Why money shouldn’t be a measure for progress

What do “happiness”, “progress” and “the meaning of life” all have in common?  They are all used to describe each other in some way, and yet, when used together they don’t always add up.  Here are the two most common implied equations I’ve seen:
Meaning of life = happiness /  Happiness = progress
Meaning of life = progress / Progress = happiness

The inherent assumption in that a state of happiness is directly and upwardly correlated with progress which feels inherently flawed to me because…

1.  It assumes an understanding of the meaning of life for each individual
– Science would suggest the only meaning of life is that your cells replicate and enable another human being to replace you – biological survival 101.  Therefore the only relevance of progress in this context is biological, and even then this may not mean extending life given that could reduce replication. Science would also place emphasis on the uncovering of new knowledge as progress for humanity in discovering an overall meaning which has not yet been found yet.

– Islam places great emphasis on the afterlife and suggests the meaning of this life is preparation for the next – therefore progress is not particularly relevant.

– Buddhism places emphasis on the achievement of positivity and the potential for reincarnation into a new body to live again – again progress is not the emphasis.

– Christianity places emphasis on positive personal relationships and a personal relationship with God or Jesus.

– Capitalism places emphasis on the achievement of material wealth, progress is an emphasis here as it “creates fuel for the fire” – by providing a progress as a proxy for meaning in order to create wealth.  The important thing to note is that in capitalism, the “winner” is the entity with the most highest dividend pay outs to its investors, so the end game is not progress or happiness.

With all of these broad brushstroke ideas about meaning, the individual is ignored – even though it is the individuals perception of meaning that matters.  Interestingly I found it pretty much impossible to find any large scale scientific study on people’s own perception of the meaning of life for themselves personally and then for the human race in general which seemed odd…given we’re all alive and doing “stuff”…surely we’d want to know, in general, what others think its all for!

Apart from Capitalism…which isn’t really a philosophy, its a way of managing money markets…there isn’t an interpretation of the meaning of life requiring any link whatsoever to Gross Domestic Product GDP(which is what most countries used to determine their country’s relative position in comparison to other countries when it comes to progress)

I did find this interesting graph showing GDP vs. happiness…showing there really is no correlation.  The poor people of Columbia and Guinea are just as happy as some of the worlds richest countries by GDP: Switzerland and Denmark, and are more happy than people in the US which enjoys the worlds second highest GDP.
600px-Life_Satisfaction_vs_GDP

2.  It assumes a meaningful life equals a happy life and that meaning is derived through progress which is derived through a combination of health and income
In many ways meaning and happiness are connected – if you feel having a purpose or meaning is important to your life, then without it, you’ll probably be unhappy (although there’s still people out there who don’t require stated purpose or meaning to experience happiness…most kids don’t!).  So that connection feels right (again I wasn’t able to find any large scale scientific studies on it – weird).

I think where we get off track is when we assume that the meaning itself is derived through progress which we assume comes from income and health.  There could be so many other interpretations of progress and meaning – and in fact when people talk about life meaning or purpose, they often talking about “leaving something for their kids”, having a positive impact on others” – none of these things require progress or money to do.
As a side note, the rise of obesity and depression in Western Societies also shows the pursuit of personal income comes with some heavy side effects

The other important aspect of how meaning is described in an economic progress context is often on a macro, rather than micro level.  That is,  the effect felt by humanity as it progresses after an individuals death, not the meaning experienced by the individuals themselves during their own lifetime.  For example – how much meaning would someone working in the industrial car age have received in working on the same car parts every single day?  I’d say not as much as the meaning derived by humanity in the ability to now transport themselves hundreds of miles in mere hours that perhaps allows them to live, work or visit family that would have otherwise been difficult in the past.  Does progress require that some must suffer so that others may benefit?  And if so, are there some benefits that are not worth the suffering, when the benefit only contributes to economic progress and not directly to meaning or happiness?

