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March 27, 2008

happiness over the course of life

Imagine two people who experience exactly the same amounts of happiness over the course of their whole lives. A experiences most of his happy times near the beginning, whereas B starts off miserable but ends in happiness.* We are inclined to think that B is more fortunate, or better off, than A. If the story of A's life were written down, it would be tragic, whereas B's tale has a happy ending. But does B really have more welfare?

One view says no. The happiness of a life is just the happiness of all the times added up. Maybe we feel happier when we are on an upward trajectory, but that extra satisfaction should be factored into an accurate estimate of our happiness. If A and B really have identical total quantities of happiness over the courses of their lives, they are equally well off. Any aesthetic satisfaction that we obtain from the happy ending of B's life is no reason to declare him better off.

Another view says says that happiness is equally valuable at any time, but we wish devoutly that our own happiest times are still to come. That wish colors our estimation of other people's lives; but perhaps it shouldn't. Just because I want the end of my life to be (even) better than the beginning, it doesn't follow that B was better off than A. Once the ledgers are closed at death, it no longer matters how the happiness was distributed.

A third view says: even if the amount of happiness is the same at two times of life, somehow the quality of happiness is better if it comes later, because then it's more likely to be the outcome or satisfaction of one's plans and one's work. That is sometimes true, but it's not necessarily the case. One can be happy late in life because of sudden dumb luck. One can have early happiness as the well-deserved accomplishment of youthful efforts.

I incline to a fourth view. Happiness is not more valuable if it happens to come later. But a morally worthwhile life is one that develops, and one should take satisfaction in one's own development. Thus we think of the old person who has learned, grown, and become better--and who is satisfied with that achievement--as a moral paradigm. He or she happens to be happy, but what matters is that the happiness is justified. The child who is naively happy makes us glad but does not inspire our admiration. Thus our intuition that happiness is better late in life does not mean that it has a greater impact on welfare. Our intuition is a somewhat confused reflection of our admiration for a particular kind of mature satisfaction.

*This topic was raised by Connie Rosati in a fine paper she delivered at Maryland this week. These views are my own and I'm deliberately not summarizing her interesting thesis because I didn't seek permission.

March 27, 2008 5:21 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


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