The Significance of a Life s Shape. Dale Dorsey

The Significance of a Life’s Shape Dale Dorsey Department of Philosophy University of Kansas 1445 Jayhawk Boulevard Wescoe Hall, rm. 3090 Lawrence, KS...
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The Significance of a Life’s Shape Dale Dorsey Department of Philosophy University of Kansas 1445 Jayhawk Boulevard Wescoe Hall, rm. 3090 Lawrence, KS 66045 [email protected] Lives are full of ups and downs. As Mad Men’s Joan Holloway puts the matter, “That’s life. One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.” None of this is all that revelatory. The folk wisdom has always been that in life you take the good times with the bad, and hope there’s more of the good than bad. But this bit of armchair folk wisdom has come in for some sideways glances. Some hold that it’s not simply the case that you hope for more good than bad, but rather that you should hope that the goods and bads happen in a particular order. The shape of a life hypothesis holds, very roughly speaking (and in a way to be analyzed further), that a life is better when the bads happen before the goods. A life that starts in the gutter, but that ends on top is better than one that starts at the top and ends in the gutter. This is true, or so the suggestion goes, even when these lives experience that same total amount of momentary goods: when the highs are just as high, the lows are just as low. Some who accept the shape of a life hypothesis claim that it can no longer be the case that the overall quality of a life is understood as an aggregative function of the quality of the individual moments in a life. Because the temporal organization of goods and bads throughout a life itself matters, to determine the quality of a life we need more information than the total, aggregate, good. And there goes the folk wisdom: if we reject an aggregative account of overall life quality, we can no longer simply hope for more good than bads. But we hope for more, and later, good. The goal of this paper is twofold. First, I argue that the best interpretation of the significance of a life’s shape is not to treat that shape as an intrinsic good, but is nevertheless to regard it as a signifier of the presence of other, long-term and not merely momentary, intrinsic values. My second goal is more general. I seek to determine the effect a life’s shape will have on the folk wisdom in the above paragraph: is it the case that we should 1

hope only for more good moments than bad moments? Is the best life the one with the highest aggregate amount of good moments? In §1 I attempt to motivate the shape of a life hypothesis. In §2, I discuss four potential explanations of this hypothesis. I critically examine these explanations in §§3-5. And in §6 I argue that the best explanation of the significance of a life’s shape does not of itself threaten the hypothesis that the quality of a life is an aggregate of the quality of a life’s individual moments. 1. The Shape of a Life To see the issue I’m interested in discussing more clearly, contrast O. J. Simpson: O. J. Simpson was a celebrated college and professional football running back, film actor and producer, and sports commentator. In his mid-40s, in the midst of his success, Simpson was put on trial for murder. And though he was acquitted after a lengthy and highly publicized trial, many were convinced of his guilt and as a result his reputation had been effectively ruined. Following his murder charge, he was held liable for wrongful death in the same event, and was later convicted of burglary in Las Vegas, was sentenced to 33 years in prison, and is currently serving his sentence at Lovelock Correctional Center, Nevada. with J. O. Nospmis: J. O. Nospmis grew up in the midst of gangrelated violence and crime, was suspected at an early age of murder, and was eventually sentenced at the age of 25 for a series of armed robberies. Following his stint in prison, Nospmis was released and was given an opportunity to coach football for a local boys club. His success at this endeavor, along with his rapport with players and amazing life turnaround led him to the attention of high schools, later universities. He retired after having coached his team to a BCS bowl title, and spent his remaining years offering insightful pregame commentary on ESPN College Gameday. As we all know, O. J. Simpson experienced one of the most dramatic downfalls in American public life. Nospmis is fictional, but lives a life that is nevertheless believable, at least to the extent that we can compare the relative quality of such lives. In comparing Nospmis with Simpson, we may 2

be tempted to ask: who had the better life? And some may be tempted, as I am, to say: Nospmis! But even if the matter is not quite so clear, we can at least ask ourselves: is there something about Nospmis’ life that is itself intrinsically good that Simpson’s lacks? Even if this isn’t enough itself to render Nospmis’ life on the whole better, there surely is something that Nospmis has that Simpson doesn’t: Nospmis’s life featured a dramatic turnaround; Simpson’s featured an horrific downfall. The fact that Nospmis’ life featured a dramatic turnaround as contrasted with Simpson seems enough to explain our considered judgment that Simpson’s life, overall, is worse. This fact seems to support the following Shape of a Life Hypothesis (SLH): The temporal sequence of intrinsic benefits in a life matters to the overall welfare value of a life.1 After all, if we’re willing to say that there is something significant that is maintained by Nospmis’ life that Simpson’s life is lacking, it would appear that this is best explained by the relative shape of their lives. It seems right that the quality of Simpson’s and Nospmis’ lives are significantly influenced by the fact that the former’s life has a downward shape, the latter an upward. Many have held that an important corollary of SLH is the denial of: Intra-Life Aggregation (ILA): The welfare value of a life is an aggregative function of the welfare value of individual moments within a life. Typically the reasoning from SLH to the denial of ILA runs like this. If the shape of a life is relevant to that life’s quality, then it would appear that simply knowing the welfare value of the individual moments in a given life is insufficient to know the welfare quality of a life. If we assume, for the sake of argument, a life that consists of two individual moments of welfare, we cannot know the value of this life until we not only know the intrinsic value of the individual moments (i.e., the individual goods and bads that exist in those moments), but also know additional facts about how these goods and bads are organized within the life in question, whether the good occurred before the bad, or vice versa. 1 There is nothing in SLH that requires one to accept the nevertheless common position that the temporal sequence of welfare benefits matters insofar as it is better to be on an upward rather than downward trend. This is important, insofar as not all interpretations of the importance of the shape of a life imply this result.


