Monthly Archives: October 2019

An aging philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’

An aging philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?

A reader sent me the following video. (Click on the link above.) It records the last reflections on life and death by the philosopher Herbert Fingarette (1921-2018) who had a long career at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As my reader put it:

… there is an immediacy here that cuts to the bone. There is a difference between the written word and the spoken and when both are expressed together as a video, the impact can be overwhelming: we internalize it as a transcendent phenomenon–as if it were happening to us …

I thank my reader for sharing the video.

Morality and Facts

Jean Piaget in Ann Arbor.png

Jean Piaget studied many things, including moral reasoning in children.

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission) https://darrellarnold.com/2018/02/06/process-philosophies-1/

In a standard introduction to ethical reasoning, the focus is on the varying value frameworks of different normative theories. Utilitarians focus on social utility. Kantians … focus more on individual rights or autonomy. From this foundation in conflicting value frameworks, it is often extrapolated that moral conflicts come down to value conflicts. And sometimes they do …

Nonetheless, very often conflicts about concrete issues of ethics depend not on value conflicts but on conflicting understandings of the facts. The standard debate of the Republicans versus the Democrats on minimum wage offers us one example. While many of the Democratic contenders for the 2020 election advocate a $15.00 minimum wage, neither Donald Trump nor other leading Republicans do. Value conflicts do play some role in this. Republicans much more often than Democrats will focus on the freedom of a company owner to set his own wages against a backdrop of market competition. But this view is typically considered to align with social utility, too.

So it isn’t that the Republicans emphasize the autonomy (of company owners) and the Democrats emphasize social utility. Rather, the Republicans maintain that their solutions also create the greatest social utility. Here though, they make certain assumptions about how the markets work. For example, they will often argue that the market will regulate itself. As company owners have to compete for good laborers, wages will rise. In addition, Republicans will often also argue that raising the minimum wage will hurt the macro-economy by leading to an increase in unemployment. Company owners who would like to hire more workers will be unable to if wages are higher; and indeed they may have to let some employees go if their labor costs increase.

The Democrats have fundamental differences in their generally accepted view of how the markets work on the issues discussed. First, they emphasize that markets have not traditionally led to fair and adequate wages. Second, they view the increase in minimum wages as having a long-term net positive effect on the macro-economy. Those people who now work for $8.45 or $10.00 per hour cannot get by on those wages. So the government should intervene to create social fairness. But this will not cost jobs. To the contrary, those people with the increased wages will generally spend every cent that they make because they need that money to meet their basic needs. While they now at times have to choose between paying an electric bill, getting medicine, paying rent, or other needs, they will be able to do those things more comfortably. But since they will be spending all of that money on goods and services they need, they will be spurring on economic demand, which ultimately will create jobs.

So in this debate, Republicans emphasize the short-term loss in jobs and the negative impact on the economy. But Democrats emphasize the long-term job gain because of the increase in demand that will result from more spending. The fundamental difference at play in this discussion, though, is not about values but about facts: How do the markets work? Will the market push toward an increase in wages that meets the goals of social utility on its own or must government intervene? Will the increased wages lead to increased unemployment or will it spur job growth?

We find a similar issue at work in questions about the increase in tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. In early 2019 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a junior senator from New York proposed a marginal tax rate of 70% on those earning over $10 million annually. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a tax on America’s mega-wealthy billionaires. Bernie Sanders has proposed very high estate taxes. These taxes on those in top tax brackets, they all argue, will produce needed revenue so that not only social security will not have to be cut (as some Republicans now suggest …) but so that we can afford Medicare for all, free community college and tuition debt forgiveness. [“Should We Soak The Rich? You Bet!”]

The Republicans, by contrast, argue that these taxes would lower the incentive of the wealthiest to work and to produce more wealth. It would also take money out of the hands of the wealthiest Americans and stagnate the economy. In this debate, too, sometimes a question of values does come to the fore. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to argue that company owners have a right to the money they have earned. Democrats, by contrast, will more likely dispute that in our current system the money that has been earned is rightfully all due to the company owners. The owner’s profits have been generated in part because of the labor of their employees. In many of these cases fair wages were not paid, so the company owners took home huge profits while the workers struggled.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, for example, have both highlighted that the Walton family … has become the wealthiest family in the world at the very time when Wal-Mart employees in some cases have needed government assistance to make ends meet, even when they work their jobs full-time. This argument clearly cuts along lines of fairness, equity, and social utility. But the point here is that at least in part Democrats and Republicans will both argue that their proposals generate the greatest utility within the macro-economy. Republicans will argue that it is better for society to allow “trickle-down” economics to kick in. Democrats deny that trickle-down economics works effectively.

