Vickers’ The Criteria of Well-being

The second paper in Vickers The Undirected Society University of Toronto Press 1959, after The Needs of Men.

The Criteria of Well-being


When it comes to finding means to achieve ends, we are in our element. We often speak as though the whole of purposive behaviour consists of finding means to achieve ends, finding mediate ends to achieve remote ends and so on.
This is simply not so, unless the word “ends” is given a most inconvenient double meaning. The governors of behaviour are not goals to be attained or dangers to be avoided once for all. They bare continuing relationships which can only be maintained by continuous seeking and thresholds beyond which such relationships must not be allowed to stray. … “Being secure” is neither  mediate end nor a final end; it is a continuing relationship – and as such is as “final” as anything can be in a space-time world.

It really is essential to distinguish between a relationship to be maintained through time, such as “being nourished” or “being secure,” and an event to be achieved in time, for example, getting a meal or escaping from a bull.
If a man wants to be prime minister, does he mean that he wants to secure the distinction of having been appointed to the office or does he mean that he wants to attain and enjoy the relationship with his fellow men which the office entails?

We cannot make sense  of any human behaviour unless we identify, behind the objective, the continuing need which it is supposed to serve. And this need is always to establish or maintain, to break or avoid a relationship between the self and some aspect of the environment, physical or social.


    Men, like other organisms – and societies also – are energy systems. Each is a dynamic balance of forces and each depends for its continued existence on continually solving two problems which it can never be solved once for all. It has to regulate the inner forces by which it hangs together and it has to regulate the continual interaction between itself as a whole and its environment.

This is essentially what I mean by adaptation. It involves maintaining a relationship between self and environment; but each of these terms [sic] is itself a relationship and can be modified only within limits; if either were wholly plastic, adaptation would present no problem.

[I]n defining a creature’s nature we must include those response and skills, defining what it can and cannot do, as well as the norms and limits which define what it must and must not do.

The higher we go in the evolutionary scale, the more abundant becomes the creature’s repertory of responses. It can do more, pursue its norms and escape its limits in a greater variety of ways. It has greater choice; and in the exercise of choice more scope for becoming different from its fellows and of changing in the course of its own life history.

The creature’s history is a transition from a vast bundle of possibles to a small, unique selection of actuals.

So if we want to define the nature of a creature, we must do so by reference to some time span of its history; for to some extent its nature is a product of its history, no less than its history is a product of its nature.

Individually and collectively, men can and do envisage the maintenance of relationships as a continuing guide to action; and this … complicates and alters their behaviour patterns to a degree which is often underestimated. The codes of behaviour which makes a man’s actions predictable to his fellows can only be expressed in terms of relationships between him and them which he can be confidently expected to maintain because they are what he expects of himself.
The key word is expectation.

I therefore postulate as a basic fact of the inner organization of men and societies … a hierarchy of norms and limits, extending from the particular to the general … defining from day to day the objectives which they pursue and the contingencies which they try to escape.

[W]e must specify the time span which we have in mind; for the relation of potential to actual, of the plastic to the rigid, changes with time.

[T]here is a threshold beyond which change cannot be assimilated without a critical loss of coherence of the organization of our inner world.


The process of adaptation works both ways. We try to bring the actual into line with the standard; but if this proves too difficult, we move the standard to fit the actual, within whatever may be its limits of flexibility. … the resulting adjustment may be merely a shift of attention, a change in our idea of what matters most.

All these adjustments are made in search of an equilibrium which can never be found. An individual’s expectations are never wholly consistent with themselves or with those of the society in which he is involved; and both his expectations and those of his society are continually being challenged by event. … It is the kind of equilibrium which is obtained by a skater while he skates, as distinct form the sort which he attains after he has fallen.

[R]unning verification by results is the essential element in trial-and-error learning, including the refined version which we do in our heads.
The resultant lessons will be applied in what seem similar circumstances and, if successful, they will be extended ever more widely. What is regarded as similar may be decided by methods most crude or most refined, as simple as the identification of a few superficial cues … or as complex as the operations of the subtlest reasoning. They may be extended by simple conditioning or by insight or by rational process. But they will not necessarily again be verified by results.
For this sort of verification may be impossible. If the situation is changing frequently under other variables which we do not control and perhaps do not even know about; or if the results of our action do not return for judgement until so long after the event that they can no longer be identified; then we shall never be able to verify them.

Thus we have open to us two forms of rational action which are different.

  • In the extreme case, on the one hand, we act by rules at which we somehow arrived, confident in the rule, though uncontrolled by result.
  • On the other hand, we go through our repertory of actions with no preconception as to which is right, relying solely on results to tell us.

The latter form is exemplified by the scientist in his laboratory, studying the effects of changes in one variable, where every other is controlled. The former is exemplified by the politician working among variables so numerous and so uncertain that his brilliant insights can never be proved right and his grossest blunders never proved wrong.