2. Competitor Explanations Even if Simpson’s downward sloping life is a bad thing in comparison to Nospmis’ upward sloping life, however, evaluative theory is underdetermined by intuitive data. Indeed, there seem to me at least four potential explanations of this fact, each compatible with a very different approach to the quality of life. Consider the differences between: Explanation A: Simpson’s life is made worse by a downward trajectory because living a life with such a trajectory is extremely painful, or is otherwise harmful to one’s own subjective happiness. and: Explanation B : Simpson’s life is made worse by a downward trajectory because surely most anyone would prefer to live a life with an upward, rather than a downward trajectory. third: Explanation C : Simpson’s life is made worse by a downward trajectory because this is a signal that his overall life story is a failure. finally: Explanation D: Simpson’s life is made worse by a downward trajectory because a downward trajectory is of itself intrinsically bad (and, conversely, an upward trajectory is of itself intrinsically good). These potential explanations differ along a number of dimensions, and each of which will treat the significance of a life’s shape in substantially different ways. To examine each competitor explanation in a little more detail, note, first, Explanation A. A treats the significance of a life’s shape as entirely instrumental : instrumental, say, to the pain or unhappiness someone might feel as a result of a life with a downward slope. Indeed, that someone would be unhappy about such an occurrence seems easy to believe. We often lament lost goods; the fact that I lost something that matters to me (such as a job I valued or, e.g., my public reputation) causes substantially more mental anguish than had I never had the thing in the first place. And 4

hence loss seems to be an instrumental bad, which would seem to explain the relative disvalue and relative value of Simpson’s and Nospmis’s lives, at least under normal circumstances. Explanation A seems most compatible with theories of well-being, such as hedonism, that grant pride of place in living a life of quality to maintaining positive affective states, such as states of pleasure or happiness more broadly.2 Explanation B treats the shape of a life as of somewhat greater axiological significance than A. Indeed, B allows that an upward sloping life could be intrinsically valuable (and a downward sloping life intrinsically disvaluable). But this is solely a result of the fact that most people will desire or prefer to live such lives. B is obviously continuous with theories of welfare that treat the satisfaction of one’s desires or other pro-attitudes as significant, perhaps dominant, features of an individual’s welfare.3 However, for B, like A, the significance of a life’s shape is entirely contingent, viz., on the contingent affective or pro-attitudes maintained by a person at a give time. For A as well as B, if Simpson is neither pained by the per se downward trajectory of his life, nor does he possess any intrinsic preference for an upward rather than downward sloping life, the shape of his life itself possesses no axiological significance whatever. Explanations C and D, however, treat the value of a life’s shape as less dependent upon their contingent pro- or affective attitudes. Explanation C, while it does not grant intrinsic value to a life’s shape, nevertheless grants it a special form of extrinsic value, viz., signatory value.4 The fact of a downward sloping life is a sign of an underlying negative feature of a life. For instance, one might believe that an important intrinsic good is that a life have a certain narrative structure or story. When this story is a good one, this itself is an intrinsic benefit, and a life story or narrative structure is more valuable when it ends on a high note; in other words, when the individually good moments are later rather than earlier. Imagine, for instance, that I value becoming a successful ad man. I work hard to pursue my goal, and accomplish it. Thus my life has a certain narrative structure, one that is culminated by success later in life. Thus, or so it would seem, 2 On the distinction between states of pleasure and states of happiness, see Daniel Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ??. For a contrary view, see Fred Feldman, What Is This Thing Called Happiness? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). 3 See, for instance, Dale Dorsey, “Subjectivism without Desire” in The Philosophical Review ?? (2012). 4 Most importantly, this interpretation is accepted by David Velleman, “Well-Being and Time” in The Possibility of Practical Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), ch. 3.


the shape of my life has an impact on my welfare, but not an impact in and of itself; its impact is derivative insofar as the shape merely indicates that I maintained an extraordinarily important welfare good, i.e., a life of a high quality narrative structure. Explanation D is the strongest, and is, perhaps, the most popular interpretation of SLH.5 On this interpretation, the shape of a life is itself an intrinsic value. But, unlike Explanation B, the intrinsic value of the shape of a life—in particular, an upward sloping life—is not dependent upon anyone’s desires or other pro-attitudes. The fact, for instance, that individual momentary welfare benefits occur later rather than earlier is itself of intrinsic value, no matter my attitude toward that fact. Having a good life shape is a sui generis good. Even if O. J. Simpson never takes any con-attitude toward the per se shape of his life, it is nevertheless a bad thing for him. These explanations are, of course, not strictly speaking competitive. One might accept that the shape of a life can make an instrumental difference to the various affective and mental state goods one maintains (Explanation A), but also claim that the shape of a life is intrinsically valuable in a way that does not depend on a person’s pro- or con-attitudes (Explanation D). These explanations can be mixed and matched in other ways; indeed, there is nothing incoherent about the acceptance of all four explanations. In examining the best account of the significance of a life’s shape, therefore, I will first consider explanations A and B along the following rubric: are A and B sufficient of themselves to capture the significance of a life’s shape? I answer this question in the negative: neither A or B (or both) can fully capture the differences we see between the lives of Simpson and Nospmis. I then ask which of explanations C or D is better-placed to provide the explanation that is missing from explanations A and B. I argue that explanation D has a number of counterintuitive features that are plausibly avoided by explanation C. And hence, or so it seems to me, we have good reason to accept that the significance of a life’s shape is that such a shape possesses, in most cases, signatory value of a life that maintains substantial welfare goods (in addition to whatever significance it might maintain as a cause of positive or negative mental states, or as a per se object of pro- or con-attitudes). In §6, I address whether Explanation C threatens ILA. I conclude that while it can be interpreted to do so, accepting such an interpretation is not necessary, and hence the axiological significance of a life’s shape need not threaten 5

Explanation D is accepted by, e.g., Larry Temkin (Rethinking the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), ??), Frances Kamm (“Rescuing Ivan Ilyich: How We Live and How We Die” in Ethics 11? (2003)), and Joshua Glasgow (“The Shape of a Life and the Value of Loss and Gain” forthcoming in Philosophical Studies).


intra-life aggregation. 2. Explanation A For Explanation A, the significance of a life’s shape is entirely derivative of its effects on the plausibly beneficial or harmful affective (or other mental) states that a person undergoes during a life, most importantly, the pleasure the person takes within that life. According to this interpretation, the reason that Nospmis’ life’s upward trajectory is an evaluatively good thing is that it is very like that Nospmis, say, takes pleasure in his life’s shape. We can expect (and perhaps even stipulate) that Simpson takes pain in his: it is painful for one to experience the sort of life Simpson had, but then to undergo such a dramatic downfall. Of course, on this interpretation, the significance of a life’s shape is entirely explainable in terms of the momentary goods within a life: lives that, say, go “up” contain more momentary goods than lives that go “down”. But when this distinction in momentary goods isn’t present, the shape of a life itself lacks significance. This interpretation is expressed in the following terms by Fred Feldman. In comparing the welfare value of two mirrorimage lives (one on an upward, the other on a downward, trajectory), but that contain the same amount of pleasure, Fred Feldman writes: I see no reason to suppose that Uphill’s life in fact is any better in itself for Uphill than Downhill’s life is for Downhill. After all, Uphill does not get anything out of the fact that his life has this allegedly attractive shape. He does not enjoy it or take pleasure in it. It does not make him any the happier. Downhill does not suffer from the fact that his life is getting worse with every passing minute. It doesn’t matter to him. So why should we think Uphill’s life is better for Uphill than Downhill’s life is for Downhill?6 If Explanation A is the right account of SLH—or, put more precisely, if Explanation A is itself sufficient to explain SLH—SLH does not threaten ILA. If we explain the significance of a life’s shape simply in terms of the overall momentary goods and bads within a life, there’s no reason whatever to believe that the overall quality of a life isn’t simply an aggregative product of the momentary goods within that life. But I do not think that Explanation A is sufficient to plausibly explain the evaluative significance of a life’s shape. Imagine, for instance, that we are 6