Here, given that at least with a focus on social utility, the question is not one of values but is one of a proper understanding of the facts, it might seem that things should be simplified theoretically. If we don’t have a value conflict but only a conflict in the interpretation of the facts, then all we have to do is show which view is supported by facts and we should get ethical consensus. Easy peasy! However, clearly, in reality, things don’t work this way. Indeed, if the facts were clarified, then members of the respective parties would likely take recourse in values conflicts after all.

But for now, this counterfactual speculation doesn’t have to be tested since members of the two parties can now simply retreat to their own economic experts. The Republicans, along with President Trump, who recently gave a medal of freedom to Alfred Laffer, appeal to a group of economists who are still basically supportive of the supply-side economics that Laffer helped to develop.

The Democrats … rely on economists who are more Keynesian. Those Keynesian economists will emphasize that the market simply has not corrected to adjust for fair higher wages. They will also point to the extremely high marginal tax rates under the administration of FDR and in the pre-Regan period, were at times over 90%, and still resulted in strong economic growth. These higher marginal tax rates … historically did not destroy the incentives of the wealthiest to invest …

So we end up with no easily settled facts. Here, part of the problem consists in the lack of consensus within the field of economics. The dismal science, as it has long been called, has not generated a single dominant paradigm that unifies researchers in the area. So there are at least some recognized experts who support both of the alternative types of positions mentioned. In some cases, the facts just aren’t so easy to decide upon.

Yet there is a more concerning problem—namely, that even in some areas in which there is consensus, we still do not get people to [agree about the facts] … Climate science is perhaps the major area of ethical importance in which this is demonstrated. Here, as in ethical debates about economic policy, the ethical argument isn’t one of social utility against some other value—like some imagined individual rights to pollute. Both the Democrats and Republicans claim to want a policy that produces social utility. However, in this case, Republicans in the United States will not accept the authority of climate scientists but insist instead on highlighting extremely marginalized or minority voices within that debate or the voices of pundits who are not experts in the field.

The ethical dispute remains one of the facts, but in this situation, debates continue despite the fact that there is largely consensus among experts about what the facts of the matter are. The question of what non-rational factors influence our decision-making in such cases, making us impervious to the facts, is a thorny issue …

(Addendum – While I admire Professor Arnold for being fair to both sides I believe he doesn’t properly highlight the Republican’s commitment to lying. In other words, many of them know that climate change is real or higher taxes on the wealthy would be good for society. But they lie about these things either because they believe its in their own self-interest or in the interest their benefactors. For more see: “How far will Republicans go to destroy democracy? And can they still be stopped?“)

The Best Countries To Live In

World map of the United Nations’ inequality-adjusted Human Development Index
(The best countries are in dark green)

The question “what countries are objectively the best ones to live in?” is relatively easy to answer. Most would agree that such countries, among other things, guard their citizen’s personal safety and allow free expression, provide quality health care, economic prosperity, clean air and water, a good educational and a fair justice system, have minimal government corruption, respect the rule of law, etc.

However,  the question “which country is best for me to live in?” is nearly impossible to answer because its subjective. Do you prefer a country where your family lives, one where a specific language is spoken, or one that has a certain geography or climate? Do you want to be in the countries most immune from global climate change, one most likely to survive a nuclear war, or one with a low cost of living or minimal taxation? Given these and other subjective concerns, we can’t say definitely which country is best for an individual.

Pursuant to the above, I’ll try to answer the first question by looking at the twelve prominent indexes. Then, I’ll aggregate the data and render some conclusions.

1)  The UN Human Development Index

(The best countries are in dark green)

The United Nations HDI considers three dimensions: 1) health assessed by life expectancy at birth, 2) education measured by mean of years of schooling for adults and expected years of schooling for children entering school, and 3) wealth measured by gross national income per capita. The major flaw of this index is that it focuses on only three measures and it doesn’t consider inequality in how these dimensions are distributed. According to the 2018 HDI the top countries were:

1. Norway 2. Switzerland 3. Australia 4. Ireland 5. Germany
6. Iceland 7. Hong Kong 7. Sweden 9. Singapore 10. Netherlands
11. Denmark 12. Canada 13. USA 14. UK 15. New Zealand
16. Finland 17. Belgium 17. Liechtenstein 19. Japan 20. Austria
21. Luxembourg  22. Israel 23. South Korea 23. France 25. Slovenia

In response to the claim that the HDI doesn’t take into account the unequal distribution of health, education, and wealth in a country the United Nations introduced: 

2) The UN Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index

(The best countries are in dark green)

The UN states: “The IHDI combines a country’s average achievements in health, education, and income with how those achievements are distributed among country’s population by “discounting” each dimension’s average value according to its level of inequality.” The main deficiency of the index is that it still only uses three categories. Nonetheless, in my view, it is a better measurement than the HDI. (Surely you would prefer a country with little inequality and a strong social safety net to one in which you might be either extraordinarily rich or extraordinarily poor. For more see, Rawls’ Theory of Justice.)  According to the 2018 IHDI, the top countries were:

