others' rights - a
characteristic of any discourse worth its name - is itself
constitutive of, though not sufficient for, moral actions.
Providing merely a formal principle defining the moral point of
view, rather than a catalogue of norms or values, discourse
ethics seems to be less vulnerable to accusations of culture-
dependence. In fact, for an objection against discourse ethics
- whether voiced from within a culture or out of a different
cultural context - to be an objection at all, i.e., to be a
reasoned critique rather than a mere statement, it has to
invoke precisely those norms that are explicated by discourse
ethics. The only way to escape this "forceless force"
(Habermas 1981: 47) is to refuse the discourse altogether
which would identify the speaker as a moral fundamentalist
who thereby places himself outside the moral community.
Except for such fundamentalist convictions, however,
discourse ethics indeed seems to describe the proper,
universal "moral point of view" irrespective of cultural
Happiness and economic affluence
Empirical happiness research has produced a remarkable
body of evidence on the relationship between economic
affluence and happiness. Yet, except for a few neat results,
the overall picture is rather heterogeneous and difficult to
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interpret.10 In a nutshell, what has become clear is that,
within any given society with some degree of income
inequality, the poorest 20 or 30 percent are significantly less
happy (in terms of SWB) than the upper 70 or 80 percent of
the income distribution. It is also well-documented that at a
given point in time, rich nations tend to be more happy than
poorer ones, even though this seems to be true only up to
some threshold level in the order of magnitude of US$10,000
annual per capita income, and even far below this value one
finds positive outliers with levels of happiness that are also
found in very rich countries. On the other hand, there is little
evidence that nations become happier as they get richer over
time. While there are virtually no data for developing
countries - which limits the potential for generalization - the
data series coming closest to witnessing the escape from
poverty is that of Japan beginning in 1958, which shows no
significant upward trend over more than thirty years.11
Three major effects can explain the bulk of these
observations. First, the happiness deficit of the poorer
segments within a society and the failure of average SWB to
rise with average incomes are to a large extent due to a
"secondary inflation" effect (Hirata 2001: 36) that reduces the
value, in terms of "functionings" (Sen 1980/1983), of a given
consumption level {i.e., a level that is constant in terms of a
representative basket of goods) as a society grows richer. For
example, growing car ownership often leads to a deterioration
of public transport services which means that those people
whose real incomes fail to rise with those of the majority will
end up being worse off {i.e., in terms of the functioning of
mobility), and that the possession of a car partly reflects a
new necessity rather than the satisfaction of a genuine desire.
10 Cf. Hirata (2003: 1 Off) for the sources ofthe following claims. For a
comprehensive discussion of methodological and other issues in
happiness research cf. Kahneman, Diener & Schwarz (1999).
11 A more recent study found some evidence for a positive time-series
effect (Hagerty and Veenhoven (2003), but as argued in Hirata (2003)
some of their calculations seem to be wrong.
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
More fundamentally, the functioning of social participation
depends to a substantial degree on relative income.
Socializing is simply more expensive in rich societies than in
poor ones, and it may be doubted whether the additional
money spent on social activities buys an increase in
happiness. "In a poor society a man proves to his wife that he
loves her by giving her a rose but in a rich society he must
give a dozen roses" (Layard 1980: 741).
Second, people appear to get used to the new comforts
brought about by rising consumption standards, but they
frequently fail to anticipate this "hedonic adaptation"
(Loewenstein & Schkade 1999). As a consequence they spend
money on goods that have only a temporary effect on
happiness, and too little on goods that would yield lasting
happiness. Empirical evidence for hedonic adaptation is
overwhelming (Loewenstein & Schkade 1999).
Third and most important in this context, on a social level
consumption is largely a zero-sum game in terms of
happiness.12 Even in the case of consumption goods that are
not subject to hedonic adaptation, their happiness effect may
be annihilated as soon as others can afford the same good.
This is either because the increase in demand leads to
congestion effects {e.g. holidays on a remote beach) or
because the source of satisfaction consists precisely in being
ahead of the crowd {e.g. the satisfaction from having a
superior social status). To the extent consumption takes place
in such a competition for "positional goods" (Hirsch 1976: 11),
individually rational decisions will result in a socially wasteful
allocation of resources, just as standing on tiptoe in a theater
will improve each one's view individually but not lead to a
better view for the audience as a whole. As Hirsch (1976) and,
more recently, Frank (1999) convincingly argue, positional
competition is a pervasive phenomenon in affluent societies.
12 Hirsch (1976) provides a brilliant analysis of this effect and is the
basis for the following discussion.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
However, despite these three effects, some hope remains. Not
all ways of spending money are subject to the secondary
inflation effect, hedonic adaptation, or positional competition.