Feldman, 134.


given the choice to live a life like Simpson or a life like Nospmis. But imagine also that it is stipulated that Simpson’s life has slightly more pleasure or other beneficial affective mental states than Nospmis’ life. Let’s just say that this is a settled matter. Imagine now someone saying the following: “I recognize that Simpson’s life has slightly more pleasure than Nospmis’ life. But to live a life that ends well rather than poorly is itself something that matters, to me, intrinsically. I value living a life with an upward slope rather than a downward slope. And so I choose to life Nospmis’ life rather than Simpson’s.” If Explanation A is sufficient to explain the evaluative significance of a life’s shape, this person’s reasoning is prudentially irrational: because there is not further significance maintained by a life’s shape, the fact that this person values an upward sloping life should be entirely defeated by the presence of additional pleasure, or other mental-state goods, in Simpson’s life. But this is implausible. And, at least for the sake of the current argument, while we may not regard the contrary choice, i.e., to live a life like Simpson’s, itself irrational in the face of its downward slope, it is certainly at least true that if I want my life to end on an up-note rather than a downnote, it’s plausible to say that when it in fact does end in this way, that’s a good thing for me, and can trade-off against individual moments of pleasure. I can think of two ways a partisan of Explanation A might push back. First, one might say that while the extent to which I value something is relevant to whether that thing is of value for me, the mere fact that I value it is insufficient to render it valuable. For instance, Richard Kraut writes: Imagine a boy who, while walking through the park, sees a duck, and at the same time spots a rock on the ground. Impulsively, he picks up the rock and throws it at the duck. Is it good for him, to some extent, if his desire to hit the duck is satisfied? I find that implausible. Surely he would be no worse off if he had never felt an impulse to hit the duck; and once this impulse does arise, he would be no worse off if it evaporated before he acted on it.7 Kraut supplements this case with additional ones that seek to motivate the claim that desires do not have the power to render a previously valueless thing valuable, no matter how much we desire or take a pro-attitude toward them: “wanting something does not by itself confer desirability on what we 7 Richard Kraut, “Desire and Human Good” in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 68 (1994), 41.


want or getting it.”8 For Kraut, “what makes a desire good to satisfy is its being a desire for something that has features that make it worth wanting.”9 I do not wish to spend time discussing the relative merits of Kraut’s or other similar claims. Though I’m tempted to disagree with the view that our pro-attitudes cannot render otherwise valueless things valuable,10 I doubt very much that Kraut’s account (or any other similar account) could provide support for a purely instrumental interpretation of the significance of a life’s shape. In particular, we are not tempted to say that the desire for one’s life to have a certain shape, including the desire we might have to end on a high note, is anything like the desire someone might have to hit a duck with a rock, or to systematically rid his metro area of low-hanging icicles.11 We’re talking about an interest in the trajectory of one’s life. Surely this is not “a senseless passion”.12 I’m not doing anything more than pounding the table in favor of a particular intuitive response, but it seems to me quite implausible to say to a person who very strongly prefers a life with an upward rather than a downward trajectory, or who takes substantial pleasure in living a life with that kind of shape or structure, that the satisfaction of this preference is of no welfare value at all. I find the contrary suggestion unmotivated. The second way a partisan of Explanation A might respond is via a precommitment to a form of hedonism or other strictly mental-state account of welfare. Famously, hedonism holds that that which is intrinsically valuable for a person is pleasure. But if only pleasure is valuable, the shape of a life can at best influence the quality of a life by altering the amount of pleasure in that life. But even in that case, we needn’t know anything about the shape of a life to know its quality. We need only know the amount of pleasure taken in the individual moments of a life. Whether these moments of pleasure were caused by a life’s shape are strictly irrelevant to the determination of the desirability of such a life. It’s way beyond the scope of this paper to argue against hedonism. I’ve done so elsewhere.13 But I do want to note that as a reason to reject a stronger interpretation of SLH, an appeal to hedonism is dialectically impotent. Here’s why. One important challenge to hedonism, a challenge that 8

Kraut, 44. Kraut, 44. 10 See, for instance, Dale Dorsey, “Subjectivism without Desire” in Philosophical Review ?? (2012). 11 Kraut, 41-2. 12 Kraut, 42. 13 “The Hedonist’s Dilemma” in Journal of Moral Philosophy 8 (2011). 9


must be answered by the hedonist, is that the shape of a life can, at least in some cases, make a difference to a life’s quality. Let’s review Nospmis and Simpson. Let’s say it just so happens that Simpson is, in fact, caused grave pain by his life’s dramatic downfall, and that Nospmis himself takes great pleasure at his life’s dramatic uptick. But given the framing of the case, it’s also plausible to say that the “highs” of Nospmis’ later life are not nearly as high as the “highs” of Simpson’s earlier life. And so it could very well be that the overall momentary benefits and burdens balance out on the whole. But part of what I find so interesting about the comparison between Nospmis and Simpson is that we do not appear to require this sort of information in being able to say that, at the very least, the shapes of their lives makes a difference that cannot simply be explained by the momentary feelings of pleasure, or momentary desires fulfilled, within that life. Were we to accept Explanation A, we would have to do a lot more digging than we actually do to come up with the conclusion that Nospmis’ life is more desirable than Simpson’s—or, at least, has a particularly desirable feature that cannot simply be explained by the total overall momentary benefits. In particular, we have to know, or at least stipulate, that Nospmis’ life has a greater degree of overall momentary benefits. But in describing the stories above I most certainly didn’t stipulate any such thing. And hence this seems to put significant pressure on hedonism as a theory of welfare, an appeal to which in favor of Explanation A would simply beg the question. 3. Explanation B Explanation B, unlike A, holds that the shape of a life can influence the quality of a person’s life intrinsically. However, the intrinsic value of a life’s shape is contingent: it holds only insofar as the person in question takes some sort of pro-attitude toward the particular shape of a life. Obviously different theories of well-being will be attracted to slightly different versions of Explanation B. But I will take as the paradigmatic case a desiderative interpretation of a form of subjectivism about welfare. To put this a little more clearly, I’m going to assume a view of the following sort: that φ is or would be desired, under the right cognitive conditions, by x at t is sufficient to render φ valuable for x at t.14 If we accept this sort of a view, the shape 14