1. Iceland 2. Japan 2. Norway 4. Switzerland 5. Finland
6. Sweden 7. Australia 7. Germany 9. Denmark 10. Netherlands
11. Ireland 12. Canada. 13. New Zealand 13. Slovenia 15. Check Republic
16. Belgium 17. Austria 17. UK 19. Singapore 20. Luxembourg
21. Hong Kong 22. France 23. Malta 24. Slovakia 24. USA

3) The Social Progress Index

The index of the Social Progress Imperative defines “social progress as the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.” (This definition reminds me of Aristotle’s idea of what good governments do.)

This is one of the most detailed indexes. Social Progress Imperative evaluated hundreds of possible indicators while developing the Social Progress Index, including engaging researchers at MIT to determine what indicators best differentiated the performance of nations. The index combines three basic dimensions each with four components,

1. Basic human needs – 1) nutrition and basic medical care, 2) water and sanitation
3) shelter, and 4) personal safety. Do people have enough food to eat and are they receiving basic medical care? Can people drink clean water and keep themselves clean without getting sick? Do people have adequate housing and utilities? Do people feel safe?

2. Foundations of well-being – 1) access to basic knowledge, 2) access to information and communication, 3) health and wellness, and 4) environmental quality. Do people have access to an educational foundation? Can people freely access ideas and information from anywhere around the world? Do people live long and healthy lives? Is society using its basic resources so that they will be available to future generations?

3. Opportunity – 1) personal rights, 2) personal freedom and choice, 3) inclusiveness, and 4) access to advanced education. Are people’s rights as individuals protected? Are people free to make their own life choices? Is no one excluded from the opportunity to be a contributing member of society? Do people have access to the world’s most advanced knowledge?

Each component was then measured by three to five specific outcome indicators. This index offers one of the most comprehensive determinations of how well societies promote the flourishing of their citizens. According to the 2019 index, the top countries were:

1. Norway 2. Iceland 3. Switzerland 4. Denmark 5. Finland
6. Japan 7. Netherlands 8. Luxembourg 9. Germany 10. New Zealand
11. Sweden 12. Ireland 13. UK 14. Canada 15. Australia
16. France 17. Belgium 18. South Korea 19. Spain 20. Austria
21. Italy 22. Slovenia 23. Singapore. 24. Portugal 25. USA

4) The Legatum Prosperity Index


(The best countries are in the darker green)

The Legatum Institute is a London-based think-tank whose index “is a framework that assesses countries on the promotion of their citizens’ flourishing, reflecting both
wealth and wellbeing. It captures the richness of a truly prosperous life, moving beyond traditional macro-economic measurements of a nation’s prosperity, which rely solely on indicators of wealth such as average income per person …” This too is an excellent assessment.

The criteria used by the LPI are: 1) Economic Quality, 2) Business Environment, 3) Governance, 4) Education, 5) Health, 6) Safety & Security, 7) Personal Freedom, 8) Social Capital, and 9) Natural Environment. According to its 2018 index, the top countries were:

1. Norway 2. New Zealand 3. Finland 4. Switzerland 5. Denmark
6. Sweden 7. UK 8. Canada 9. Netherlands 10. Ireland
11. Iceland 12. Luxembourg 13. Australia 14. Germany 15. Austria
16. Belgium 17. USA 18. Slovenia 19. Malta 20. France
21. Singapore 22. Hong Kong 23. Japan 24. Portugal 25. Spain

5) The Corruption Perceptions Index

(The best countries are in the darker blue)

This index, published annually since 1995 by Transparency International, ranks countries “by their perceived levels of public level corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys.” The CPI defines corruption as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”. This index is excellent because it recognizes that higher levels of government corruption decrease the possibility of living well. Here are their 2018 rankings:

1. Denmark 2. New Zealand 3. Finland 3. Sweden 3. Switzerland 3. Singapore
7. Norway 8. Netherlands 9. Canada 9. Luxembourg
11. Germany 11. UK 13. Australia 13. Iceland 13. Hong Kong 13. Austria
17. Belgium 18. Ireland 18. Japan 18. Estonia
21. France 22. USA 23. Uruguay 23. UAE 25. Bhutan

6) The Global Peace Index 

(The best countries are in dark green)

The GPI measures and ranks 163 independent states and territories according to their levels of peacefulness. It investigates the extent to which countries are involved in ongoing domestic and international conflicts. The assertion is that low crime rates, minimal incidences of terrorist acts and violent demonstrations, harmonious relations with neighboring countries, a stable political scene and a small proportion of the population being internally displaced or refugees can be suggestive of peacefulness.