Relief from the stress of driving through dense traffic, regular
physical exercise, noise abatement, and freeing up time to
socialize with friends are empirically confirmed examples for
transforming resources into happiness that neither wears off
over time (at least not entirely) nor depends on relative
position (Frank 1999: 8Iff).13
On the whole, the evidence on the relationship between
wealth and happiness strongly suggests that it is not
governed by a mechanical quantitative law, but that it is
above all the quality and not the quantity of consumption
that has an impact on how satisfied a society is. To be sure,
SWB requires at least the satisfaction of life-sustaining needs
and certainly some degree of material comfort beyond that.
Yet, this still leaves a large range of income levels and
consumption standards that offer the potential, but no
guarantee, for pervasive happiness.
Nothing of this is to say that economic growth is per se
undesirable. In a modern market economy operating on
international markets, a failure to grow at the same pace as
one's trading partners will most likely be associated with
rising unemployment which in turn breeds unhappiness. It
would miss the point, though, to propose a stimulation of
economic growth in order to contain unemployment because,
depending on the perspective adopted, economic stagnation
can be seen as either the cause or the consequence of
unemployment. In the latter perspective, a reduction of
unemployment will automatically result in economic growth
whenever technological progress takes place. The point is that
focusing on economic growth is less plausible as a policy
objective (at least for affluent economies) than focusing on
reducing   unemployment.   When   confronted   with   a   choice
13 Strikingly, almost all examples concern the alleviation of problems
typical of affluent societies.
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
between (a) stagnating GNP but full employment or (b) rising
GNP but stagnating high unemployment (which would, for
example, result from an extension of the work week),
empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the former
will be more conducive to SWB.
Gross National Happiness and good development
The recognition that economic growth is not per se a good
thing has lead people to look for concepts that would better
reflect human betterment. As a result of the ecological
awakening in the early 1970s, attempts were made to adjust
GNP for unaccounted costs in terms of lost natural capital
and negative external effects, e.g., those caused by noxious
fumes, on the quality of life. Being more concerned about
poverty, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)
designed the Human Development Index (HDI) that integrates
GNP, longevity, and literacy data into a single figure. Both
initiatives were, and continue to be, important correctives to
the obsession with GNP, but, as will be argued below (0), they
remain deficient because they remain committed to a one-
dimensional (utilitarian) concept of good development.14
A much more profound shift of perspective was made by His
Majesty the IV King of Bhutan when he declared Gross
National Happiness to be the primary, though not exclusive,
principle of the country's development efforts without forcing
that idea into a quantitative index. Since then, and especially
since GNH has risen to international awareness, GNH has
found many advocates. What these advocates claim is not
merely that GNH should be adopted in order to achieve, say,
happiness, i.e., if happiness happens to be one's goal, but
their claim is that GNH should be adopted because it is a
better development concept, full stop. In other words - in
Kant's words actually - they do not make a hypothetical claim
14 Some proponents of such single-index indicators recognize this
deficiency but justify their use by their strategic value (Sen 1999).
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
but a categorical one (Kant 1977/1785: 43), and this means
they are making an ethical statement.
To make such a statement, and to arrive at a favorable
comparison of GNH vis-a-vis competing concepts (such as
GNP), one must as a matter of logical necessity have some
comparison criteria, some normative frame of reference which
provides orientation between good and bad, right and wrong,
just as a compass does between North and South. In the
context of societal development, this frame of reference is
implicit in the notion of good development. This is of course
only a formal concept, a point of reference providing
orientation and must not be mistaken for a concrete objective,
or a Utopia, that is to be accomplished. Similar to the ideal
concept of a geometrically perfect circle that only exists as an
idea and can never be found in the real world, good
development stands for a criterion, a regulative idea, rather
than for an objective. Different from a circle, however, it
cannot be completely defined. As an ethical idea it is even
ultimately indeterminate just as ethics itself {cf. p. 89). Hence,
rather than being a weakness, this elusiveness of good
development is just consistent with its role as representing
the idea of the good itself.
When I talk about development in this context, this is not to
be understood merely as the process of eradicating hunger
and abject poverty in the so-called "developing countries" and
neither as the economic catching up of these countries to the
consumption levels of the high-income countries, but rather
as the never-ending effort of all societies to narrow the gap
between the actual and the potential goodness of social
arrangements and of the well-being of citizens. With this
understanding of development, all countries are and will
always be developing countries.
For good development to deserve its name, it must also be
justifiable in a temporal and in a global perspective. It must
not only be concerned with the people currently living in a
given society,  it must also take into account the rights of
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
future generations (temporal perspective) and those of other
societies (global perspective). This is of course not an
additional requirement but merely the consequent
generalization of the idea of universalizability. Having said
this, my intention is merely to flag these two dimensions as
worth bearing in mind, but I will not be able to discuss them
explicitly within the scope of this paper.
