Popper on the requirement for government to minimize suffering, not maximise wellbeing (my letter to FT, Aug 6))

Hunger, ill health and poverty are simple to measure

From Mr Carne Ross.

Sir, Sir Samuel Brittan is right to be sceptical of government efforts to measure happiness (“Leave us alone in our quest for happiness”, August 3). But the pursuit of gross domestic product as primary has led the world to severe problems, including crises in those things ignored in that measure such as the global environment and inequality, both of which, as we now see, are of fundamental concern.

Karl Popper believed that government cannot know what people want (indeed, perhaps we barely know this ourselves). But what it can know – and measure – is human suffering. Hunger, ill health and poverty are things that are straightforward to measure. Popper therefore argued that government should not set itself to the goal of maximising happiness, growth or “utility”, but to the minimisation of suffering, an index where its success or failure could very easily be assessed. Unlike his better-known concept of the “open society”, it is striking that this aspect of Popper’s philosophy has been largely ignored.

Carne Ross, Executive Director, Independent Diplomat, New York, NY, US

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