In 2017, 23 indicators, reviewed annually by a panel of experts, were used to establish each country’s peacefulness score. This index is unique in using indicators such as: 1) military expenditures as a percentage of GDP, 2) the number of military personnel as a percentage of the population, 3) nuclear weapons capability, 4) volume of arms exports and imports of weapons per capita, and 5) ease of access to small arms. The index provides an excellent assessment of a country’s peacefulness, although it dramatically lowers the ranking of (especially) the USA and Israel. Here are the top countries in their 2019 rankings.

1. Iceland  2. New Zealand 3. Portugal 4. Austria  5. Denmark
6. Canada Sweden 7. Singapore UK 8. Slovenia 9. Japan 10. Switzerland
11. Czech Republic  12. Ireland 13. Australia 14. Finland 15. Bhutan
16. Malaysia 17. Netherlands USA 18. Belgium 18. Sweden 20. Norway
21. Hungary 22. Germany 23. Slovakia 24.Romania 25. Mauritius

(The USA ranks 128th. Israel ranks 146th.)

7) The UN World Happiness Report

(The best countries are in black)

The World Happiness Report is an annual publication of the United Nations which ranks national happiness based on respondent ratings of their own lives, which the report also correlates with various life factors. The only reservation I have about the index is that happiness is a subjective criterion. Here are their 2019 rankings:

1. Finland 2. Norway 3. Denmark 4. Iceland 5. Switzerland
6. Netherlands 7. Canada 8. New Zealand 9. Sweden 10. Australia
11. UK 12. Austria 13. Costa Rica 14. Ireland 15. Germany
16. Belgium 17. Luxembourg 18. USA 19. Israel 20. UAE
21. Check Republic 22. Malta 23. France 24. Mexico 25. Chile


(The best countries are in black)

The Good Country Index is a composite of 35 data points in 7 categories generated by the UN. These data points are combined to give an overall ranking. The seven categories are: 1) Science and Technology, 2) Culture, 3) International Peace and Security, 4) World Order, 5) Planet and Climate, 6) Prosperity and Equality, and 7) Health and Well-being.

According to its authors, “The Good Country Index tries to measure how much each country on earth contributes to the planet and to the human race.” The one reservation I have about the GCI is that many people prefer living in a country that makes their lives better independently of its effect on the world; rather than living in a country that makes the world better. I’d argue that view is flawed, inasmuch as we are all interconnected. Here is their 2018 list:

1. Finland 2. Netherlands 3. Ireland 4. Sweden 5. Germany
6. Denmark 7. Switzerland  8. Norway 9. France 10. Spain
11. Canada 12. Bulgaria 13. Belgium 14. Estonia 15. UK
16. Luxembourg 17. New Zealand 18. Austria 19. Italy 20. Australia
21. Latvia 22. Cyprus 23. Singapore  24. Japan 25. North Macedonia

(The United States ranks 40th.)

9) – Where to be born index


Where to be born index 2013 World map
(The best countries are in dark green)

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s where-to-be-born index (previously called the quality-of-life index) attempts to measure which countries will provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the near future. It is based on a method linking the results of subjective life-satisfaction surveys to the objective determinants of quality of life. The main problem I have with this index is that it hasn’t updated since 2013. Also, it only ranks 80 countries allowing some into the top 80 who might not otherwise have been.

1. Switzerland 2. Australia 3. Norway 4. Sweden 5. Denmark
6. Singapore 7. New Zealand 8. Netherlands 9. Canada 10. Hong Kong
11. Finland 12. Ireland 13. Austria 14. Taiwan 15. Belgium
16. Germany 17. USA 18. UAE 19. South Korea 20. Israel
21. Italy 22. Kuwait 23. Chile 24. Cyprus 25. Japan

10) OECD Better Life Index

The BLI index was developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The recommendations made by this Commission sought to address concerns that standard macroeconomic statistics like GDP failed to give a true account of people’s current and future well-being.

A major problem with this index is that it omits dimensions like free speech, poverty, economic inequality, access to health insurance, and pollution. The other issue is that it covers only 40 countries making it the most incomplete index. While this has little effect on the top 15 or so countries—who probably would have been ranked there regardless—it elevates other countries into the top 40 simply because they were among the few considered. Here are their 2017 rankings:

1. Norway 2. Australia 3. Iceland 4. Canada 5. Denmark
6. Switzerland 7. Netherlands 8. Sweden 9. Finland 10. USA
11. Luxembourg 12. New Zealand 13. Belgium 14. UK 15. Germany
16. Ireland 17. Austria 18. France 19. Spain 20. Slovenia
21. Estonia 22. Check Republic 23. Israel 24. Italy 25. Japan