So far and to my knowledge, the concept of GNH is defined
only to a limited extent, namely by the four major goals of (1)
economic self-reliance, (2) environmental preservation, (3)
cultural promotion, and (4) good governance (Thinley 1999:
16). Moreover, it is usually seen as one principle next to
others, not as the only principle of development, as expressed
in the famous phrase by His Majesty the King, "Gross
National Happiness is more important than Gross National
Product" (Thinley 1999: 12-13) (rather than saying that GNH
is the only objective of importance).15 And of course the term
"happiness" speaks for itself and thereby fills the concept of
GNH with substance, but again with some scope of
interpretation as there is no universally accepted concept, let
alone definition, of happiness.
When going about to conceptualize GNH in what follows, I will
therefore take as a starting point the following assumed
consensus on the meaning of GNH:
• GNH comes with a moral claim to be conducive to
good development.
• GNH is an (incomplete) catalogue of goals and
priorities, with the four major objectives (as
mentioned above) as its goals and with happiness as
the first priority.
• GNH is not an ethically inclusive concept, i.e., it is
not in itself sufficient to substantiate the idea of good
15 In a recent government document, however, it is, unfortunately,
suggested that happiness should be maximized (Planning
Commission 1999).
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
development, but needs to be complemented by other
Apparently, GNH is essentially about allowing people to live
well and to be happy. In philosophical terms, therefore, it is a
teleological concept, one that is concerned with what is good
(as opposed to right or just). Good development, however,
must integrate the teleological perspective of the good life with
the deontological perspective of legitimacy, otherwise it will
remain incomplete. Put differently, good development not only
needs a conception of what constitutes a good life (happiness,
for example), it also needs principles that provide criteria to
decide what is right when the good life, or the happiness, of
one person conflicts with that of another. For example, if of
two neighbors one finds happiness in silence and the other in
listening to loud music, the principle of happiness does not
provide any orientation of how this conflict of interest should
be dealt with.
In fact, there is a school of moral philosophy, namely
utilitarianism, that does claim exactly this, that the criterion
of happiness can also decide questions of legitimacy. In the
principle of total utility maximization, utilitarianism claims to
dispose of a criterion that tells right from wrong: maximizing
utility is right, anything falling short of utility maximization is
wrong. In the example of the two neighbors, the volume
should (not may, but should^) be turned up as long as the
increase in the music lover's happiness is larger than the loss
in his neighbor's happiness. (Of course these happiness
increments cannot be precisely measured, but this can be
regarded as a practical limitation of all moral criteria and no
particular deficiency of utilitarianism.) Looking closer,
however, it is evident that it is not happiness itself that
provides the criteria of right and wrong, but the principle of
maximization together with some more or less natural
This principle is problematic for at least three reasons. First it
must presuppose that people have rather than choose their
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
preferences {cf. p. 85). If, by contrast, people are assumed to
have a free will, happiness maximization is simply not
possible as a matter of logic - one cannot deduce determinate
results from an indeterminate basis.16
Second, following directly from the rejection of a free will,
people cannot be held accountable for their preferences.
Imagine a poacher who would be prepared to pay a large
amount of money to a community to be allowed to shoot the
remaining snow leopards in their forests to take their furs
home as trophies. Happiness maximization would demand
that the poacher should be allowed to hunt down the snow
leopards if the resulting total happiness rises as a result
(ignoring the (un)happiness of the snow leopards of course).
When people find this way of settling conflicts of interest
outraging, it is because they do not, as utilitarianism does,
take a person's happiness as given and as beyond critical
reflection. They would contend that the poacher can and
should revise his preferences and that he should derive
happiness from more benign purposes - and that otherwise
he deserves to be denied that source of happiness even if that
reduces the sum total of happiness.17
Third, people obviously care about more than happiness
alone. For example, when a person forgoes an opportunity for
personal happiness in order to honor a promise even though
that does not bring her any significant benefit, then this
person puts commitment before happiness (Sen 1983). Saying
that commitment is also a source of happiness and enters
into her hedonistic calculus would again assume that the
person has not herself chosen to want to commit herself, but
that she just happens to have a preference for commitment.
16 Cf. footnote no. 5.
17 This implies that this kind of conflict is not merely a matter of
negative externalities. In fact, I would contend that the
questionability of preferences discussed here demarcates the limit to
the internalization of external effects and, on a more fundamental
level, constitutes the blind spot of economics with respect to
deontological ethics.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
This kind of reasoning, however, would bereave the idea of
commitment of its very essence - and the person of her
Rejecting happiness maximization is of course not the same
as rejecting happiness as one policy objective among others
embedded into a larger concept of good development. In
particular, I would like to propose an interpretation of GNH
where happiness fulfills two distinct roles: one as a
teleological substantiation of good development, and the other
as a heuristic device.
