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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).

Monday, April 06, 2009

A thought experiment - choosing the best life

I'd like answers to this. Don't just read it and pass on. Okay?

Person W lives for 50 years and is almost blissfully happy. He or she has an average happiness of 9/10 across their entire life.

Person X lives for 80 years. For the first 50 years, he or she has an average happiness of 9/10. Then they live for another 30 years at an average of 8.5/10 (not so close to bliss, but still very happy). Thus, person X gets everything person W gets and more ... but is less happy on average over their total life.

Person Y lives for 35 years at 8.4/10 (yay, that's very happy!) and then 50 years at 9/10.

Person Z lives for 85 86 years. He or she has 50 randomly-distributed years at 9/10 level happiness. They also have 36 randomly-distributed years of 8.4 happiness.

All right, got it? Whose life would you prefer to have? W? X? Y? Z? It is by no means obvious to me that the best life to choose is that of person W, even though this person's life is the one of greatest average happiness across an entire lifetime. Indeed, it seems obvious to me that it's better to be person X, but maybe you'll all disagree with me. But what about person Y, and if you like that, why not person Z? And of course, we could come up with a more systematic set of comparisons if we were being scientific.

Are these even the relevant comparisons we should be making? Is it relevant to your choice if I tell you that one of the above lives (but still with the average figures I've provided) includes times of horrible pain or mental suffering? If it's relevant, what effect does it have on your choice?


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Daniel said...
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Daniel said...

The question reminds me of a TED talk recently given by Dan Ariely that was about morals but had an interesting introduction that had to do with how we deal with pain. The end result being that its better if its quick with breaks in between. Based on this idea I would go with person Z. Of course equating lower happiness with pain is not necessarily correct but I think it still works.

Athena Andreadis said...

Since the four persons' average happiness numbers are very close, you'd opt for longevity. The real dilemmas arise when these numbers are very disparate (for example, after a chronic or recurring illness develops in later life).

Btw, I wrote a quasi-companion piece to "Praise the Lord for Matt Nisbet": On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks

Alex said...

Y or Z, going mainly on length as the difference on happiness doesn't seem much.

This doesn't seem like a very useful way to look at it, though I can't really say why. I think it's that the quantification of happiness doesn't really work. I'll have a ponder and reply if I can think of anything useful.

Russell Blackford said...

Athena, thanks - I saw your post where it was republished on the IEET site. and gave it a "good for you" or whatever over there.

Magpie said...

I'd pick Y.

I like Y more than Z because I think reliable happiness would be a bonus. Obviously the averages allow for a lot of local variation, but a steady state over time suggests an underlying stability (even if that stability represents the ability to frequently change my life completely, if that's what makes me happy).

I prefer Y over X because I think it'd be a bit of a cut to think I used to be happier than I am now. See below.

I prefer all of them to W, because of that factor you mentioned: even a low average may include sublime moments. I think it's worth living for those. In fact, I'd take a signifacant hit to average happiness for more life, as long as the average remains acceptible, and moments of very high happiness are possible, and the opportunity existed to return to high happiness later (say, similar to Option Y, but 35 years at 8.4/10, 20 years of 6/10 and then 50 years at 9/10).

I take great satisfaction in the (subjective) fact that every year since I turned 30 has been my best, happiest year. Not that I've had many since 30, and certainly not to assume it'll continue that way, but it's promising.

I consider happiness to be my principle goal in life (with the caveat that achievement, kindness - even sacrifice - can all increase my happiness). Being happier now than previously suggests I'm doing it right.

Magpie said...

Err, to explain "stability" a bit: being happy at a steady state means that you know HOW to be happy, and have the means. Fluctuating happiness suggests a lack of one or the other, and that would increase my anxiety about future happiness.

...not that I have anything like that control now, but since we're looking at hypotheticals, I might as well ask for a death star.

Unknown said...

These are all very happy lives; I'd take any of them, excepting that W is quite short, and that short span might affect the people dearest to me. So throw out W.

I think X, Y and Z are all so close in happiness, that I'd go for the extra 5+ years (I believe that our minimum resolution for happiness is probably not fine enough to detect a difference of 0.1). So throw out X.

Of Y and Z, Z is more attractive because of the bonus year, although that's not a lot (but still, if offered the experience of one year, 85 years in the future, I'd take it!).

Also, Z has to be the better choice from a standing start. Looked at from the start of that life, you will get a better average happiness over the first 35 years.

At age 35 of course I might regret this decision as a slightly less happy on average span stretched before me. This isn't too bad though; I know it wouldn't affect me too much, because you've already told me how happy I'll be overall.


Now, if I were to choose the life without knowing a guaranteed life span (how can you ever guarantee such a thing, after all?), then I'd prefer to front-load happiness, all else being equal. So that implies choosing W.

stuart peace said...

Person A except when I turn 50 I will change my mind. haha.

No I would actually pick person Z. Variety is the spice and you'd get to feel more of the highs and lows (as your happiness level would constantly ebb) and that to me sounds like fun.

Clare said...

X? Really?

My untutored intuition sees a toss-up between W and Z -- best quality v best quantity.

This because the quality you've give everyone is still very happy.

The additional info about moments of suffering I'm disregarding, since they're factored into the averages. They can't be so horrendous if I've still been able to live a life whose average happiness is 8.4 or above.

I think it'll come down to the quality of the additional years, and how you weight physical deterioration v the wisdom of age, passing that onto grandchildren or whatever.