Notice that this statement of a desiderative view is of the form I call “Hobbesian”: it holds that the desired object itself is of intrinsic value, rather than a conjunctive state of affairs in which the desire and the desired object co-obtain. (Call this a “Moorean” view. See Dale Dorsey, “Intrinsic Value and the Supervenience Principle” in Philosophical Studies 157 (2012).) Strictly speaking, the Moorean view, if it accepts the shape of a life


of a life is intrinsically valuable, but in a way that fully depends on its being the object of a desire. A distinctive feature of this interpretation is that the intrinsic value of a life’s shape is more-or-less restricted to its impact on the welfare value of individual moments in a person’s life. This is because the desire for a particular life shape lacks any distinctive status qua desire. If I happen to desire a particular life shape and, as it turns out, I live a life with that shape, this means that at the particular moment when I have the desire, my life is improved by its shape. To put this in a slightly different way, the value of a life’s shape is not “spread out” in time, but is instead constrained to individual moments, just as the value of the satisfaction of any other desire is. Insofar as this interpretation limits the value of the shape of a life to its impact in terms of individual desire-satisfaction, it would appear that, like Explanation A, ILA is not threatened by Explanation B.15 But I think this feature of the current explanation view also limits its appeal. When it comes, say, to the difference in the quality of Simpson and Nospmis, it just doesn’t feel right to say that the impact of the shape of their lives is best confined to a simple desire that they may have or have had at a particular time, just as they might have desired to have a cup of coffee or to watch an hilarious sitcom. Rather, when we are evaluating the quality of their lives, it is strongly tempting to say that perhaps the most significant element of their relative value or disvalue is their differing shapes. Here’s a bit of evidence for this claim. Take each life individually, without explicitly comparing them. Take, e.g., J. O. Nospmis. We might be taken to evaluating its quality. But it seems right to say that in coming to a considered judgment about the quality or desirability of his life, its shape seems to play a very strong role, perhaps even a dominant role. Whatever we think about its shape (good or bad), the fact that Nospmis was able to turn his life around for the better is itself something that would loom large. The same holds, very likely with at all, will involve something more akin to Explanation A: at best, the shape of a life itself is a component of an intrinsic value, and is not itself an intrinsic value. But I leave aside this proposal, insofar as there are plausible reasons to reject a Moorean interpretation (cf. “Intrinsic Value and the Supervenience Principle”), and insofar as the critique offered here will apply to both views. 15 This suggestion might be challenged if, for instance, a desire-satisfaction view cannot provide an acceptable account of momentary welfare benefits. See, for instance, Ben Bradley, Well-Being and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), ch. 1. I argue that there is no reason to believe that a desire-satisfaction view has this problem in “Desire-Satisfaction and Welfare as Temporal” forthcoming in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.


an opposite valence, for Simpson. When we start to evaluate their lives, we don’t begin by trying to figure out how many of their various momentary desires were satisfied. When a shape like this is pronounced, the shape itself appears to be perhaps the single most significant feature of its quality. This is not to say that momentary benefits matter little, or that the desires Nospmis and Simpson satisfied are meaningless or irrelevant. Surely quite the opposite! If Simpson’s early heights were far less “high”, as it were, and his lows were much “lower”, we would treat that as itself much worse, even if the overall shape remains the same. But the fact that his life was marred by such a tremendous downfall appears to worsen it to a substantial degree, in comparison to Nospmis, whose life displays a substantial turnaround. In any event, that’s the way it feels to me. One might put my critique in the following relatively simple terms. Explanation A failed because it could not allow that the shape of a life was ever anything more than purely instrumentally valuable. But Explanation B, while it grants the shape of a life intrinsic value (at least for those who value a particular shape), does not appear to grant the shape of a life the axiological weight it seems to have in coming to understand a life’s quality. Though the shape of a life is an intrinsic good, it is no more significant than any other desired object (assuming that the desires maintain the same relevant structure). But independently of the character of someone’s desires, it seems right to say that the shape of a life plays a much more significant role than the potential impact of other desired goods. And this fact cannot be explained purely in terms of Explanation B. The previous argument has left unchallenged a further element of Explanation B, viz., that the shape of a life is not significant for those who fail to desire it. But this feature of Explanation B is itself eminently challengable. Let’s say that we learn that neither Nospmis nor Simpson maintained any desires (pro or con) the objects of which involved the per se shape of their lives. In other words, let’s say that Nospmis, while he desired to get out of prison, desired to win a BCS game, wants to be a successful coach, etc., never actually desired to have a life that maintained an upward direction. Furthermore, let’s say that while Simpson desired not to have his reputation sullied, and desired not to end up in the custody of the Nevada state authorities, he doesn’t actually take any sort of specific con-attitude toward the shape of his life itself. Rather, his con-attitudes are toward things like being in prison, etc. Would we say, in these cases, that we would refuse to grant the fact that Simpson’s life was such a tremendous downfall, and that Nospmis’s life was such a magnificent turnaround no further evaluative significance when coming to a judgment about the value of their lives? I think 12

the answer here is almost assuredly no. Or, at least, this is my considered judgment. 5. Explanations C and D Neither A or B was able to explain the significance of a life’s shape. And while the evaluative proposals they offer may be independently plausible, and may form part of the story of why a life’s shape is itself significant for its quality, they require supplementation. This section considers the final two interpretations together. I do this in part because, or so I shall claim, the problems with Explanation D can be directly explained by the success of Explanation C ; and hence it helps to have both on the table. Explanation C holds that the significance of a life’s shape is derivative of other substantial goods—including goods that occur not simply at individual moments—that themselves are intrinsically valuable. Thus Explanation C holds that the shape of a life is not intrinsically valuable, but is not strictly instrumentally valuable, either. Rather, the shape of a life is a signatory value: valuable as a sign of substantial intrinsic goods. To see how this might work, consider the proposal that an essential ement of welfare is the achievement of a long-term project. If this is correct, the value of such achievements will help to explain the evaluative significance of a life’s shape. Generally speaking, though not always (as will become more clear in §5.4), valuable achievements or goals are those that one works toward throughout the course of a life, and at which success comes later. And hence an upwardsloping life is a sign that an individual’s projects were a success. This approach is advocated by David Velleman, who writes: Why would a person care about the placement of momentary goods on the curve that maps his changing welfare? The answer, I believe, is that an event’s place in the story of one’s life lends it a meaning that isn’t entirely determined by its impact on one’s well-being at the time. A particular electoral victory, providing a particular boost to one’s current welfare, can mean either that one’s early frustrations were finally over or that one’s subsequent failures were not yet foreshadowed, that one enjoyed either fleeing good luck or lasting success—all depending on its placement in the trend of one’s well-being. And the event’s meaning is what determines its contribution to the value of one’s life. The meaning attached to a quantity of momentary well-being is determined only in part by its place in the overall trend. The 13