In its first role, happiness substantiates the formal concept of
good development by specifying what it should primarily be
about. In particular, it gives priority to mental well-being, to
positive sentiments, and to a positive evaluation of one's life
to the degree these concepts are implied by the idea of
happiness. In other words and recalling what has been said
above about the nature of happiness, it focuses on allowing
people to have reasons for contentment and happiness. While
there are certainly some rather universal characteristics of
happiness, each culture may give varying weights to the
different aspects of happiness and emphasize additional
qualities that would be part of a culture-specific
understanding of happiness. In a Buddhist tradition, e.g.,
individual enlightenment, control of one's desires, and
freedom from excessive self-concern (Thinley 1999: 17-18)
would perhaps play a central role. Singling out such a
conception of happiness as a development priority contrasts
with the traditional Western development paradigm which
was driven by a deep-rooted ethos of industrious thriftiness
that has been famously attributed to the "Protestant Ethic" by
Max Weber (1975/1920).
The importance of a society's development paradigm, I would
argue, seems to lie not primarily in its direct influence on
political decisions, but in the impact it has on people -
whether ordinary citizens or politicians - as an orientating
principle. It provides or legitimizes rationales people invoke in
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
designing institutions, in the reflection on their values, and
even in their everyday decisions. At least, many decision
rationales in the affluent Western societies seem difficult to
explain if not by the prominence of GNP as the epitome of
good development.18
In its second role, happiness can serve as a heuristic device
within the concept of GNH to elucidate the subtle
psychological and societal phenomena that drive a wedge
between what people actually want and what eventually
results from their decisions (as discussed above). Knowledge
of these phenomena may allow the individual to make less
decisions he will have to regret (because he fell into some
psychological trap), and it may allow society to contain
prisoners' dilemmas by instilling in citizens a sense of
collective interdependence, making the need for commitment
to social norms more plausible to the individual.
In either of these roles, GNH does not, and should not, play
its role as a "user manual" for decision makers, but rather as
a mental ferment that leads to better informed and more
thoroughly reflected choices, private and collective, and as a
proclamation of a societal consensus of value priorities that
lends authority to the "soft" argument in favor of happiness.
Thereby, happiness should enrich the deliberative process
that should be taking place anyway, and in which decisions
should be taken by the conscientious assessment of reasons
rather than by maximizing a happiness function.
The relationship between good development and GNH is
therefore one between a formal principle and its concrete
meaning in a specific context in which people identify with a
particular ethos. By giving substance to the concept of good
18 Lane, e.g., posits that "the market culture teaches us that money
is the source of well-being," and that people, "lacking privileged
knowledge ofthe causes oftheir feelings, ... accept conventional
answers" (Lane 2000: 72).
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
development, it may be argued, GNH is itself already the first
step of operationalizing good development.
Operationalizing Gross National Happiness
Even though GNH is more substantive than the formal
concept of good development, it remains a rather ideal
concept. Hence, if one wants to fix the way it is translated
into consistent decision rationales that can be applied to
concrete situations,19 GNH needs to be further
operationalized. In fact, GNH has already been
operationalized to some degree by the specification of the four
major goals mentioned above, but it remains unclear - at
least in the literature I am aware of - through which ordering
principles these goals relate to each other. In the first part of
this section, therefore, I will try to delineate one possible
ordering principle by examining the economic-liberal stance
that good development, and perhaps happiness, consist
primarily or even exclusively in letting people choose
individually for themselves free from collective restrictions
and without questioning their choices. After laying out my
objections against this view, I will propose an alternative
maxim as the basis for operationalizing good development
and will then revert to the four major goals of GNH. In the
second part of this section I will briefly discuss the role
indicators should play in the operationalization of GNH.
Liberty and Happiness
Proponents of the economic-liberal position basically make
two distinct arguments. First, they posit that freedom of
choice is of intrinsic value, i.e., valuable independent from the
consequences this freedom has on welfare. Second, they
believe that economic theory and common sense justify a far-
reaching trust (i) in each individual's ability to make those
19 This is how I understand the title of this seminar. While GNH has
all along already been translated into concrete decisions by
Bhutanese decision makers, I understand that its operationalization
seeks to spell out and fix the way this translation ought to be done
in order to warrant some degree of coherence.
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
choices that are in her best interest, and (ii) in an "invisible
hand" (Adam Smith) that transforms uncoordinated
individual choices into social welfare.
(1) Regarding the first point, it should be noted that saying
something to be of intrinsic value is not the same as
saying that something has to be protected whatever the
cost. For example, I may consider animals to possess
intrinsic value, yet still approve of hunting for the purpose
of keeping animal populations in balance if the killing of
some animals is justified by reference to some other
intrinsic value of more weight (such as the long-term
survival of the biotope). I could not, however, approve of
hunting just for the fun of it because, in my view, hunting
as a source of fun can perfectly be substituted by other
activities that do not require to compromise on intrinsic
value. In the language of Immanuel Kant, saying that
something is of intrinsic value would mean that it shall
"always at the same time be treated as an end and never
only as a means" (Kant 1977/1785: 61), but not that it
may never and under no circumstances be also put in the
service of another purpose of intrinsic value. In the
context of free choice this means that I can acknowledge
the intrinsic value of free choice, yet at the same time
advocate selective limits to free choice where this is
justified by other intrinsic benefits I consider more urgent.
(2) Regarding the second argument, I shall raise three more
or less related objections against an unlimited trust in
individual rationality and the invisible hand.
(a) First, individuals appear to make systematic mistakes
in predicting which choice will make them happiest. In
addition to the well-established phenomenon of hedonic
adaptation {cf. p. 92), I will propose an argument by
Norberg-Hodge (1991) that can be labeled the "seduction
by modernity"-hypothesis. Since her argument is based
on anecdotal evidence and can therefore not be
generalized, I will merely propose it without being in a
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
position to defend it as a general phenomenon.
Nevertheless, considering that she has closely witnessed
the entire process of modernization in Ladakh - a region
in North-West India which appears to share some
important characteristics with Bhutan, at least until just
a couple of decades ago - her narrative might be of
relevance to the challenge of good development faced by
Her argument basically is that the first contact with
modern lifestyles by people in traditional societies, most
often through the presence of Western tourists and
television, instills an immense admiration of the
achievements of modernity while concealing the
downsides of economic progress.
"For millions of youths in rural areas of the world,
modern Western culture appears far superior to their
own. It is not surprising since, looking as they do from
the outside, all they can see is the material side of the
modern world—the side in which Western culture excels.
They cannot so readily see the social or psychological
dimensions—the stress, the loneliness, the fear of
growing old. Nor can they see environmental decay,
inflation, or unemployment. On the other hand, they
know their own culture inside out, including all its
limitations and imperfections." (Norberg-Hodge 1991: 97-
People see the convenience of time-saving appliances -
but not that competition for productivity increases the
pace of life. They see that by earning money they can
afford valued goods - but not that monetization threatens
to undermine social relationships {cf. also Rhodes 2000).
They see that work in the modern sector is less strenuous
- but not that a sedentary lifestyle makes people prone to
obesity and diseases of civilization. They see that a good
education increases the chances of their children to get
high-paying jobs - but not that widespread schooling will
separate  children  from  their parents  and,   if based  on
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
Western curricula, will alienate them from their own
culture {cf. also Wangyal 2001).
I hasten to emphasize that I am not implying that
traditional life is always and in all respects better than
modern life. Norberg-Hodge herself also acknowledges
that modernity brings improvements too. Rather, the
point is that people in traditional societies may have a
biased perception of modern life, clearly seeing its
blessings, but largely ignoring its dark sides. This may to
some extent be due to a lack of information, but also to a
systematic bias inherent in cognitive processes. For
example, people typically fall prey to the "focusing
illusion" (Schkade & Kahneman 1998), overstating the
satisfaction they will derive from a specific change in their
life simply because their attention is drawn to this
particular life domain. By highlighting this bias in
perception, I do not say that people should always decide
against modern lifestyles, but merely that people's
decisions would better serve their authentic interests if
the less visible effects of modernization were also
(b) My second objection concerns the trust in the
efficiency of a benevolent invisible hand. To be sure, the
market mechanism is often a highly efficient way to
organize production and allocate goods, and there are
good reasons to make use of this mechanism for the
purpose of good development. However, to the degree
people compete for positional goods and thus engage in a
zero-sum game {cf. p. 113), the invisible hand may turn
counterproductive. In this case, the market mechanism
will lead a society to spend real resources on relocating
goods among people (generally from those with little to
those with much capital - intellectual, physical, or
monetary), rather than on a net creation of value. From a
social perspective, this is as wasteful as if, say, ten
percent of theater visitors could buy the privilege to stand
up during the performance. As theater visitors get richer,
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
they would bid up prices without making any difference
to the overall outcome. The analogy between society and
the theater audience only breaks down in terms of
membership: you can simply choose not to go to the
theater, but you do not have that choice with respect to
(c) My third objection concerns the trust in the justice of
the invisible hand. Even though economic liberalists
sometimes concede that the invisible hand is not perfectly
just, they contend that its deficits in terms of justice are
unimportant enough to be outweighed by its efficiency
benefits. This view, I believe, is grossly inadequate.
Rather, the invisible hand is better described as being
indifferent towards matters of justice - it may lead to
largely just outcomes under favorable conditions, but it is
not by itself just. The main reason for this is that it hands
out the economic product to each according to his
bargaining power, which is defined largely in terms of the
relative scarcity of a person's skills. A talented athlete,
e.g., can accumulate sufficient money for the rest of his
life before the age of twenty - provided his talent is
relatively scarce (both in terms of supply of, and demand
for, his talent). A construction worker, on the other hand,
will in his whole life not earn the equivalent of a world-
class soccer player's annual salary, even if he is the most
diligent and skillful worker - simply because his skills are
not scarce enough since there are (too many) others
around who could replace him. The observation that this
20 Another limitation to this analogy consists in the flow of the
money spent on positional goods. While in the theater example, the
seller of the privilege - say, the municipality - would simply earn a
pure rent so that the money is just transferred and not received as a
compensation for work, the money spent on positional goods in real
life is often lost in the sense that it is spent on real work that creates
only individual, but no social value (as is typical in cases of "rent
seeking"). Examples for this would be advertising; preparatory
courses for university entry exams; the purchase of status symbols
such as luxury watches etc.
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
effect tends to reward effort - an essential demand of
distributive justice - and leads to efficiency-enhancing
incentives for people to develop valued {i.e., scarce) skills
may justify a degree of distributive injustice, but it does
not grant an all-out absolution from a concern for justice.
Rather, markets with their efficiency-enhancing
properties should be put in the service of a normative
conception of good development and, consequently, find
their limits where they lead to a degree of distributive
injustice that can no longer be justified. In other words,
justice should be a matter of moral criteria that
determine the domain and the form of the market, not the
other way round.
The criticism raised here against the economic-liberal view is
in fact a criticism at a specific economistic (Ulrich 1998b: 15)
interpretation of liberalism which reduces the idea of freedom
to "freedom of choice" in the sense of protecting people from
intrusion into their individual choices ("negative freedom").
Another reading of the idea of freedom, by contrast, would be
"freedom to choose", namely to choose a dignified, fulfilling
way of life ("positive freedom" or "real freedom"). In this
interpretation, freedom may not only require protection from
undue intrusion, but also the active empowerment of the
disadvantaged to enable them to actually choose a dignified
way of life, rather than condemning them to make do with
whatever the economy happens to leave for them.
This republican-liberalist (Ulrich 1998b: 295) view differs in
at least three important respects from the economic-liberal
(i) First, it does not take for granted that people will always
make choices that are in their best interest. Neither,
however, does it seek to prescribe, or even enforce,
specific choices or values (an ambition economic
liberalists are fond of imputing to any alternative to their
own position). It merely includes the formation of
preferences and choices into its field of interest by asking
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
for the conditions which enable people to actually make
choices that are in their best interest.
(ii) Second, and this is the specifically republican element of
this conception of liberalism, it expects from all citizens to
enjoy their freedoms as responsible members of a res
publica (from Latin for "public affair"). In contrast to
economic liberalism which seeks to isolate the individual
from moral obligations and attempts to justify this by
hinting to the efficiency of an ideal economic order,
republican liberalism expects from each citizen a
commitment to the res publica, i.e., the willingness to
subordinate one's private interests to the condition of
public legitimacy (Ulrich 1998b: 299). More concretely, a
republican citizen would not, e.g., recklessly take full
advantage of her superior bargaining power vis-a-vis the
economically disadvantaged - even where the conceivably
best economic order legally entitles her to do so.
Moreover, she would not regard this as a constraint to
her freedom, but rather as naturally following from her
identity as part of the res publica. She simply would not
want to benefit unduly at the expense of others. In other
words, each citizen is called upon to regard economic
interaction not as a space free of morality but as part of
the moral space that includes all human interaction, and
to treat the other members of society not as opponents in
a bargaining contest but as co-citizens of a shared res
publica and as moral subjects which are to be respected
in exercising one's own freedom.
(iii) Third, republican liberalism considers restrictions on
individual choices to be justified when these restrictions
are themselves the manifestation of free choices, i.e.,
when they are democratically legitimized. For example,
the wide-spread practice of mandatory pension saving
schemes is obviously a restriction on people's choices,
but it is a restriction most people advocate in order to
collectively control their spending behavior which they
apparently  feel  would   otherwise   not   be   in   their   best
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
interest. Put differently, a populace can voluntarily
choose to put in place restrictions on their choices
without becoming an illiberal society for that reason.
The concept of republican liberalism does not imply any
specific design of the economic order and of people's liberties.
Rather, it conceives of freedom in a positive mode rather than
merely as the absence of interference, and argues that
people's choices need to be preceded by a fundamental
reflection in two dimensions. In the individual dimension, the
reflection should consist in a critical examination of one's
preferences in the light of the full consequences of different
development paths. There can be little doubt, e.g., that
parents' choices with respect to their children's education will
be better after they have examined the "seduction by
modernity"-hypothesis, no matter if that examination actually
changes their choices. In the social dimension, the reflection
should consist in a public moral discourse about the legal
and institutional provisions that are most conducive to good
development. A truly liberal society may prefer to impose
some constraints on freedom of choice in order to give people
freedom to choose and in order to avoid wasting resources on
positional rat races, rather than, in blind trust in the
benevolence of an invisible hand, deliver people to the
vagaries of unfettered competition.