If we hold a false course long enough, we are likely to discover our mistake. But if we set ourselves a false limit, we shall never discover, so long as we observe it, what would happen if we were to cross it. In consequence we are confused by bogus or outdated limits more often and for far longer than by bogus or outdated norms.


Where there is choice, one of the dominant criteria which guide it is or should be the need to preserve some scope for initiative in the future; for initiative is won or lost largely by the skill with which it is exercised.

Whether a particular trend is blessed in the name of liberty or cursed in the name of anarchy depends on the state of the times and of the deciding mind. Independence is good, but so is interdependence; the difficulty of reconciling these two “goods” underlies many of our contemporary problems, industrial and political.

  1.  We can bring the actual into line with the norm;
  2. or we can shift the norm;
  3. or we can redistribute our attention.
  • The first covers all those decisions which are concerned with fitting means to objectives.
  • The second covers all revaluation.
  • The third alters the distribution of our attention and makes it tolerable to overlook inconsistencies.

The role of reason (in the narrow sense in which we tend to use it today) in reaching decisions is limited. … I have before me a few alternative courses of action. Each enables me to obey some of the signals which I am receiving from the inner governors, at the cost of ignoring or disobeying others or of altering the signalling system so that these others no longer distress me. Reflection enables me to verify the real problem.

  • What is the relationship which this objective is supposed to serve?
  • Does it really serve this?
  • Can no other objective serve equally well?
  • With what is this course consistent?
  • Whence comes the importance which I attach to it and whatever it really excludes?

It is good to push such questions to the point at which we cannot answer them, for by that time we shall have clarified the issue and possibly made its answer more obvious.

We are prone to attach an attitude to a label and to attach the label to a wide group of phenomena, which we class together because of some often superficial common feature.

The most that we can do is to remember that the categories and the experiences we include in them are not final and that the continual revision of them is both a duty and a rewarding exercise.

The alternatives open to us are limited by our ways of thinking about them; and though these are constantly changing through the adaptive process, they change slowly, for they are too deeply taken for granted to experience the full force of the challenge. It is here, as I believe, that the rational process can contribute most fruitfully to the unending process of revaluation.


    A society is a process which exists in time. From the individuals who compose it, up through all their intermediate and over-lapping groupings to a society as a whole, it is a nexus of dynamic systems, each of which is engaged in adjusting its inner and  its outer balance within its limits set by its nature and the nature of its environment; and in the process both its nature and and the nature of the environment experience continual change within its limits which vary from time to time.

Personal Factors

[M]en need not merely a place in society but a place in several societies … these often achieve a surprising lattice of relationships, bridging what might otherwise be a gulf. In primitive society …. . This guaranteed complex of positions is a source of security both to the society and to the individual. In Western society … family, neighbourhood and place of work are the nearest we have and all of these are transitory in duration and meagre in content … .

[I]ndividual choice is free in effect only so long as it does not deviate too far from the mean.

Cultural Factors

When change moves fast, the features most inept and most nearly due for radical change may seem to those concerned to be most permanently rooted in the nature of things.
It is useful then, in any appraisal of well-being, to try to define the governing ideas of the culture concerned, especially when those who make the review are themselves members of it.

Our Western society assumes that in almost every field a high rate of exchange with the environment is better than a lower one.

Wherever a high metabolic rate is deemed good, a continually rising rate is deemed better.

[C]reatures may be regarded as “improbable” systems … .

[T]he significance of status quietly increases at the expense of contract.

Structural Factors

[T]he centres which decide must be of the same scale as the decisions which they have to make.

The most important elements in such co-operation is that familiarity and mutual confidence which are lacking in conditions of rapid change.


But all action and all thought directed to action takes place within some phase, short or long, of an historical process, of which time is an inescapable dimension … time being no mere point of time but a span of time appropriate to the judgement.

[O]ur choice will always be conditioned by the responses open to us and by what we know of their probable results. … The understanding of process is essential to right-choosing.



While this is ostensibly about industrialization, it has relevance to a wider range of complex dynamic situations, including other aspects of ‘progress’ such as financialisation and globalisation. The key features are:

  • There are no definite ‘ends’. Instead one continually strategises, developing mid-term strategies.
  • The strategies are not optimisations or even unique: they are creations that define nature and ‘personality’.
  • The more complex and uncertainty the situation, the more scope for a greater range of personalities.
  • Strategies typically involve apparently random exploration within limits.
  • Sustainability in the face of shocks depends on having broad limits.
  • Strategising should seek to expand the safe limits of strategy.
  • We use categories to organise experience, but these should never be final.


The description at the start of part V evokes Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Under ‘personal factors’ Vickers raises the importance of structural homogeneity  reminiscent of some current graph-theoretic thinking.  I should say more.  All groupings should be as diverse as is possible, compatible with their vital interactions.


Is Adaptability Enough?,

The Predicament of the Industrial Society,

The Round Table in Retrospect and my overall comments.

Dave Marsay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: