Acton Institute Powerblog

What Nicholas Kristof got right

(Photo credit: World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0)

Recently, Nicholas Kristof’s published an op-ed about the Social Progress Index, a multi-year study of the quality of life in 163 countries. Kristof writes, “New data suggest that the United States is one of just a few countries worldwide that is slipping backward.” While at first reading this sounds like bad news, I think the data (and underlying science) is a bit more complicated than they might appear.

The SPI seeks to offer “a new way to define the success of our societies. It is a comprehensive measure of [the] real quality of life, independent of economic indicators.” This does not mean the study’s authors are indifferent to the benefits of wealth creation. The “Social Progress Index is designed to complement, rather than replace, economic measures such as GDP.”

As a Christian and a social scientist, I can’t but be grateful and supportive of any empirical study that seeks to move beyond the typically reductionistic view of human life that informs most research. The materialism of social science research simply fails to take the social and moral dimensions of human flourishing seriously.

Instead of reporting on the life of homo economicus, the SPI seeks to offer “a holistic, transparent, out-come based measure of a country’s wellbeing that is independent to economic indicators.”

Unfortunately, how successfully it does this is not something that I can address here.

Whatever its methodological and philosophical shortcomings, and despite the somewhat wonky language, the SPI is concerned with human flourishing. The study takes seriously the social and moral undertaking of human life. In place of the isolated individual seeking to maximize utility, it explores a broad range of metrics as the researchers try to articulate what it means to be fully and distinctly human.

For example, the researchers ask people if they feel “free to make their own life choices” or have “the opportunity to be a contributing member of society.” These questions – along with concerns about whether “people’s rights as individuals” are protected and if they have “access to the world’s most advanced knowledge” – are all part of the “Opportunity” dimension of the study. The other two foci of the study:,“Basic Human Needs” and “Foundations of Wellbeing,” likewise look at a mix of subjective and objective aspects of human flourishing and social progress.

One of the challenges of social science research is that many of the most interesting and important aspects of human life resist empirical study. Try as we might, I suspect we will never quantify love. To help make this more concrete, let’s look at what Kristof calls the “shameful” finding that the U.S. ranked 100 out of 163 nations “in discrimination against minorities.” While he does not make it clear, the SPI does not define “minority” simply as an ethnic or racial category; it includes religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It also encompasses the relative size of a group in society.

Without access to the raw data, it is difficult to know precisely what the U.S. ranking means concretely. As happens all too frequently with media reports about scientific research, Kristof seems to succumb to the almost irresistible temptation to react to data without context. For this, we need to look at the methodological section.

The ranking about the status of minorities in society is based on things like “violence against minorities,” as well as “denial of registration, hindrance of foreign missionaries from entering the country, restrictions against proselytizing, or hindrance to access to or construction of places of worship.”

We get a better sense of what the U.S. ranking means when we look at what the study means by “Inclusiveness.” Here, the researchers look at subjective concerns, such as whether or not respondents thought their “city or area” was “a good place to live for gay or lesbian people.” In addition, there is a “Group Grievance indicator” that asks people to rank their felt experience of discrimination and powerlessness. Importantly, it also includes more objective factors such as “ethnic violence, communal violence, sectarian violence, and religious violence.” This can help balance the data based on subjective factors.

Whether we focus on the objective or subjective measure – whether “minority” includes racial or ethnic groups, religious believers, gay and lesbian men and women, or some mix of them all – I think those of us who are concerned with virtue as the foundation of a free society should take seriously the United States ranking of 100 out of 163.

I am my brother’s keeper. I can’t remain indifferent to my neighbor’s suffering.

Yes, sometimes that suffering is based on objectively immoral laws or cultural conditions. But even if they suffer because of a misapprehension or their own moral failure, I should try and ease my neighbors’ burdens, if I can.

The research methodology and data in the Social Progress Index are not above criticism and warrant a closer examination than I can perform here. But whatever the study’s shortcomings and unexamined presuppositions, its findings on minorities in America, who are created in the image of God, suggest that something is wrong – not only in their lives, but in American society. After a summer of protest and riots here in Madison and around the nation, the study’s finding comes as no surprise.

The really interesting question, however, is neither methodological nor empirical but moral. What will I do to lift the burden under which my neighbor suffers?

Rev. Gregory Jensen

Rev. Gregory Jensen is the pastor of Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church and Orthodox chaplain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a professor at St Sophia Ukranian Orthodox Theological Seminary where he teaches classes in ethics and young adult faith development. Fr Gregory is the author of The Cure for Consumerism published by the Acton Institute.