So what’s more important, meaning or happiness?
Well logic suggests a balance of both.  And the data suggests countries could achieve this balance in ways other than measuring GDP which does not correlate to happiness forever.  Compared to ancient market forces, capitalism is a baby.   Who can say whether it will continue to sustain itself.  If (or as some would say, when) it fails, we need a system that can maintain happiness and meaning in balance or the humans of that generation will suffer a deep psychological chasm that could hurt generations into their future.  If we used Guinea or Costa Rica or Colombia as case studies, we could find key elements to a new structure that would enable meaning to thrive without capitalism.  My guess is it is heavily reliant on a sense of family and community and is supported by cultural modes of working and interacting that are native to the area – although I’d need more time to look into it.

The reality is most humans aren’t going to turn around and sign up to a new way of working if it sends them back to the dark ages and having to farm their own fruit and veg living naked on a commune farm in Tasmania (sorry to my dear Hippy friends!) – so we need a system that allows us to maintain similar lifestyle but also make considerable leaps forward in our personal well-being and happiness.

This would be my checklist for finding an alternative:
1.  Run a survey to 50k people on Google Consumer Surveys for $10k (cheapest way to run surveys around!) and get responses to two key questions:
a) What do you believe is the meaning of life for you?
b) What do you believe is the meaning of life for human kind?
c) What makes you happy?
d) Do you think that happiness and meaning are connected? (e.g. without meaning, you can’t have happiness or visa versa)
f) Do you believe you would be happier if you earned more money?

2.  Study societies where GDP and happiness are not correlated, find the source of happiness for those communities and look at ways these could be applied in other societies.  Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck  was onto something when he coined the term “Gross National Happiness” as a way of measuring a countries psychological state as an important and connected measure of progress, verses just the traditional monetary economic measurement.

3.  Study societies where technological and scientific progress occurred without capitalism or communism, then get sci-fi fantasy writers and economists into a room for a brainstorm session!  Creativity and logic are powerful combinations for innovation.

4.  Get the economists to create economic models, to model out the transition to the new state (or the transition from a failed state to the new alternative) because it has been too long really since anyone properly got their hands dirty on this one as there are so many things that need to be taken into account – particularly in a transition model where the transition would necessarily begin with education of young minds and would need to occur over perhaps 100-150 years.  Some good alternatives exist for business which you can read about here, but communism and socialism tend not to work if applied as the only system of governance across a country because humans have an inherent need to be individual while also being a part of a community and that must be balanced appropriately.  (Australia has some socialist constructs which were created with the best of intentions but do end up with some unwanted side effects in the market – such as Medicare which provides much needed care for our poorest, but also encourages those with enough money to rely on and overuse the system, come to expect more than necessary and makes doctors and clinics dependent on the system also which may have some impacts on innovation.)

We measure money and not happiness because its EASY.  But easy doesn’t make it fit for purpose.  1+1 = 2, but that equation won’t solve Einsteins theory of relativity.   It simplifies humans to a common denominator that doesn’t even match their perceived experience of reality!

I don’t have $10k lying around right now to do the research, but I’d be interested to know YOUR answers to those survey questions if anyone would like to share 😀

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Islamic Law: Democracy’s new Communism

Religion is a difficult, divisive subject for most people.  The earliest evidence of religious ideas dates back several hundred thousand years to the Middle and Lower Paleolithic periods so it’s not like it’s a new issue.

English: Mao's official portrait at Tiananmen ...Fighting either for, or against religion has sparked genocidal wars:
For the religious there was 3 Million in the Crusades (Christian vs Muslim), 3-11 million in the Roman’s 30 Years Holy War (Protestants vs Catholic), French Wars of Religion (Protestants vs Catholic) 3 million in the Nigerian Civil War (Christian vs Muslim) and of course the ongoing atrocities across the Middle East particularly since the final collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the early 1900’s (Sunni Muslim vs Shia Muslim).

Sociopathic communists have been no better:  over 16m against “old religion and beliefs” in China under Máo Zédōng (毛泽东) and of course historians still diverge on the religious nature of Nazism but it wasn’t a war sanctioned by the catholic church – with 10m lives lost in WW2 .

