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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Choosing the best (extended?) life

Given what most of you were saying here the other day, it seems pretty clear how you'll jump with this revised version of the thought experiment. But let's see what you think, and give your reasons. Does the "unnaturalness" of this scenario bother you? I don't mean that the scenario is contrived (though it may be) and unnatural in that sense; I mean the fact that it relies on high technology to make a life that is far longer than ever yet lived.

Person X lives for 75 years. Overall, she is very happy through that time. Let's express this by saying that she has an average happiness level of 8 (out of a blissfully-perfect possible 10) for those 75 years.

Person Y, thanks to advanced technology, lives for 150 years. For the first 75 years, she is just as happy as Person X: i.e., she enjoys a very good average happiness level of 8 out of 10 for those 75 years. In the second 75 years, her happiness drops off for various reasons (e.g. the technology keeps her relatively youthful, but it is not perfect so she gets more illnesses than she did during the first 75 years). Nonetheless, things continue to go pretty well for her, and she experiences a not-bad average happiness level of 7 out of 10 for the second half of her long life.

If I could offer you Person X's life or Person Y's life, which would you take? Person Y gets everything that Person X gets and more, but on average (i.e. averaged over their respective entire whole lives) Person X is happier. Which do you want?

Once again, please discuss.


BT Murtagh said...

I'd take Y out of the two choices. It's not so much that I'm trying to accumulate moments of happiness, but that as long as life is generally good I'll take as much of it as I can get. As you say, Russell, none of it is going to matter to me personally in the long run, by definition that's not the run I'd be in.

I think there's a lot of confusion because of the preset levels of happiness inherent in the question, which conflicts with its personal nature. I see a lot of comments saying "I couldn't be happy with such a life." Well, sure you could - you'd be 0.w happy for x years and 0.y happy for z years. You just wouldn't be you, you'd be some similar person who was just that happy.

Someone mentioned Stephen Hawking in the other thread. Here's a guy with a physical quality of life that's about as low as it's possible to get, but he's not grimly hanging on, he's downright joyful. His happiness quotient is obviously well above 0.5, or else he's as great an actor as he is a physicist.

I've experienced moments of satori when I've cracked a difficult intellectual problem, and I can only assume that in those finest mental moments of mine I've glimpsed how Stephen's mind must operate all the time.

Install the cybernetic modules into my brain that let me think on that level and I might be willing to put up with that kind of crappy body problem too. With my current brain, though, it'd take a lot less decrepitude to make me want the plug pulled.

Would such an enhanced/degraded me really be the me that's writing this comment? I'd say definitely not, that scenario's a deeply transformative one.

Would I choose to become that enhanced mind, even leaving aside the concomitant physical degradation, knowing I'm choosing to kill off my present human self (and assuming I've discharged my parental responsibilities)?

Hell yes. In standard human heartbeat.

ColinG said...

Undoubtedly Option Y, though I'm struggling a bit with the marks out of ten.

I guess I've been inclined to evaluate my QoL more in terms of (+) or (-) a certain baseline of tolerability. (Or, maybe, two baselines: one which denotes the point above which I would definitely want to continue living, the other the point below which I would definitely want to die, with a grey zone of ambivalence in the middle!)

On that basis, if 1/10 represents +1/10, i.e. a life that, on balance, is probably just about worth having, and 10/10 denotes the best I can imagine (or the best realistically available to me?), then 7/10 sounds pretty damn decent! I'd definitely sign up for that, even if it doesn't quite hit the highs of the best years (though it would presumably continue some periods that were >7/10)

Btw, I'm assuming the extra life years come already discounted to allow for the sadness accompanying the knowledge that my best days are behind me. Also, we're adopting a retrospective standpoint from which it's possible to evaluate a life that we know will contain this average level of happiness. Part of the attraction in living longer would be the possibility of periods of great excitement/pleasure/achievement.

Moses said...

7/10 is a "C." I'll take a C and 150 years than a B and 75.

Russell Blackford said...

Maybe I'm cheating by talking about a scale out of 10, but I'm not meaning to rule out that there could be a life that is burdensome and gets a minus number attached to it. In principle, there could be a life that gets -10, i.e. a life that is hellish ... but for some reason the individual keeps surviving it and can't commit suicide.

I wonder, though, how many entire lives would ever get a minus ranking. It seems reasonable to me to assume that most lives in modern societies get some kind of positive ranking and that it's reasonable to use just the positive part of the scale.

Would it change anything if I assumed a more realistic scale from -10 to +10, with no prospect that a whole life would ever average better than 5/10? I.e., an average of +5 is a really fortunate life in terms of average experienced happiness.