11) The Human Life Indicator HLI

This indicator also addresses deficiencies in the HDI. It “looks at life expectancy at birth but also takes the inequality in longevity into account. If two countries had the same life expectancy, the country with the higher rate of infant and child deaths would have a lower HLI.” Its main deficiency is the index’s use of longevity as the sole component for its rankings. Measuring countries on a single criterion skew the rankings of individual countries considerably compared to other indexes. Here is its 2018 list:

1. Hong Kong 2. Japan 3. Iceland 4. Singapore 5. Spain
6. Italy 7. Switzerland 8. Sweden 9. Norway 10. Australia
11. Israel 12. France 13. Netherlands 14. South Korea 15. Luxembourg
16. Finland 17. Canada 18. Austria 19. Ireland 20. Slovenia
21. New Zealand 22. UK 23. Germany 24. Belgium 25. Denmark

(The USA was ranked 32nd.)

12) US News & World Report Best Countries to Live In 

This is, in my opinion, the worst ranking. First, it’s incomplete, considering only 80 countries. Moreover, its criteria include suspect and novel categories not used in any other index such as:

Adventure: friendly, fun, pleasant climate, scenic, sexy;
Cultural Influence: culturally significant in terms of entertainment, fashionable, happy, has an influential culture, modern, prestigious, trendy
Heritage: culturally accessible, has a rich history, has great food, many cultural attractions
Movers: different, distinctive, dynamic, unique
Power: a leader, economically influential, politically influential, strong international alliances, strong military

Some of these categories are nebulous—what is sexy or fun?—and others have little to do with the quality of life. And others are controversial. You may agree that, for example, that military power makes your country safe from foreign invaders thereby enhancing your quality of life. But can you be sure of this? You might be less safe in such a country because other countries will disproportionately target you with their weapons, or you or your family will be more likely to die fighting in foreign wars, or all the money spent on your military could have been used to improve health, education, the environment, etc.

But rather than going into detail about the questionable criteria used here let me just say that any list that ranks China and Russia among the best places to live is suspect.

Here are their rankings:

1. Switzerland 2. Japan 3. Canada 4. Germany 5. UK 6. Sweden 7. Australia 8. USA 9. Norway 10. France 11. Netherlands 12. New Zealand 13. Denmark 14. Finland 15. Singapore 16. China 17. Belgium 18. Italy 19. Luxembourg 20. Spain 21. Ireland 22. South Korea 23. UAE 24. Russia 25. Portugal

Conclusion

The above are the most prominent indexes, bringing together many strands of evidence allowing us to draw reasonably strong conclusions—a claim strengthened by the fact that the rankings are relatively consistent.

I’ll now aggregate the first 9 indexes weighing each equally. I’ll drop the BLI because it’s radically incomplete; the HLI because it only considers longevity; and the US News & World Report because it contained so many outliers. (Note that when I included these latter 3 indexes it hardly changed the rankings.) And I used the median rather than mean to rank the countries to dramatically lessen the effect of outlier rankings.

THE TOP 10 RANKED COUNTRIES

Median Mean
Norway 1, 2, 1, 1, 7, 20, 2, 8, 3  = 2 5
Switzerland 2, 4, 3, 4, 3, 10, 5, 7, 1 = 4 4.3
Denmark 11, 9, 4, 5, 1, 5, 3, 6, 5 = 5 5.4
Finland 16, 5, 5, 3, 3, 14, 1, 1, 11 = 5 6.5
Iceland 6, 1, 2, 11, 13, 1, 4, 36, UR  = 5 9.1
Sweden 7, 6, 11, 6, 3, 18, 9, 4, 4  = 6 7.5
New Zealand 15, 13, 10, 2, 2, 2, 8, 17, 7 = 8 8.4
Netherlands 10, 10, 7, 9, 8, 17, 6, 2, 8 = 8 8.5
Canada 12, 12, 14, 8, 9, 6, 7, 11, 9 = 9 9.7
Germany 5, 7, 9, 14, 11, 22, 15, 5, 16 = 11 11.5

THE 11TH THRU 20TH RANKED COUNTRIES

Ireland 4, 11, 12, 10, 18, 12, 14, 3, 12 = 12 10
Australia 3, 7, 15, 13, 13, 13, 10, 20, 2 = 13 10.6
Luxembourg 21, 20, 8, 12, 9, UR, 14, 16, UR = 14 12.8
UK 14, 17, 13, 7, 11, 45, 11, 15, 27, 14 = 14 17.4
Austria 20, 17, 20, 15, 13, 4, 12, 18, 13, = 15 14.6
Belgium 17, 16, 17, 16, 17, 18, 16, 13, 15, = 16 15.8
Japan 19, 2, 6, 23, 18, 9, 54, 24, 25 = 19 22.6
Singapore 9, 19, 23, 21, 3, 34, 23, 6, UR = 20 17.2
France 23, 22, 16 20, 21, 60, 23, 9, 26  = 22 24.4
USA 13, 24, 25, 17, 23, 128, 19, 40, 17  = 23 34