meaning of a benefit depends not only on whether it follows or precedes hardships but also on the specific narrative relation between the goods and evils involved.16 According to Velleman, a crucial intrinsic value of a person’s life is its meaning, or narrative. Having a valuable narrative is an intrinsic prudential benefit. How we determine the good or bad narratives is neither here nor there for our purposes, but suffice it to say that, generally speaking (again, quite generally speaking) the shape of one’s life helps to impact its overall narrative structure. Take Nospmis. Though he experienced lows, his lows are part of an overall tale of redemption and “making good”. Not so for Simpson. His lows are more indicative of a narrative of disgrace, shame, disappointment. Insofar as the former narrative is more valuable, it seems right to say that his “upward trend” is significant for the quality of his life. Though the mere trend is not itself intrinsically good, it does seem to indicate the presence of an inflationary benefit: a good life story. (The same, roughly speaking, holds of views that explain SLH with reference to, say, achievement or the satisfaction of long-term goals or projects.17 ) Compare this to Explanation D. This is the strongest interpretation of the significance of a life’s shape. In essence, this interpretation says that the right temporal ordering of momentary intrinsic benefits within a life is itself intrinsically valuable. The inflationary, intrinsic view is plumped for by Larry Temkin18 , Frances Kamm19 , Joshua Glasgow: Reflect on how we feel about the losses of well-being that we suffer. They are regrettable, they disappoint. We are inclined to sadness or even hopelessness and depression when we reflect on the more significant losses. Losses are, not coincidentally, a ‘downer.’ If Dora loses a loved one, it is bad for her not just 16

David Velleman, “Well-Being and Time” in The Possibility of Practical Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 63. The inflationary, non-intrinsic view is also advocated by Douglas Portmore in “Welfare, Achievement, and Self-Sacrifice” in Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 3 (2007). 17 Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the best interpretation of the nature of a longterm goal or project just is as the sort of thing that provides a unifying narrative thread through a number of individual segments of a life. See, for instance, Dale Dorsey, The Basic Minimum: A Welfarist Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 39-44. 18 Larry S. Temkin, Rethinking the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 111112. 19 Frances Kamm, “Rescuing Ivan Illyich: How We Live and How We Die” in Ethics 113 (2003), 222-223.


that she has lost a loved one, and that she is saddened by the fact for very many moments, but also that her momentary wellbeing has been so significantly diminished. It is bad to be worse off than you used to be. Additive theories say otherwise. For additive theories, a loss of momentary well-being is bad-for-a-life only to the extent that the momentary well-being enjoyed at the nadir contributes a relatively low amount to lifetime well-being. For the rest of us, there is also badness in the losing: when I go from a high level of momentary well-being to a low level of momentary well-being, that itself is bad for me.20 and Michael Slote.21 I want to challenge this Explanation D. I offer four arguments here. One note before I begin. So far SLH doesn’t say anything about what the “right” trajectory is. However, just for the sake of argument, I’m going to presume that Explanation D will say that the right trajectory is an upward one, rather than a downward one; this seems to match the considered judgments of its proponents, even if it is not an essential feature of the view. Nothing will turn on this assumption, however. 5.1. The Lost Weekend The inflationary, intrinsic interpretation of SLH must say that the fact that good moments within a life occur in the right order is itself a good-making feature of a life. But I think there is very little reason to suggest that this holds simply across an entire life rather than also holding that it occurs across individually temporally extended segments within a life. Put less technically, if we wish to say that a life with an upward trajectory is better than a life with a downward trajectory, other things equal, then we should say, for instance, that a year with an upward trajectory is also better than a year with a downward trajectory, and a weekend with an upward trajectory is better than a weekend with a downward trajectory, other things equal. But the latter claim, it seems to me, is very implausible. Take the following two cases. First: The Lost Weekend : On Friday, I went over to a friend’s house to watch a Friday Night Football game, had a great time, but 20 Joshua Glasgow, “The Shape of a Life and the Value of Loss and Gain” forthcoming in Philosophical Studies. 21 Michael Slote, “Goods and Lives” in Goods and Virtues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).


drank rather too much. As a result, I was feeling very bad on Saturday, and recovered only slightly on Sunday. Second: The Found Weekend : I went to a party on Thursday night, and drank rather too much. As a consequence, I had a very very bad Friday, recovered slightly on Saturday, but was feeling fine on Sunday, when I went over to a friend’s house to watch Sunday Night Football, and had a great time. In both of these cases, I’m interested in considering only the temporal segment Friday-Sunday (call this “the weekend”). In the case of the lost weekend, my weekend took a downward trajectory. Friday was great, but Saturday was awful, and though Sunday was slightly better, it was still part of an overall downward trajectory from Friday. In the case of the found weekend, however, Friday starts out quite poorly, improves slightly, and gets much better, ending up with a Sunday that was just as good as the lost weekend’s Friday. Is it plausible to say that the found weekend is better than the lost weekend, if we assume that the lows are just as low and the highs are just as high? I think not. The mere fact that one was sick on Friday and Saturday rather than Saturday and Sunday seems to me to make very little difference to the overall quality of the Friday-Sunday temporal segment. But according to the inflationary, intrinsic interpretation of SLH, the found weekend must be preferable. After all, it takes an upward trajectory rather than a downward trajectory. Of course, I’m simply reporting my intuition. But I think the inflationary, intrinsic interpretation starts to look less plausible when we focus on short temporal segments than when we step back and focus on a life in its entirety. Two responses to this argument are worth considering. First, the partisan of the current interpretation might suggest that there is no reason to believe that the significance of a life’s shape must also extend to the significance of a weekend’s shape. But I find this response implausible and ad hoc.22 In particular, we could imagine a life that simply consisted of a week22