(+10 might be how happy you feel while having some kind of peak experience, like the best sex you've ever had. No one can sustain that sort of happiness, or anything like it, over an entire life.)

I could then stipulate that the choice is:

X = 75 years @ an average of 5
Y = 75 years @ an average of 5, + another 75 years @ an average of 4

Does that change anyone's intuitions?

Colin, the lower figure for the second 75 years is meant to reflect a number of things that might make Y less happy. E.g., life is somehow less "fresh", you may have the realisation you mentioned, you may be less healthy. I expect that there would also be some off-setting factors, though. In fact, in the real world, there's apparently some evidence that later middle age is a happier period than earlier ones, for various reasons. With youth-retention technology, this period will be mostly like middle age rather than like old age.

So I'm stipulating, I think reasonably, that the second half of Y's life is less happy but not very much less happy. Peter Singer makes the same stipulation in an essay in which argues against radical life extension, and I don't think it's overly generous to the pro-extension side.

BT Murtagh said...

Well, it doesn't change my intuition, Russell, because again, I'll take all the life I can get as long as it's tolerable or better - which if it isn't tautological teeters right on the edge of it, I suppose. When it's no longer tolerable I won't tolerate any more of it. Uh huh.

Your question seems to boil down to that of whether I would prefer a big helping of my favorite thing, or an equally big helping of my favorite thing plus a side order of my second favorite thing (and no worries about getting too full, either).

Yes, choosing the first means I'm getting a larger proportion of my favorite, but it's an option that gives me less no matter how you look at it. Maybe I'm just thinking too naively here, but the choice seems trivially obvious.

Russell Blackford said...

Perhaps it is obvious. I wonder whether it would be so obvious if I offered you a thousand years of boring, quiet, often lonely but overall worthwhile life at an average happiness of 1 (it will never becomes so boring and lonely that you wish you were dead ... as soon as it approaches the zero point you'll encounter a bit of variety or meet someone reasonably nice, and you'll never plunge below zero into real unhappiness for longer than the rest of us), or a hundred years of incredibly wonderful life with all the best experiences you can want crammed in like raisins and sultanas in a cake, with an average happiness of 9. One life delivers 1 x 1000 = 1000. The other delivers 9 x 100 = 900.

This example isn't that relevant to what I'm trying to get clear in mind, but maybe it makes the issue more interesting.

I'm still not convinced that these sorts of calculations even make sense, but it seems that we should be able to say they do if we buy into utilitarian theory.

Go Democrats said...

Why do you get to choose, if this is utilitarian theory? Shouldn't we rather choose to populate the earth as densely as possible, even if it results in billions of people with a happiness quotient of 1?

BT Murtagh said...

That is a more interesting question to me, even if it's not quite serving your purposes. I'd have to say that intuitively I'd pick the shorter happier life of those two - my prior line of arguing doesn't apply since it's now a choice between a generous helping of my favorite thing and a much more generous (by an order of magnitude) helping of something less appealing, albeit not awful. I'd take the quality over quantity in that case.

Steve Zara said...

You have given me a lot to think about, and this has led to interesting discussions with friends. I hope you don't mind if I blog about it rather that write something here. I would like to see what those who follow my blog have to say.

Russell Blackford said...

Blog away, Steve.

Go Democrats, you are raising a point that I certainly intend to discuss in the article I'm writing on this subject. Are you familiar with Parfit's discussion of the point? It's a real problem for utilitarians. Do they take the "total view" approach that you're describing or try to find some way of saving utilitarianism while resisting commitment to the total view? I don't think they have a satisfactory answer.

Anonymous said...

Achilles was given a comparable choice: a short and glorious life and eternal fame or a long and obscure life. He chose the first, which is why we've heard of him. On the other hand, when Odysseus met him in the underworld Achilles said it was better to be a slave on earth than a king here, so it looks as if he changed his mind.

Anonymous said...

Surely an average happiness index is the wrong measure. Would anyone choose one blissful year at 10 on the scale?

I would think that the accumulation of experiences, not the average perception of them, is what motivates me. From reading the reply’s so far, I may not be alone.

Grendels Dad

Anonymous said...

After a bit more thought I’ve realized that cumulative happiness is not much better than average happiness for a true measure of life’s worth.

I’ve seen many people become resistant to change and new experiences as they aged. Now that I am middle aged myself I find things like Twitter less appealing than previous innovations I encountered when younger. I can even imagine a time, centuries down the road I hope, when even the thought of programming my new orgasmatron might seem too daunting to be worthwhile.

So, maybe in the same way ethical judgments need to take into account both intentions and consequences, the calculus of happiness needs to have terms for both cumulative and average happiness.

Grendels Dad