THE 21ST THRU 30TH RANKED COUNTRIES

Slovenia 25, 14, 21, 18, 36, 8, 51, 33, 32 = 25 26.4
Estonia 30, 26, 25, 26, 18, 37, 63, 14, 44 = 26 31.4
Czech Republic 27, 15, 24, 27, 38, 11, 21, 32, 28 = 27 24.6
Spain 26, 37, 17, 25, 41, 32, 36, 10, 29  = 29 26.2
Malta 29, 23, 29, 19, 51, UR, 22, 33, UR = 29 29.4
South Korea 22, 29, 23, 35, 55, 45, 57, 26, 19 = 29 34.5
Portugal 41, 42, 18, 24, 30, 3, 77, 30, 30 = 30 32.7
Italy 28, 31, 22, 34, 53, 39, 47, 19, 20 = 31 32.5
Israel 22, 27, 31, 37, 34, 146, 19, 53, 21 = 31 41.3
Cyprus 32, 32, 28, 28, 38, 48, 61, 22, 24 = 32 30.5

THE 31ST THRU 40TH RANKED COUNTRIES

Poland 33, 28, 33, 33, 36, 29, 40, 31, 33 = 33 32.8
Costa Rica 63, 60, 34, 31, 48, 33, 13, 34, 30 = 34 37.6
UAE 34, 34, 61, 39, 23, 53, 20, 58, 19 = 34 37.8
Chile 44, 45, 37, 38, 27, 27, 25, 35, 23 = 35 33.4
Slovakia 38, 24, 35, 32, 57, 23, 39, 28, 35 = 35 34.5
Lithuania 35, 34, 32, 36, 38, 40, 42, 37, 57 = 37 39
Uruguay 55, 50, 41, 30, 23, 34, 31, 49, UR, = 37.5 39.1
Hungary 45, 30, 39, 42, 64, 21, 62, 39, 24 = 39 40.6
Croatia 46, 35, 38, 41, 60, 28, 75, 36, UR = 39.5 44.8
Latvia 41, 33, 36, 40, 41, 35, 53, 21, 48 = 40 38.6

OTHER SELECT COUNTRIES

Greece 31, 38, 30, 52, 67, 65, 82, 42, 42 = 42 49.8
Malaysia 57, UR, 46, 44, 61, 16, 80, 42, 38 = 44 39.2
Romania, 52, 33, 45, 45, 61, 24, 48, 29, 56 = 45 43.6
Bulgaria 51, 44, 43, 47, 77, 26, 97, 12, 61 = 47 51.3
Argentina 47, 46, 42, 53, 85, 75, 47, 82, 37 = 47 57.1
Panama 66, 67, 47, 43, 93, 47, 31, 70, UR = 56.5 58
Montenegro 50, 39, 58, 58, 67, 67, 73, 71, UR = 62.5 60
Russia 49, 40, 62, 96, 138, 154, 68, 41, 72 = 68 80
Mexico 74, 70, 55, 59, 138, 140, 23, 74, 40 = 70 74.7
Ecuador 86, 74, 52, 71, 114, 71, 50, 81, 65= 71 73.7
Peru 89, 72, 57, 60, 105, 80, 65, 95, 43 = 72 66.6
Thailand 83, 64, 72, 74, 99, 117, 52, 55, 50 = 72 74
South Africa 113, 102, 73, 68, 73, 127, 106, 47, 53 = 73 85.7
Belarus, 53, 46, 48, 89, 70, 97, 81, 78, UR = 74 58.1
Brazil 79, 78, 49, 75, 105, 116, 32, 80, 39 = 78 72.5
Philippines 113, 80, 94, 62, 99, 117, 52, 55, 50 = 80 80.2
Colombia 90, 83, 60, 57, 99, 143, 37, 87, 34 = 83 66.6
Indonesia 116, 84, 85, 49. 96, 41, 92, 100, 71 = 85 81.5
China 86, 62, 89, 82, 87, 110, 93, 76, 49 = 86 81.8
India 130, 101, 102, 94, 78, 141, 140, 44, 66 = 101 98.4

(UR = Unranked in that index.)

Countries not rated

If you don’t see your country it’s because either: 1) I couldn’t amass enough data on it—for example, Algeria, Andorra, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Hong Kong, Liechtenstein, and Morocco or, 2) I assumed my readers wouldn’t be interested in it—for example, the worst-rated countries which are primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

Further remarks

1. Obviously, these rankings are subject to continual change. If the UK leaves the European Union, (Brexit), or if the USA continues on its present course undermining democracy and the rule of law their rankings will go down considerably. On the other hand, other countries may become more prosperous or peaceful and move up in the rankings.

2. Don’t place too much confidence that the 1st ranked country is better than 2nd which is better than the 3rd and so on. This is because the indexes disagree on exactly which evaluative criteria should be used and the relative weight given to them. But you can be relatively confident the 5th ranked country is better than the 20th, or that the 20th is better than the 35th. Overall, the rankings paint a good picture of the various countries.

3. One can quibble with the methodology of the individual indexes themselves. However, for the most part, they measure objective factors like longevity, per capita income, levels of education, etc. And, since the same countries do well or poorly in all or most of them, we can be relatively confident that the rankings provide a good way to measure countries.

4. Remember that the average rating for a country is an amalgam of many (often quite different) places in that country. For example, the ranking of the USA includes exclusive, prosperous suburbs and poverty-stricken ghettos—which often coexist in the same metropolitan areas. Obviously the quality of life in these places varies significantly. Furthermore, there is a vast difference between living in rural Louisiana, Mississippi, or Oklahoma compared to living in Boston, San Francisco, or Seattle. These differences are especially significant for countries with vast economic inequality like the USA. They would also be significant for geographically large countries like Canada where the difference between living in a Vancouver or Toronto would be so dissimilar to living in the Yukon.

5. This above suggests that perhaps city rankings would be better than country rankings, especially for large, populous countries like the USA. Of course, even in cities, the quality of life would depend on the different neighborhoods within that city.

6. We could go even further and claim that your quality of one’s life depends, in large part, on who you are. Thus the adage “wherever you go, there you are.” This explains why some rich and powerful persons are miserable, while others with far lesser means are content. It also explains the phenomena of people being unhappy while vacationing in exotic locales. They are miserable or happy there because they took their own psyches with them.

7. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the quality of your life is entirely up to you. There are some places in the world where it would be impossible to live well—if you don’t have access to food or fresh water, if you are incarcerated unjustly, can’t receive an education, have no access to health care, etc. And there are other places—the top-rated countries above—which provide the conditions under which their citizens can flourish. Thus the value of ranking countries.

8. To reiterate, your own rankings would combine a consideration of the objective criteria about countries above with the many subjective criteria that matter to you. So the rankings provide, as far as is possible, an objective foundation as a starting point for your consideration.

9. In conclusion, if you have the opportunity and desire to move to a better country than you live in now, you should probably do it. Hopefully, the planet itself won’t be rendered uninhabitable from a runaway greenhouse effect, nuclear holocaust, or other existential threats. Let us hope that the future will indeed be better than the past and the present.

Final Thoughts/ Food For Thought

The characteristics that the best countries share, among other things, are: a guarantee of clean air and water, relatively limited inequality, strong social safety nets, including universal healthcare, respect for individual rights, the United Nations, democracy, and the rule of law, and, for the most part, they have few firearms and relatively little religious belief. 

Science and Religion: A Critique of Religion

Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), (965–1039) making the first study of the pin-hole camera.

© Joshua H. Shrode – Reprinted with Permission

Alhazen was one of the great Arabian lights during that time when the Qur’an was interpreted by those in power to encourage science…well, “science” is overly generous. There doesn’t seem to be a precisely equivalent word. More accurately, it was interpreted to encourage the pursuit of various knowledge(s), knowledge of nature, religion, math, etc.

To put this in historical context, the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (around 800 AD) mandated that scholars from around the world gather together in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and translate the classical knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome into Arabic and thus enable the transmission of the gains of science into the Islamic world. Bootstrapping, if you will, a thousand years of research into the empire.

Scholars at an Abbasid library

It seems two passages have been cited which were interpreted at the time to enjoin followers to seek knowledge.

“Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being” (Q.29:20)

“Behold in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding …” (Q.3:190)

Contributions to the corpus of human understanding wasn’t simply an Arabic version of these surviving works, though this was a feat of epic proportions in its own right, but real original scholarship into refining the scientific method, mathematics, optics, medicine, mechanics, astronomy, etc. was a direct consequence of these imperial edicts and the divine and imperial protections granted to scientists.

Yet continued contributions from Islamic scientists did not persist beyond the 15th century. Today, sadly, it currently falls well below statistical expectations relative to the general population for…precisely the same reason that it flourished. Religious leaders interpreted the Qur’an to prohibit such heretic investigations into the regularity of nature as this would imply a limit upon God or some other rationale that defies reason but solidifies a grip on power.