Democracy took hundreds of years to develop and did so on the back of horrific human casualties.  It was able to develop most quickly in colonialist countries like the US, Canada and Australia because they were able to oppress the decentralized native communities and create a clean slate to completely control land, thought and political ideology.  On the other hand, Europe took thousands of years to find steady peace.  Even in America, it was only in the early 1800’s that politics and the governance of the country was legally and constitutionally separated from religion.

So, once the democratic system became the Western World’s poster child for progress and freedom, all other political or politico-religious ideologies became a threat.   The first major threat came in the form of Communism – creating a major divide in relations between Russia, China and America, which has still not healed.

The next thing many Western leaders (in particular France and Germany) see as a threat to democratic ideology within their countries is Islam.  Not necessarily in the form terrorism, but in the form of religiously powered political pressure whose goal is to take control of the state.  Why?  Because true Islam controls the state through Sharia Law with rules on everything including the governance of crime, politics and economics (as an example – where banks charging interest is illegal).

burkiniThe sentiment of a threat seems to be shared by the citizens of Germany and France with 68% of French nationals stating they saw Islam as a concern or threat to their way of life and 51% of Germans saying the same.  It seems the fear rises in direct proportion to the numbers of those with Islamic faith in the community (7% of France’s population is Islamic). In response, the French government has banned all wearing of religious artifacts in schools including the Hijab (signed into law by Jacques Chirac), has banned Burkinis at swimming pools and there are calls to now also ban the Hijab at universities.  Just last week a German court ruled that Islamic girls must attend swimming lessons with boys at school but they can wear a Burkini.  But these political leaders are strong right wing conservative politicians, right?  Wrong.  French Prime Minister François Hollande is very much from the left side of politics.

Now, whether all these fears are founded or not is an interesting question.  The facts are that the fear can only become founded when:

1.  There is (or on current trajectory of change there will be) a proportion of any one country’s population large enough to support the democratic election of a new government who has the power to change that country’s constitution and laws.  We may not like to hear that change is inevitable, but change has been occurring for thousands of years.

2.  That population actually wishes for a change in government and wishes Sharia Law to be instated.  A study of over 38,000 muslims found that support for Sharia law was high across all countries (even up to 40% in the US), however the implementation of the law was divided on certain controversial issues such as polgamy, choice in wearing of the hijab, enjoyment of music/dance and severe punishment for religious defection.   However, by the very support of Sharia law, the expectation is that certain elements of religious basis rule would be enforced across all members of society, regardless of religious persuasion.  Homosexuality and the consumption of alcohol were overwhelmingly viewed as immoral – so we could say that under the current thought, if Sharia law were ever instated on a formerly democratic society, at the very least each of those actions would be made illegal and a punishable crime.

The Roman empire collapsed, the Gauls wiped out almost all of England’s original population in 900AD, and 200 years ago homosexuality was punishable by death.  So to assume that change of this scale is not possible, is to deny history has ever happened.  After all, many of the Roman Empire churches built across the Middle East were converted to Mosques during the Ottoman empire.  And if you think that humanity has only ever gone “forward”, not “backward” in terms of human rights – think again.  Late Roman Empire, the Greeks and even some Chinese dynasties were very free when it came to homosexuality before they fell to larger forces, and before the rise of the Catholic church, paganism worshipped the power women rather than subordinating them as was subsequently done throughout Europe’s religious history.

English: The name of الله Allāh, written in Ar...

English: The name of الله Allāh, written in Arabic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, if we accept that change is an inevitable part of the evolution of humanity, then sure, it’s possible that Islam and Sharia law could topple Democracy as the next world-wide ideological power – because unlike Communism which was taken up by elites and forced upon citizens, Islam grows within the citizens themselves.  But by the time this change happened, would anyone really care?

