January 11, 2021

Benny Chan (L’20)

Benny Chan (L’20) is a judicial law clerk at the Federal Court of Appeal of Canada and is a part of the Policies and Happiness working group for the “Economy of Francesco” international conference.

Benny Chan
Benny Chan

In November 2020 Pope Francis convened “Economy of Francesco," a global online gathering of young people determined to make the economy fair, sustainable, and inclusive. Georgetown University asked participating students and alumni to reflect on their experiences in two essays: the first considers their pre-conference working groups and the second offers personal takeaways after the gathering. 

The Relationship between Happiness and Health 

I am a member of the working group Policies and Happiness. In this working group, we heard numerous experts speak on questions relating to the following topics: the possibility of crafting policies to increase a population’s happiness; philosophical notions of happiness; and the relationship between family, relational goods, the economy, and happiness. 

One of the most contentious questions we addressed was the purpose of human life that economic policies should endorse and promote. On this question, some participants believed that economic policies should be limited to promoting the liberal values of autonomy and equality. They questioned the idea that economic policies can legitimately be used to directly increase happiness since people differ on what a happy life consists of. It is not the place of the state, they argue, to use laws and public resources to promote one conception of happiness over another. Other participants argued that the state can legitimately use economic policies to promote values beyond autonomy and equality, such as human flourishing and community. In their view, while society should not privilege any one conception of happiness over another, happiness is only possible when people flourish as individuals (e.g. by making the most of their talents and living out their ideals) and as communities (by being in strong, sustainable relationships). I found this to be a tremendously fascinating debate which helped me realize the conceptual challenges of arriving on a consensus regarding the role of economic policy in promoting happiness. 

Professor Stefano Bartolini offered a workshop that was particularly relevant to my academic and professional interest in health policy. He observed that unhappiness is a major risk factor for ill health and proposed that being happy is the best health protection available. Bartolini bases his conclusion on scientific studies showing that happiness and social capital are powerful predictors of health and longevity. This partially explains why life expectancy in certain rich countries with first class health care systems, like the United States, is lower than poorer countries with inferior health care systems like Greece. The policy implication of these findings is that governments should focus disease prevention on areas outside the health care system through policies aimed at increasing well-being and relational goods. I found Bartolini’s insights to be an important corrective to current policy debates that focus almost exclusively on how to fund the health care system and incentivize drug research. Not only is Bartolini’s “low cost” solution economically sensible, but it would also serve to increase citizen well-being–an important policy objective in itself. 

Overall, my participation in the Policies and Happiness workshop has encouraged me to think more creatively about how law, regulations, and policies can be crafted to improve population health. Ultimately, health is inextricably linked to happiness, and policies that focus on one at the expense of the other will likely be ineffective. The difficulty lies in convincing policymakers to shift away from a conceptual paradigm focused exclusively on measurable outcomes (e.g. GDP, procedures performed by the health care system) towards a more holistic paradigm that takes into account relational goods and human well-being.

Development as Happiness, Human Connection, and Respect for the Planet

My experience of the Economy of Francesco conference was overwhelmingly positive. The talks were insightful, thought-provoking, and filled me with an optimism that we, as young people, have a profound contribution to make in healing this wounded world. At the same time, we did not shy away from having difficult discussions about how we arrived at the difficult economic, social, and ecological situation we find ourselves in. Nor did we avoid conversations about the obstacles we would face in trying to convince policymakers to move away from short-term and profit-centered thinking. Overall, the conference provided a shot of both realism and hope that will remain with me for a long time. 

The event that set the intellectual tone for the conference was a panel discussion by Kate Rowarth and John Perkins. The panel was provocatively entitled “We are All Developing Countries.” In Rowarth’s analysis, the twenty-first century has begun with a series of crises–financial, climate, and now global health. These crises arise from systems that pursue endless expansion–of finance, human activity in climate and areas of wildlife, and constant travel. As a result, we see sharp inequalities around the world. Her proposal to tackle this inequality is a donut economy. The goal is to leave no one falling short of the essentials of life (falling in the “hole” of the donut) while being respectful of the ecological ceiling (the “outer ring” of the donut). 

The problem, in Rowarth’s view, is that we are far from balance right now. While some countries do not respect the outer ring in their overproduction and overconsumption, other countries are unable to provide their populations with the essentials. Her key point is that these countries do not live separate realities but are connected through history and power. She concluded by asking what it would mean for countries in all these positions to transform domestic positions and relations between them so all countries can meet the needs of all within planetary means. Overall, this panel provided me with a new perspective on development and encouraged me to think critically about development paradigms that focus predominantly on spurring economic growth. 

Another fascinating panel discussion was the one entitled “Artificial intelligence and Social-Economic Inequality.” In this panel, Paolo Benanti used the example of medical diagnostic artificial intelligence (AI) to frame the discussion. What does it mean, he asked, to have the convenience of seeing a doctor without an appointment? And what are the implications of having doctors rely on machines to do their jobs? The panel members went on to discuss the implications of AI on socioeconomic equality, human responsibility, and privacy. Benanti emphasized the importance of allowing ethical values to guide how we develop and utilize AI systems. This panel discussion helped me appreciate the profound societal transformations that AI has given rise to and will continue to give rise to in the coming future. 

While these panel discussions were the highlights of the conference for me, the working sessions were also enriching. I enjoyed hearing the perspectives of my fellow “villagers” (“villages” were the conference’s name for working group) on what they considered to be a happy life and how they thought this conception could be translated into policy. I was struck by the importance that participants placed on family in articulating what a happy society looks like. This contrasted greatly with my more Western conception of happiness as an individual pursuit. In the end, I was quite satisfied with our policy proposal to craft evidence-based policies to support children and families. 

Benny Chan (L’20) is a judicial law clerk at the Federal Court of Appeal of Canada. He has a LL.M. from Georgetown University, a J.D. from McGill University, and an M.A. from Yale University. His academic interests include the law and ethics of artificial intelligence, health law, administrative law, and bioethics. He previously served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Benny was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Toronto, Canada.