Of course, people can usually be assumed to already reflect
on the wider implications of their choices without needing
instruction to do so. However, important aspects of one's
choices' consequences - especially when leading to an entirely
novel way of life - may simply not be obvious and will
therefore not be adequately taken into account. Furthermore,
it would be naive to assume an unlimited human capacity to
cope with fundamental social change. Here, governments can
play the role of stimulating the circulation of balanced, or
(counter-)balancing,   information;   encouraging  reflection   on
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
specific issues; facilitating public discourse; and
strengthening initiatives of civil society (Galay 2001).21
Coming back now to the four major goals of GNH: economic
self-reliance, environmental preservation, cultural promotion,
and good governance, the question arises how these rather
specific goals relate to the concept of republican liberalism
that has been proposed here as an ordering principle for the
operationalization of the concept of GNH.
First of all, a crucial distinction should be made between the
nature of concrete goals and ethical principles. While goals
may be better or worse, more or less important, and may be
achieved in good or bad ways, ethical principles are neither
good or bad (because a bad ethical principle is no ethical
principle at all), but rather right or wrong {i.e., more or less
well-argued). In other words, while goals are the objects of
ethical judgments, ethical principles provide the moral point of
view from which to make these judgments. Both are
complementary, of course: While goals remain devoid of value
unless they are evaluated by means of ethical principles,
ethical principles have merely formal character until they are
related to concrete goals {cf. the distinction between the
teleological and the deontological perspectives above on p.
118). Thus, the four major goals of GNH may serve the
purpose of emphasizing certain issues of particular
importance, but they need to be complemented by
(deontological) ethical principles that provide the criteria to
judge, e.g., to which degree economic self-reliance shall be
pursued; at which cost to human well-being the environment
should be preserved; or how far cultural promotion may go in
constraining individual liberties.22 For the task of operation-
21 I should reemphasize that I am making general remarks here
without implying that deficits of this sort are present in Bhutan.
22 The fourth goal, good governance, has an intermediate role
between goals and ethical principles because the attribute "good"
already implies a claim to having the quality of an ethical principle
(after all, "good governance" is by definition good and therefore need
not   be   evaluated).   Including   it   in   the   list   of  major   goals   may
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
alizing the concept of GNH, this means that the ultimate
point of reference from which to evaluate the
operationalization of GNH is not the concept of GNH itself,
but again an inclusive ideal concept of good development.
Happiness may be the paramount objective in this conception
of good development, but it must also always remain
embedded in the latter.
Another way of focusing attention on specific aspects of good
development is the selection of appropriate indicators, which
shall be explored in the following sub-section.
Measuring Happiness?
The apparent allusion of the expression "Gross National
Happiness" to the conventional concept of "Gross National
Product" suggests that now "happiness" should be measured
in Bhutan just as "product" is measured in most other
countries. One would simply have to take the average of the
population's SWB scores in order to arrive at a "per capita
GNH"-indicator that would replace the indicator of "per capita
GNP". Recent advances in the methodology of happiness
measurement, one might argue, would warrant a sufficient
degree of precision and validity. A substantial minority of
Kuensel online readers seem to agree: in a recent poll
(December 2003), 36 percent (n=439) answered in the
affirmative when asked whether "GNH, a developmental
philosophy, [can] be economically quantified."23
A likely candidate for the quantification of happiness is of
course the concept of subjective well-being (p. 101) since it
rests on a firm empirical methodology. Yet, while SWB would
certainly be a better indicator than GNP because it is about
an intrinsically and not only instrumentally valuable
objective,  any single-index  "super indicator"  of social well-
nevertheless be justified in order to emphasize the importance of this
particular ethical principle.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
being, no matter if GNP, SWB, HDI (p. 115), or yet another
concept, will be reductionist in that it reduces a multidimensional and indeterminate judgment to a single,
ostensibly objective figure. More often than not, once an
indicator has come to be recognized as the highest-order
indicator of good development, it soon is identified with good
development itself and its maximization elevated to the
ultimate objective. Such a view quickly transforms a perhaps
sensible rule of thumb ("raising indicator X tends to be good")
into an unquestioned doctrine ("good development consists in
raising X). The indicator in question then becomes the
substitute of conscientious deliberation, rather than its
content. In the case of GNH, a particular risk consists in the
possibility that the concept of GNH one day comes to be
appropriated by a hedonist (i.e, solipsist; cf. p. 104) and
utilitarian understanding of happiness, in which case the
original spiritual and moral dimension of GNH would be lost.
In operationalizing GNH one should therefore perhaps refrain
from formulating a single-index indicator and instead rely on
a variety of separate indicators that capture various aspects
of people's daily lives that are much more relevant to good
development, and in particular to happiness, than is GNP.
Examples for such indicators would be malnutrition, health,
mental depression, suicide, youth delinquency, alcoholism,
drug abuse, and divorce rates, just to name a few. Such a
heterogeneous {i.e., not aggregated) set of social indicators
would underscore the view that even the most meaningful
indicators provide just inconclusive pieces of information
which need to be evaluated along moral criteria and cannot
replace moral deliberation. This is all the more evident in the
context of sustainability and global justice. A steep rise of
happiness indicators, for example, will have to be assessed
very carefully when it is based on unsustainable trends or on
the exploitation of other countries. In short, to make sense of
social indicators, they always need to be embedded into a
wider moral discourse.
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
The deliberate selection, and propagation, of social indicators
seems to be more than an academic ivory tower-exercise.
Casual observation suggests that those indicators that
dominate newspaper headlines, TV news, and education
curricula have a tremendous impact on both political and
private priorities. If European newspaper headlines were
dominated by indicators of subjective well-being, child
poverty, and divorce rates, instead of by GNP and Dow Jones
trends, the political agenda and presumably even private
priorities might be a bit more concerned with qualitative
rather than with quantitative development. By analogy, if the
concept of GNH is properly specified and continues to be the
guiding principle - but not the doctrine - of Bhutan's
development vision, it can play an invaluable role in
positioning the right indicators into newspaper headlines and
thereby directing public discourse and private concerns
towards those aspects of life that are constitutive elements of
good development.
There is nevertheless a strategic case for the formulation and
publication of a single-index indicator since it is so much
more convenient to communicate, especially across mass
media, and so much more effective in catching people's
attention. Realistically reckoning with the role of mass media
and politicians' perceived need for simple messages, one must
therefore assume that highest-order indicators of good
development will always remain in circulation. The question
then becomes not what would be the perfect indicator,
because that would mean the rejection of any candidate, but
which indicator would be less inappropriate than the
incumbent top-indicator in most minds, which currently is
GNP. To topple GNP and replace it with a more humane
indicator, therefore, one needs to look for "a measure ... ofthe
same level of vulgarity as GNP - just one number - but a
measure that is not as blind to social aspects of human lives
as GNP is," as the spiritual father of the HDI, the former
UNDP director Mahbub ul Haq, demanded (Sen 1999: 23). If
one rejects a crude single-index measure of happiness
because it is not perfect, one may end up with an even worse
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
indicator. The challenge is to catch attention with a single-
index indicator and at the same time highlight its deficiencies
so as to stimulate a moral discourse on the content of
happiness within a comprehensive concept of good
Happiness seems to provide an especially promising
perspective to approach the challenge of development facing
Bhutan. By adopting Gross National Happiness as its
overarching development concept, Bhutan speaks out loud in
favor of a people-centered perspective on development.
In this paper I have made a number of diverse points, and I
shall conclude by synthesizing them into five statements.
(i) Happiness is inseparable from the reasons for happiness.
In contrast to the means/end metaphor where happiness
is the only end of intrinsic value and all other objectives
have merely instrumental value, happiness should be
seen as a symptom indicating that a person has reason to
be happy. In this perspective, the person cares not only
about his positive mental experience but also about the
reasons themselves which are of intrinsic value.
(ii) Happiness is something people make happen.
If we recognize that people have a free will, it follows that
happiness is only to some extent dependent on objective
life circumstances. Ultimately, people can be happy or
unhappy in a large variety of settings. A person can be
happy with her material possessions either because she
has much or because she desires little. Thus, to attain
happiness, it would be foolish for a society to focus
exclusively on life circumstances and neglect the inner
foundation  for  happiness.   Bhutan's   Buddhist  heritage
 Putting Gross National Happiness in the Service of Good Development
might be a particularly strong source for instilling, or
preserving, a foundation of this kind.24
(iii) Gross National Happiness is a substantiation of the ideal
concept of good development.
An approval of GNH is always made by implicit or explicit
reference to the regulative idea of good development.
Being a formal concept, good development needs to be
substantiated by more specific concepts if it shall guide
decisions, and happiness may be an especially
appropriate candidate to serve as such a concept.
(iv) Good development is more than Gross National Happiness.
As a teleological concept, happiness does not entirely fill
out the formal concept of good development. In particular,
it fails to address the dimension of legitimacy, i.e., it does
not provide any criteria of how to deal with conflicts of
interest. It therefore has to be complemented by
deontological ethical principles
(v)  Good development consists in giving people freedom to
choose rather than freedom of choice.
Economic liberalism propagates the maxim that good
development consists in protecting people's freedom of
choice. They fail to see, however, that people's free
choices may be more or less informed and better or worse
reflected. Furthermore, a society may decide to restrict
people's freedom of choice in order to enhance people's
freedom to choose, without therefore becoming an illiberal
society. In this view, the economy should not be left to
take care of itself, but rather be embedded into society.
24 This does not mean that only Buddhists recognize the importance
of inner attitudes. It was the classic utilitarian John Stuart Mill who
said, "I regard any considerable increase of human happiness,
through mere changes in outward circumstances, unaccompanied
by changes in the state of desires, as hopeless; ..." (Mill 1969/1833:
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Its   efficiency   potential   should   become   the   servant   of
development rather than its purpose.
Gross National Happiness makes a valuable first step towards
operationalizing the notion of good development by selecting
as the prime goal of development human well-being rather
than material opulence. It is exactly in this role that the
concept of GNH is particularly well positioned to be put in the
service of good development.
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