If high birth rates are the true biological indicator of long-term survival for humanity (putting aside for the moment the impact of the population on the Earth’s finite resources), then it is possible that through both birth into the Islamic faith, immigration and falling birth rates of Western countries, there would be a point in the next 100-200 years at which a significant portion of French or German society was of Islamic faith.  At that point, a rewriting of constitutions and return to Sharia law would be inevitable, and in fact, would be welcomed by most citizens anyway since the entire psychological make up of the population would have changed.  I mean, 500 years ago – it would have been psychologically unimaginable for Europeans to accept the idea that women could vote or have property ownership or a say in their destiny through marriage and work: so the passage of time effectively breeds out certain viewpoints.

Some might say it wouldn’t be too bad anyway – there are scientifically studied psychological benefits to being religious.  An analysis of over 200 social studies contends that high religiousness predicts a lower risk of depression and drug abuse and fewer suicide attempts.

In Australia, 2% of the population is Islamic – so while there has been some tension in the past (for instance in 2006 when Sheikh Taj El-Din Hamid Hilaly sparked public outrage when he compared women to uncovered meat in a reference to the occurrence rape) – the tension has not mounted to become a federal political issue.

Danny - Rise up AustraliaBut new to the political arena is The Rise Up Australia party, whose leader talks about the failure of Multiculturalism (quoting British MP David Cameron) and used the 2013 election campaign to begin its campaign to “enlighten” Australians about the failure of Multiculturalism in their own country.  But given the leader of Rise Up is a sprightly young Indian man – listeners would get the distinct impression what the party is referring to is not “failure of Multiculturalism”, but in fact a “fear of Islam”.

Views from the left may say that it is important to be tolerant and accepting toward other religions and cultures, a sentiment I can identify with.  But what of the moral dilemma of a religion where that tolerance is not returned?

Some of my family (my Auntie, Uncle and two cousins) all converted to Islam over 10 years ago – so I’ve taken a lot of time to carefully consider this question including reading of the Qur’an, speaking with my Islamic friends, family and business colleagues across India and UAE, reading Hadiths and more.

I love my cousins dearly and I visit them often, but I cannot deny the fact that there are core parts of their faith that fundamentally oppose certain freedoms that I, and most inhabitants of any democratic society, strongly believe in (even if they don’t realise it because they have never had those freedoms challenged).

The good
Like all religions, at its core is generally a message of peace, love, generosity and mercy – and for the vast majority who live in the faith, they are peaceful and respectful.

The interesting and the downright concerning
The concerning bits are less related to the Qur’an and more related to the Hadiths and Sharia Law.  The Hadiths are what Muslims believe to be the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed.  200 years after their prophet died, Islamic scholars wanted to put together a practical guide to help people of Islamic faith to live their lives “like Mohammad”.  So they sent out thousands of volunteers to go and collect information about his words and deeds.  Over 200,000 of these were collected and it took over 20 years to put together the Hadiths, which also underpin Sharia law.  There are a number of different collections and Sunni and Shia justice systems refer to different parts of these for their implementation of the law.  Whatever the relative truth of the true origin of Islam, the Sharia Law, Hadiths and the Qur’an provide an extremely strong foundation and framework of behavioural guidance for those of the Islamic faith, which in turn increases the “stickiness” of the religion – and is what some countries experience as “the inability to integrate”.

Some examples:

  • Hadith’s state that Mohammed never listened to music or danced (except to a particular drum).  As a result, strict Sunni Muslims are not allowed to dance or listen to music.
  • At the time of Mohammed war was an inevitable part of life.  Many men were lost at war and women left without financial support, so polygamy became the best solution for the time…but it has now continued to modern times as part of a culture.
  • In Sharia law, women are seen as being emotional beings and as a result, Sharia law requires that two women must be a witness to a crime in financial or business transactions for it to be admitted as evidence in court.
  • Islam in its purest form absolutely rejects any other god, way of thinking, and change or reinterpretation as the entire Qur’an is the word of God/Allah.
  • Sharia law acknowledges that men are susceptible to the temptation of the flesh, and so requires the complete covering of women (the amount of coverage depends on the sub sect), women must be segregated from men and cannot ever touch or be in the same room alone with anyone other than their brothers, father or husband.
  • Sharia law requires that a woman may not have sexual relations out of wedlock. In Saudi Arabia many women do not approach authorities if they have been raped as if they do, they can be charged and put in jail for having sexual relations out of wedlock.
  • Marriages are arranged.
  • Banks are banned from charging interest on loans.
  • Homosexuality is a punishable crime (punishable by death in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania).
  • Only Halal animal products can be eaten: where the animal’s throat is slit while facing toward Mecca. Some argue this is more humane than electrocuting the animal first.
  • Those who leave or renounce the religion can be punished, including put to death.

Like any religion that exists within the freedom of expression based protections of a democratic society, Muslims in Australia can choose just how closely to follow these rules.  However, in a country under Sharia law (like Saudi Arabia), all these rules become automatically enforced by the justice system.

So here we have a moral dilemma.  Can we tolerate intolerance?  Western democracies legally accept equality of race and sex, and have increasingly come to accept homosexuality in the last 50 years.  So how, when couched in the arms of freedom of religious expression, can it logically provide a free pass to turn back the clock on those leaps forward in equality?  If not, at what point would measures be taken?  And what measures would they be?

The Middle East, Northern Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia and parts of India have the greatest percentages of Muslim populations, so it is there that Western leaders look to attempt “measures” and control the “problem” before it hits their shores in the form of immigration.

Sunni and Shia muslims by country

Sunni and Shia muslims by country

UK, US and French meddling in the Middle East since they partitioned off the Ottoman Empire between 1988 and 1922 shows that continued efforts to stop Middle East self determination by attempting to control governments only exacerbates the disillusionment and anger of citizens toward the Western world and the ideology behind democracy and capitalism – despite the fact that the actions local citizens see perpetrated by Western government or military establishments is not democracy at all.

Empire mongering was still the rule of the day back in early last century, so the the actions of Western governments at that time were less driven by fear and more by the need to extend the reach of their influence of power and control.  Again, not a new concept to those in the Middle East who have consistently been ruled by other powers throughout history including the Greeks through Alexander the Great , the Romans and the Turks during the Ottoman Empire.

Instability in the region began to increase after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, partly as a result of these botched empire building efforts by Western countries, partly because the Ottoman Empire had been effective in its controlling rule, but left a void and cross pollination of religion and culture that immediately began to divide once that rule was no longer in place.

Perhaps now the damage has been done, Western powers (in particular the US and UK) see ongoing instability as their ultimate national security strategy.  When countries are too busy fighting, they cannot amass any level of political force against the West.  And given the hatred that their own actions have cultivated in the Middle East – if power were to rise, the West should rightly fear the repercussions of those actions over the last century.

Some would argue self determination is the answer – and this could, over time, end the civil violence which is often between a secular installed government verses the rule of the people who are overwhelmingly of Muslim Sunni faith (not including Iran where Shia is predominant).  But it would also be naive to suggest that self-determination would end in the kind of democratic rule that the West has chosen.  Democracy is not a natural human state.  If it were, we would have seen the democratic system of government dominating throughout history – but we have not.  Saudia Arabia stands almost alone among countries in the Middle East in its steadfast ability to avoid foreign rule – not just in modern times, but also throughout history.  In large part this is due to its geographic position and landscape providing a barrier to military invasion.  So this country can be seen as an example of what a stable Middle East might look like if civil war ended: highly educated and technologically capable, generally introverted, strong rejection of tolerance toward multiple religious ideas, and controlling of public thought, actions and expression through the enforcement of Sharia Law across all levels of government and society.  This does not mean “bad” in all things, but it does mean “different” in many.

In Australia, we find these questions confronting.  They are confronting because they challenge our natural welcoming of new ideas, people and ways of thinking.

Right now, this is not a dilemma that Australians need to face given the demographic make up of our population.  But who knows, it may be a challenge that our children, or their children will need to confront and decide on.  If so, I do not envy that world and those leaders.