Kamm writes that one potential explanation for the intrinsic value of a life’s shape is that “Decline within a life emphasizes vulnerability, of both a higher state and retention of what one has already had, within life. Ending on the high point means that only death, not life itself, in fact ends the good,” (Kamm, 222-3). But even if we accepted this explanation (indeed, Kamm offers a further explanation that is compatible with believing that the lost weekend is worse than the found weekend), this explanation would also support the value of the found weekend if life ended on Monday. But this is no more plausible.


end of this kind. Why not think about the cases above simply as lives that “pop into existence” on Friday, and then pop out of existence on Sunday? Surely this is a coherent possibility. In this case a weekend’s shape just is a life’s shape. But even in this case, it seems wrong to think that the found weekend is better than the lost weekend. Second, and more importantly, a person’s life just is a collection of moments strung together by a relation of personal identity (whatever that is). But to say that the value of the longer collection of moments maintains a certain feature (i.e., its shape) but not the shorter collection of moments just seems to me entirely without independent motivation. If a feature of the value of one collection of moments is its shape, it is hard to see how the value of a different collections of moments, or sub-collections of moments, will not be affected by a similar feature.23 Second, it might be suggested that I’ve cooked the books by adding that the found weekend includes a party on Thursday night. Here’s why. By including this, it would appear that the found weekend and lost weekend are really the same in terms of their activities, it’s just that the found weekend begins, more or less, on Thursday, the lost weekend, more or less, on Friday. According to SLH, the temporal ordering of one’s momentary goods matters, but it doesn’t matter whether a particular temporal sequence of goods begins on Thursday or Friday. Response: this objection misses the point of the objection. A life can be carved up into many different temporal segments. But Explanation D seems unable to distinguish the application of the value of the ordering of momentary goods within a life to within any particular temporal segment. And if this is correct, the value of Friday through Sunday for both weekends should not be influenced by what I did Thursday; after all, this temporal segment has either an upward or downward slope, and hence the inflationary, intrinsic view must say that the found weekend is better for its upward slope. But this, once again, seems wrong. Notably, however, Explanation C seems to have no problem with this case whatsoever. After all, part of the explanation of the significance of a life’s shape for this view is that it generally has a tendency to signify the presence or absence of large scale intrinsic values, such as a valuable narrative, life story, or set of achievements. But whether or not one was hung over on Friday and Saturday rather than Saturday and Sunday surely has very little to do with the extent to which a given person achieved his or her long-term goals, or maintained a life with a valuable narrative or story. And hence the inflationary, non-intrinsic view appears to be able to distinguish long-term trends from short-term trends in a way that the inflationary, in23



trinsic view, plausibly, cannot. 5.2. The Experience Machine 24 Another feature of Explanation D is that it is intrinsically good for someone to have the right sort of trajectory of momentary goods, no matter what those momentary goods are. But this, it seems to me, is extremely implausible. Take, for instance, two lives in an experience machine. The only intrinsic benefits that they maintain are momentary instances of sensory pleasure. No plausible theory of welfare will claim that the pleasure experienced in such a machine is not of intrinsic value. But we might now compare two different experience machines. The first machine has computer software that is designed to start a person’s life at a neutral level; no pleasure, no pain. Gradually, say, twice a year, the pleasure is increased in a linear fashion. The second machine is precisely the opposite: it starts out with quite a lot of pleasure. Gradually, also twice per year, the software decreases the pleasure in a linear fashion, such that both machines, over the course of a life of the same duration, will generate the same amount of bare, sensory pleasure. According to the inflationary, intrinsic view, the first machine produces a better life than the second. But this seems to me, once again, quite implausible. If I live my entire life in an experience machine, simply undergoing sensory pleasure, how could it possibly matter when the pleasure occurs? Of course, this is just another one of my considered judgments. Perhaps you disagree. But recall, again, the cases in which SLH seemed more plausible. Take, e.g., Simpson and Nospmis. In those cases we are talking about a person whose agency is extended over time, who undertakes projects that can end up being a success or a failure. For most people, it is important to them that their lives are stories of success rather than tragedy; but success itself is the sort of thing that has a tendency to have a “upward” swing; success ends well—tragedy ends poorly. But if we abstract from the angle of success or failure, and instead simply focus on welfare goods that do not feature this sort of extended agency, it seems much less plausible to me to believe that the ordering of these goods could in and of itself matter. Once again, Explanation C holds serve. Because the only intrinsic values that are or are not present for a person in the experience machine are, 24 This argument is also given in Dale Dorsey “First Steps in an Axiology of Goals” in International Journal of Wellbeing 1 (2011).


well, momentary experiences there is no chance of either person developing a life with any sort of story or narrative at all; neither life maintains any achievements or projects, or fulfills any long-term goals. Thus an upward or downward trend for individuals who are simply in an experience machine makes no difference. 5.3. The Consistently Well-Off Another thing that seems to lend plausibility to SLH is consideration of lives, like those of Simpson and Nospmis, for which the highs are pretty high and for which the lows are pretty low. But what if we abstract from this feature of the cases on display, and instead assume that, no matter what happens, the person in question is going to be doing very well? Imagine, for instance, two people whose lives are equally successful, they achieve all they set out to achieve, and do so with a high degree of accomplishment. Further, assume that their degree of success is more or less constant throughout their lives, so that there are no marked “highs” or “lows” earlier or later in life (at least in terms of their own levels of success).25 Also assume that these individuals appreciate the pleasures of fine wine, and take the same aggregate amount of pleasure in wine throughout their lives. But now assume that the extent to which both individuals take pleasure in fine wine decreases and increases, respectively; the first starts his career by taking substantial pleasure in wine, but less pleasure as the years go on; opposite for the second person. If we assume that everything else is equal, we should also assume that the first person’s life, on the whole, gets worse as the life goes on, the second person’s life, on the whole, gets better as it goes on. After all, the degree of success throughout their lives is constant and equal. What changes is simply the pleasure they take in fine wine, surely an intrinsic, momentary good if ever there was one. Once again, it seems to me implausible to believe that the first life is worse than the second, simply because the first person’s pleasure in wine decreases, the second person’s increases. What I think this argument brings out, much like the argument of the previous section, is the result that Explanation D seems more plausible when we are comparing success with tragedy. No one would believe that the loss of one’s ability to appreciate fine wine over the course of an entire life amounts to anything like a tragedy. And 25

I don’t mean to insist here that success is itself a per se intrinsic value; one could explain the relative quality of a successful life in many different ways; I remain ecumenical, at least for present purposes.


