Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

4. Human Rights and Human Needs

4.2 Happiness Surveys

Book cover: Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science by Sissela Bok

The second source I mentioned for information on the basic human needs that require satisfaction for us to lead happy and contented lives is the national and international happiness surveys that have been conducted over the past couple of decades by independent survey bureaus.

On an international scale, one prominent example is the World Values Survey [Haerpfer et al 2022]. The latest results are from 2021 after surveying people in 64 countries and territories, ranging from very poor to very rich. Along with a range of questions on the respondent's values, goals, attitudes, sense of agency, health, wealth, trust and security, they were asked about their happiness and well-being. Two findings are pertinent to the subject of this essay. Firstly, moving from the twentieth century to the twenty-first, levels of happiness rose in almost all of the countries surveyed. Secondly, the survey highlighted the causal link between economic prosperity, forms of government, personal autonomy and levels of happiness. As the survey authors conclude:

Since 1981, economic development, democratization, and rising social tolerance have increased the extent to which people perceive that they have free choice, which in turn has led to higher levels of happiness around the world.

. . .

Emancipative values change people's life strategy from an emphasis on securing a decent subsistence level to enhancing human agency. As the shift from subsistence to agency affects entire societies, the overall level of subjective well-being rises.

[World Values Survey Association 2023]

Ortiz-Ospina and Roser [2013] have collated and analyzed a wealth of happiness data from a variety of reliable sources. These sources included the World Happiness Report, the European Commission – Eurobarometer Interactive, the World Values Survey and the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, among others. Their collation is perhaps the most comprehensive and up-to-date meta-study of happiness and life satisfaction. For their analysis, they pulled out the key contributors to happiness and life satisfaction. The factors identified were:

  • national income
  • personal income
  • life expectancy at birth
  • mental health
  • stable employment
  • lack of disability
  • freedom

Ortiz-Ospina and Roser also conclude that happiness measures used in the analysis are generally reliable and that 'life satisfaction' scores and 'happiness' scores are closely related.

As mentioned, one important source of data used by Ortiz-Ospina and Roser is the World Happiness Report, which compiles data from the Gallup World Poll. This Poll is a set of nationally representative surveys undertaken in more than 160 countries and in over 140 languages. The latest version of the report publishes the results of the poll up to 2023. The key question asked in the poll is: 'Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?' This style of question asks respondents to evaluate their lives in toto and so best captures the intent of universal human rights declarations and covenants. As such, this style of question avoids the simple focus on the subjective feeling of the respondent at the time of asking. For that reason, I will cast my attention to this report for the purposes of this essay.

In their 2023 report, the authors draw attention to the main point I have been making. They directly attribute a key function of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as bringing about the alleviation of human suffering. They advise: 'To prevent misery, governments and international organisations should establish rights such as those in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)' [Helliwell et al 2023: 2]. The authors go on to say how 'the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an integral component of the happiness agenda. Without such basic human rights, there would today be many more people living in misery' [Helliwell et al 2023: 19].

From surveying millions of people around the world, the authors identify these key factors as among the determinants of happiness and well-being:

  • physical and mental health
  • human relationships (in the family, at work and in the community)
  • income and employment
  • character virtues, including pro-sociality and trust
  • social support
  • personal freedom
  • lack of corruption
  • effective government

[Helliwell et al 2023: 19, 38]

I've reviewed both types of data (psychological research and happiness surveys) that contribute to our knowledge of the factors determining life satisfaction and well-being. Notice the strong congruence between their conclusions. I illustrate these common findings in Table 1 below. The left column lists the factors contributing to happiness identified in the World Happiness Report 2023. The right column pairs those items in the left column with the basic needs identified in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Table 1 – Mapping World Happiness Report to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Happiness Survey Indicator Needs in Maslow's Model
physical and mental health physiological/safety
human relationships social/self-esteem
income and employment social/self-esteem/self-actualization
character virtues social/self-esteem/self-actualization
social support physiological/safety
personal freedom self-esteem/self-actualization
lack of corruption physiological/safety/social
effective government physiological/safety/social

With this unanimity of sources on the drivers for happiness, I now want to show how the rights enunciated in human rights agreements and legal instruments are the institutional blockers of human misery and the enablers of the overall happiness level of citizens. For this exercise, I will map each of the Articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [United Nations (General Assembly) 1966] to the following:

  1. specific needs identified by Maslow, and
  2. specific preconditions for happiness identified in the World Happiness Report 2023 (WHR)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is the legally binding enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was ratified by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966. The mapping for the first seven Articles is as follows. For the full mapping, refer to the list in Appendix 2.

Article 1 – right of self-determination

physical and mental health/human relationships/income and employment/personal freedom

Article 2 – right to non-discrimination and legal remedy

physical and mental health/human relationships/income and physical and mental health/human relationships/lack of corruption/effective government

Article 3 – right of men and women to equal enjoyment of rights

physical and mental health/human relationships/effective government

Article 4 – rights derogated in time of public emergency

physical and mental health

Article 5 – no right to destroy rights and freedoms

physical and mental health/human relationships/personal freedom/lack of corruption/effective government

Article 6 – right to life; freedom from genocide

physical and mental health/effective government

Article 7 – freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment

physical and mental health/effective government
Book cover: The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism by Jessica Whyte

Note how the right enunciated in each Article is both mapped to multiple levels in Maslow's hierarchy of needs and to multiple preconditions identified in the World Happiness Report 2023 (WHR). This is because denying a fundamental right can impact multiple dimensions in a citizen's life. To reduce complexity with the mapping, I have been conservative in the number of Maslow's levels and the WHR's preconditions for happiness that I mapped to each Article. For example, I mapped the right to life and freedom from genocide expressed in Article 6 to Maslow's Physiological Needs and Safety Needs levels only. However, as we know from the Holocaust and other genocides, many family and social relationships are torn apart for the survivors. So, a mapping of Article 6 to Maslow's Social Needs is also appropriate. The situation is the same with the mapping to the World Happiness Report 2023 (WHR) preconditions. In the list above and in Appendix 2, I mapped Article 6 to physical and mental health and effective government. But clearly, the genocide committed by the Nazi regime also impacted human relationships and personal freedom.

In this section, I have endeavoured to show how the specific human rights advocated in actual human rights declarations and covenants have as their primary purpose the enabling of the satisfaction of basic human needs, the fulfilment of which prevents misery and promotes human happiness and well-being. I illustrated this connection with one case study. I encourage the reader to complete a similar mapping of needs from Maslow's hierarchy or from Alderfer's ERG model coupled with other international happiness surveys to human rights covenants that I have ignored here (See Appendix 1 for the most important human rights documents.)

What you should not find remarkable is that not only is each human right you examine in the various declarations and covenants directly linked to a basic human need and happiness prerequisite, but also that there is not one that is not so linked. If human rights were not solely grounded in human needs and happiness, but also in, say, intuited non-natural properties or in the other-worldly commands of a deity, then this fact would be a remarkable coincidence. If the happiness and well-being of humans is not the raison d'ĂȘtre of respecting human rights, then we would expect at least some human rights to be out of place with basic human needs. We would expect a codified human right such as the 'right to wear odd-coloured socks' or the 'right to blow a trumpet at the end of the day'. That we do not find such odd rights is not remarkable once we reflect on how our human rights instruments originated and evolved historically. In the next section, I will give some examples of how the preambles of the most important human rights declarations and covenants make clear this exact connection between human rights and the satisfaction of basic human needs for the promotion of human happiness.

Copyright © 2023

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