This is one of innumerable, heartbreaking examples of the incalculable consequences of believing certain humans can infallibly interpret an infallible deity. That their pronouncements are Truth. And that whatever science or any other religion says, is false. Sound familiar? That God communicates to his creation via an inherently fallible medium — the written form of a dynamic, living, constantly evolving human language — necessarily creates subjective interpretations of the relationship between Islam and science.

Work in the observatorium of Taqi ad-Din

And so only a short time later, we see the demolition of Taqi al-Din’s great Constantinople observatory in Galata. An observatory which was “comparable in its technical equipment and its specialist personnel with that of his celebrated contemporary, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.” But while Brahe’s observatory “opened the way to a vast new development of astronomical science,” Taqi al-Din’s was demolished by a squad of Janissaries, “by order of the sultan, on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti,” sometime after 1577 CE.

The good lord giveth and he taketh away…or maybe the learning is to not piss off the Chief Mufti or he’ll issue an interpretation that deprives humanity of untold discoveries of inestimable value for all eternity. The time lost can never be regained. That kind of evil can only be done in the name of God.

How odd that a compassionate God uses such a mode … a book … to communicate with his mostly illiterate creation. By odd, I mean ridiculous…not of God but of us to look at a book written in a real human language and think, “Perfect! Obviously God’s word!” A real human language is a constantly evolving thing. Meanings drift. Spellings change. Pronunciation shifts. Metaphors and even definitions lose their intelligibility or gain totally different ones.

Fortunately, the Qur’an says it will tell you when it is to be taken literally and when figuratively … and then doesn’t. Nor does it say when it should be taken historically or anecdotally or mystically or any of the ways in which a text can be read. Why would God choose such a terrible way to reveal himself?

A truly good God would just speak to us … all of us .. whenever we had a question. When someone was misrepresenting his intent, he’d correct them in real-time and discuss why he feels a certain way or gave such an injunction or command or allowed such evil to occur due to some greater good. If he did suffer himself to write a book it would be self-translating and modify itself to the belief system of the reader such that it could reveal itself with the clarity and distinctness of raw uninterpreted sense data. We could still chose to believe or not believe, worship or not worship, follow or not follow of our own free will but there would be no disagreement that God was real and this is what he says about himself and his creation. In fact, this is the only way a good God, a compassionate God, a God who did not revel in billions of blind men women and children stumbling in ignorance towards their eternal doom, would act.

We call this “informed consent”. When I have more information and more knowledge I can make better choices or at least make more informed choices. As I’m writing this now, I am being misinterpreted by every reader at some point in my argument. But anyone need only ask and I’ll clarify…personally. How is it that I, a being so much more limited than God, can do what God never does? I want people to interact with as accurate an interpretation of my ideas as is possible. To do that most effectively, I must know that misunderstandings will happen and I will try to correct them to the best of my ability. If I am unwilling to clarify even the grossest misunderstandings, I cannot hold someone responsible for failing to understand my intent or my belief.

The assumptions in the quote from the Qur’an above are manifold but I’ll only focus on two. The first is that it is God who defines whether the pursuit of knowledge is good or not. Second, is the bold claim that whatever we find … it either is God or is attributable to God.
To the first, I say, “In translating, Euthyphro, you seem to have forgotten to read it.” Divine Command Theory is either the height of irrationality or a dark Gestapo morality of which I want no part. Adoption of it as justification for your morality precludes any honest discussion. If this is the case, good luck to you Sir as you sally forth in your Quixotic quest to mix reason and unreason and come up with Truth.

Yet this is what we see in one religion after another. The pursuit of Knowledge should be done because it is an expression of an essential feature of humanity, not because God told us to go do it. What a wretched thought, a scientist forced to investigate something not out of curiosity or passion or desire to understand and possibly make the world better but because God commanded it and so I must obey. Yet another example of how religion poisons by usurping authentic motivations and inserting some divine autocratic command.

To the second assumption, that whatever we find is God, well then fine I say. God is the sum total of the product of scientific inquiry a.k.a. the universe. Great, what we haven’t found is some immaterial, timeless, spaceless, mind with limitless powers either generating or sustaining any part of reality, so until such evidence becomes available, we’ll hold off on those attributes. What we also found is that mankind creates God and gods as a result of an overactive yet evolutionarily useful propensity to assign agency where there is none.

Unfortunately, we decided at some point that our stories were Truth and that science was a threat because both make claims about the natural world and often these claims are in conflict. There is a battle for the future of humanity. If Science wins, we may actually have a future. We will at least face our problems in the here and now and tackle them in a manner up to the task and not colored by theological squeamishness. If Theism wins, then God help us all. My money, as much as it saddens me to say, is on theism stamping out progress. Theism has a long and glorious dalliance with fear and has cultivated its use to high art. And as science has shown, fear is the most motivating of forces.