no one would believe that it would be more or less enviable than someone who starts out unable to appreciate it and whose appreciation gradually increases over time. When we assume that both lives in question are relatively well-off even in their lowest moments, it seems less plausible to believe that the mere shape of a life could itself affect a life’s intrinsic value. Notice that I’ve designed the case in question assuming that the narrative structure of their lives, i.e., their long-term goals and projects, are equally successful. The only thing that changes between these lives is the momentary goods they enjoy—the pleasure taken in fine wine. And so, for Explanation C, there is no reason to believe that this particular trend is valuable. However, we might imagine a different story. Let’s say that two individuals are extremely well-off in terms of their momentary achievements. Both maintained substantial happiness and pleasure throughout their lives. However, the first person’s projects or achievements were marked up substantial failure, which explains, for her, a marked downward trend. The second person, on the other hand, worked for years to accomplish her goals, and instead found herself on an upward trend. In this case, it seems right to say that the latter person lives a more enviable life, or at least more enviable in one respect. And it isn’t the trend per se, but rather the extent to which this trend is illustrative of the achievement of goals, rather than their failure. 5.4. The Manager and the Fullback As a final argument, consider a potential response the partisan of Explanation D might have in response to Explanation C. According to the latter view, there is no on particular shape of a life that is better than another. Indeed, depending on the nature of an individual’s project, or the overall narrative structure of a person’s life, it could be that a downward -sloping life possesses all the relevant intrinsic goods. But this is implausible, or so it may be claimed. The shape of a life hypothesis is plausibly motivated by noting that upward sloping lives are better. And hence Explanation C cannot capture this evaluative fact, and hence must be supplemented with Explanation D. However, I think that Explanation C delivers precisely the right result in refusing to commit, except as a general tendency, to the signatory value of a per se upward-sloping rather than a per se downward-sloping life. Take two examples: Jack McKeon: Jack McKeon is a career baseball man whose playing days were entirely in the minor leagues, but who grad20

ually showed success in the minors as a manager. In 1973 he was promoted to manage the Kansas City Royals, and went on to manage in and out of the majors with moderate success until 2003, when he took over for the under-performing Florida Marlins and led them to a World Series title, retiring from baseball, at the age of 75, in 2005. Compare McKeon with: John Riggins: John Riggins was a professional football fullback and primary ball carrier for the Washington Redskins during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Riggins was a crucial member of the high-powered 1982 and ’83 offense, which included his iconic “70 Chip” touchdown run in Super Bowl XVII, widely regarded as one of most significant plays in American professional football. Riggins retired from football in 1985, and after flirting with a career in acting, eventually settled down as a regional sports broadcaster, providing occasional commentary. He is currently the host of “The John Riggins Show” on Radio WTOP. Though there are a number of unknowns about the lives of John Riggins and Jack McKeon. But one thing is relatively certain: barring some massive unforseen set of circumstances, John Riggins’ life peaked substantially earlier than McKeon’s. McKeon’s greatest success came as a baseball manager well into his 70s. Not so with Riggins; the highlight of his career, his life’s highest point (or so we can assume for the sake of argument) came at the age of 33. And though neither McKeon nor Riggins have had anything like the dramatic downfall of O. J. Simpson or the dramatic rise of J. O. Nospmis, we can generally assume that McKeon’s life has an upward trajectory, Riggins’ a downward. Without a heck of a lot more information we won’t be able to say anything definitive about the relative quality of these lives. But we can wonder about the following question: is the fact that McKeon’s greatest moment came in his 70s itself a reason to favor his life rather than Riggins’, the greatest moment of which came in his 30s? I think not. And the explanation, I think, sheds considerable light on why, ultimately, the significance of a life’s shape is best captured by Explanation C. For both Jack McKeon and John Riggins, their lives have an extremely desirable or valuable narrative: McKeon’s of the successful baseball manager, Riggins’ of the Hall of Fame running back. Just because the high points of the latter occur earlier in life than the high points of the former seem to me no reason to favor one 21

narrative or story rather than the other. They are both excellent stories, composed of valuable achievements, projects, and the fulfillment of goals. Given the cases as stated, it seems that Explanation C is more plausible than Explanation D. Where Explanation C is more restrained in its treatment of the significance of a life’s shape is precisely where we should be more restrained. We should not hold that the shape of a life makes a per se difference to a life’s quality; a life’s shape is not itself a sui generis intrinsic value. But what a life’s shape can very often, though not always, be an indicator of an underlying long-term value, the value of which need not await vindication by a given person’s desires or pro-attitudes. 6. Does ILA Fail? Explanation C is the best interpretation of SLH. But the final task of this paper is not yet complete. Does SLH threaten ILA? Is our folk wisdom, i.e., that one should hope, in life, for “more good than bad” true, or must we amend this to hope also for good and bad in a certain temporal order? My general claim, for which I shall argue presently, is that whether or not ILA stands or falls on the basis of SLH is fully dependent on whether or not one already accepts ILA. And hence SLH can provide no independent reason to accept or to reject ILA. But, or so it seems to me, given that ILA is itself independently plausible, we have at least some, perhaps defeasible, reason to deny the claim that SLH causes any problems for ILA. The first step in my argument for this claim is to consider the character of the welfare goods for which the shape of a life maintains signatory value. These are long-term goods, goods that are rightly said to occur across time. The value of any individual moment of that long-term good (say, a valuable narrative or a long-term project) will, of course, depend on further moments. If, for instance, Jack McKeon was never able to win the World Series, or was later regarded as a managerial failure, one might think less of the struggle he had to endure to get to that point. Perhaps it was not “redeemed” in the right way.26 Or perhaps this renders his earlier moments simply one among many struggles in a more general narrative of frustration. Or something like that. And hence it would seem that when looking at such goods, the value of any particular moment within that good will surely depend on the presence or absence of other individual moments. Velleman treats this as a reason to reject ILA. He writes: Intuitively speaking, the reason why well-being isn’t additive is 26

See, for instance, Portmore.


that how a person is faring at a particular moment is a temporally local matter, whereas the welfare value of a period in his life depends on the global features of that period. More specifically, the value of an extended period depends on the overall order or structure of events—on what might be called their narrative or dramatic relations.27 Velleman, once again, glosses this as a claim about the “meaning” of any individual moment. Because the meaning of each moment can change depending on the global structure of a temporal sequence of moments, it is impossible to determine the global value of the whole simply by adding up the value of the individual moments. This is because the value of the whole will in part be determined by its narrative structure. The value of the moment will be determined, strictly speaking, by the moment itself. Illustrating this claim, Velleman speaks about the value of learning from one’s misfortunes: [C]onferring instrumental value on a misfortune alters its meaning, its significance in the story of one’s life. The misfortune still detracted from one’s well-being at the time, but it no longer mars one’s life story as it formerly did. A life in which one suffers a misfortune and then learns from it may find one equally welloff, at each moment, as a life in which one suffers a misfortune and then reads an encyclopedia. But the costs of the misfortune are merely offset when the value of the latter life is computed; whereas they are somehow cancelled entirely from the accounts of the former. Or rather, neither misfortune affects the value of one’s life just by adding costs and benefits to a cumulative account. The effect of either misfortune on one’s life is proportionate, not to its impact on one’s continuing welfare, but to its import for the story. An edifying misfortune is not just offset by redeemed, by being given a meaningful place in one’s progress through life.28 We should be careful in our language here. Moments are not intrinsically good or bad. Rather, moments are “derivatively” good, i.e., in the sense of containing individual intrinsic goods or bads. If I’m kicked in the shins at noon, noon is a bad moment for me, not because noon itself is intrinsically 27 28

Velleman, 58. Velleman, 65.


bad, but rather because I got kicked in the shins at noon. But with this language in mind, we can state Velleman’s argument as follows: 1. The value of individual moments is derivative of the intrinsic value of welfare goods that occur at those moments. 2. The “meaning” of individual moments is a function of the relationship between those moments and other moments. 3. This “meaning” can itself be a good-making feature of a life or a temporal sequence of a life. 4. The “meaning” of an individual moment cannot effect the value of that moment. 5. Hence it is not the case that the value of individual moments fully determines the value of a life. For my dialectical purposes, the essential question is whether any of the above premises could sensibly be denied. And I think the answer is quite clearly “yes”. And this is because it is perfectly possible to hold that the “meaning” of an individual moment within a life, and hence the intrinsic benefits or burdens that occur within a life, can themselves affect the value of that individual moment. In other words, one could deny (4). Take, for instance, Velleman’s claim that we ought to learn from our misfortunes. One could claim that the fact that one learned from one’s misfortunes renders one’s misfortunes less bad than they otherwise would have. In retrospect, the fact that one’s misfortunes were learned-from “redeems” them, but this “redemption” itself affects their momentary value.29 Such a claim might sound mysterious but it isn’t. Take an analogy. Consequentialist moral theories hold that the moral value of a particular action at a particular time is a function of the consequences of that action. No matter how the action seemed at the time of the action, its moral status could be affected positively or negatively by things that happen later, i.e., if they led to disaster or bliss, for instance. A similar suggestion could be made here. One of the important evaluative aspects of individual welfare goods or bads is their place in an overall valuable narrative. Of course, one cannot determine, simply by looking at the moment, the overall value that this intrinsic benefit confers. Instead, one has to wait for its place in an overall narrative, just as one cannot determine the value of the morality of an action at the moment, at least according to a consequentialist. Nothing about this suggestion says that we must deny (4). I do not intend to suggest that this is how one ought to understand the evaluative 29

I advocate this suggestion on behalf of a desire-satisfaction theory of welfare in “DesireSatisfaction and Welfare as Temporal” forthcoming in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.


phenomenon of the place of a moment in an overall global narrative or structure. But the general point is that one can deny (4), and come to a perfectly coherent understanding of the manner in which narrative affects value, i.e., by allowing the “meaning” of a particular momentary good, and its place in an overall narrative or structure, to affect its momentary intrinsic value. For Jack McKeon, had he not won the World Series, his struggle through baseball mediocrity would have just been that: struggle, which is captured by those particular moments of pain or frustration he surely experienced as he was brought in and out of the majors, etc. But because he won the World Series, the negative value of this struggle was decreased, because the “meaning” of this struggle formed part of an overall desirable narrative. A similar thing can be said of O. J. Simpson, though in reverse. The fact that his early triumphs were marred by an historic downfall lessens the overall momentary value of those “highs”, in a way that is explained by their meaning, their presence in a narrative or life story that is decidedly, on the whole, undesirable. Alternatively, one could accept (4), and say that the value of the meaning of a particular moment isn’t captured in the value of the moment itself, but is instead captured by a sui generis good, i.e., the good of maintaining a valuable life story or narrative, that isn’t itself locked down to any particular time in a life. But the crucial point is this: why might someone accept or reject (4)? We have seen that it cannot depend solely on whether he or she would choose to accept the importance of the meaning of a given event in a life story. This is because the meaning of an individual event in a life story can be evaluatively assigned to the momentary welfare value of that very event. It seems to me that the primary motivation for accepting (4) or denying it just is whether one wishes to accept ILA, or the claim that the value of a life is an aggregative sum of the value of individual moments within a life.30 And if this is correct, insofar as the welfare goods upon which the significance of the shape of a life supervenes can be interpreted as compatible with ILA, SLH itself has no independent power to rule out or in the aggregative interpretation of the welfare value of a life. ILA may be 30 Of course, some may claim that there are particular challenges for one or the other method of interpretation of the value of a life story. One might say that welfare should, in fact, be assignable to times. After all, if a welfare good didn’t happen at a particular time, this is tantamount to saying that it didn’t happen. Alternatively, one might suggest that it is important to assign the momentary value of welfare goods based on the intrinsic properties of individual moments. (Cf. Ben Bradley, Well-Being and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), ch. 1.) Both objections, however, seem to me to simply pound the table against either interpretation, and hence shouldn’t be taken particularly seriously. See Dorsey, op. cit.


threatened, but it is not threatened simply by SLH.31 7. Conclusion In this paper I have examined the significance of a life’s shape and come to the following conclusions. First, it is a mistake to hold that the value of a life’s shape is solely deflationary. Though the value of a life’s shape can, in fact, be responsible for an uptick in individual momentary benefits (i.e., either by being an instrumental value or by being an intrinsic value conditional upon a momentary desire, say), this is not enough to capture the broader significance of a life’s shape. Nevertheless, it is also implausible to say that the overall shape of a life is itself an intrinsic value. More plausible is the suggestion that the shape of a life maintains signatory value, value as a sign of a more fundamental good, i.e., a good narrative, a fulfilled project, an accomplished lifelong goal. But if the inflationary, non-intrinsic interpretation of the significance of a life’s shape is correct, we can sensibly interpret this position as either compatible or incompatible with ILA. Which interpretation we should take, however, depends on whether we wish to be committed to ILA or do not. And hence there is no independent reason to be found strictly within SLH to reject or embrace ILA. SLH itself is aggregation-neutral.


For additional threats to ILA not to be found in the shape of a life, see Temkin, Rethinking the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ch. ??.