Assuming you can reduce it all to happiness (hell yeah! I forgot I'm a utilitarian) I guess I'll go for Z.


Elephant said...

I have no idea which to choose.

What I would say, though, is that this is not just an idle philosophical diversion. It is, at least potential, a public policy matter.

In Britain, not all treatments are available to all people on the national health service. Some are rationed. The method by which this is done is ascribing "Quality Adjusted Life Years" to each treatment - if the cost per QALY is below a certain threshold, you get the treatment; otherwise you don't.

What is "quality", and how do you do the adjustment? At the moment it is a political question, buried deep in a quango, barely thought through and certainly not discussed. That is bound to change, and if it isn't discussed rationally, it will simply be a matter for the loudest voices.

I don't know whether Russell intended his post to be quite so topical ...

Bill LaLonde said...

To me, the average happiness is not nearly so important as the accumulated happiness. If we assume that happiness is a discrete function and sum it over the whole life, then accumulated happiness for each is
This agrees with my intuition to select Z, which is the longest life and, like the others, has respectable levels of happiness.

As far as the relevance of the choice, to me that depends on what kind of happiness we're talking about here. Happiness as simply pleasure is not nearly so important to me as happiness as fulfillment, eudaimonia, and so forth.

And no, the presence of horrible pain and suffering doesn't affect my choice as long as the overall happiness levels are as stated. Pain is unavoidable, but pain passes.

This is a great question, by the way. It's a bit mysterious to me why anyone would pick the short life, regardless of a slightly higher average happiness, and I look forward to seeing everyone else's thoughts (I intentionally avoiding reading them before writing this so as not to be influenced).

Shannon said...

I chose Z, based on intuition alone.

Russell Blackford said...

Keep 'em coming people. Yes, Elephant, it could have real-world policy implications.

This is hardly a scientific survey, is it? lol But maybe someone with the right skills should do one with a more coherent set of possibilities and a proper survey group. They can put my name on the write-up as a co-author and get me an easy publication (*grin*).

Meanwhile I'm really interested to see what reasoning/intuitions different people have when confronted something like this. Maybe I'll offer some follow-up questions later.

Laurie said...

I can't pick a winner here, Russell - it seems to me that a person's quality of life is too complex a notion to simply give it a point-score. What if I am dying, in terrible pain, but my little grand-daughter visits me every day and reads Shakespeare's sonnets to me. How do I rate that as a "quality of life experience"? I agree that it would be easier if there is a greaty disparity between the scores. the way you have set it up, though, makes it too difficult to judge. My $0.02.

MacDibble said...

You realise that person Z goes on being happy for exactly one year after his death. You'd think death would be a rather depressive thing to go through, but apparently not. Z seems to have a lot of resilience and a great after-life. I'd go for Z.

Russell Blackford said...

I'll correct that - person Z was supposed to be 86 years. Thanks for noticing.

Thomas Hendrey said...

Well since you wanted answers I'd say my order would be ZYXW, with some hesitation about putting Z before Y. I might come back later when I'm not so tired and have time to think and consider how numerical values such as those you give for level of hapiness should be interpreted - what assumptions underly such talk and whether there are any natural misleading tendencies it might have. Not now though. Maybe though someone else would like to comment on such things?

Steve Zara said...

I agree with Laurie. Also, I am not sure if happiness is a useful thing to measure, and the factors involved in quality of life are so complex. There was an interesting recent programme on BBC radio about the increased use of medication to change people's moods. A counter-argument to such use came from some people who said that they had experienced depression, but came out of it with a richer view of life, and with more empathy. And yet, who would want depression? What is happiness anyway? Do we even know what it truly means unless we have experienced loss and pain?

So sorry, but I can't give you an answer.

Caraleisa said...

Can any life exist without some pain and suffering? Since I'll be 60 next month, I'd opt for the longest lifespan assuming that the happiness isn't accompanied by some major health or pain issues. ANY of these folks have excellent skills at finding happiness in their lives, and that's what it's really all about, no matter what else happens.

Ron said...

The options available all take "happiness" as a person's fundamental motivator -- this is far from obvious.

Service to others, writing the great American novel,achieving oneness with some supernatural entity, fulfilling one's Kantian duty, raising one's children, etc. all speak against a hedonic (or, more broadly, Millean) measure.

That said, given the information available, Z.

Parijata Mackey said...

I'd opt for longer life, even if the average happiness level was lower, simply because range is important -- of both time and (emotional) experience. I can't imagine learning all that much without some sort of hardship or unhappiness.

Of course, that last statement presupposes that learning/knowledge is a more worthy goal than happiness, without reference to an afterlife (which I don't believe in anyway), thus eliminating any possible application or benefit of the knowledge gained. It is clear that "learning something" is more important (to me) than being happy overall, and I'm not yet sure if this is justifiable, philosophically or otherwise.

We tend to view a variety of experiences as "richer", and we value the diversely flavored knowledge we acquire. It's possible that this could make sense only in light of some evolutionary psychologist's theory, but I don't know enough to discuss it now.

Logically, at least, this argument requires something more than the demonstration that (knowledge of) the truth is a worthy end in itself (or at least a more worthy end than "happiness" (as defined in the original question)).

I haven't yet figured out how to justify this in a way that isn't more metaphysically ridiculous than Aristotle's highest good, but I'm working on it. Of course, my assumptions could simply be wrong.

BT Murtagh said...

The question boils down to whether mental states are considered as a cumulative or average, and which you base your decision on. Variety is a red herring, since your boredom or excitement is naturally factored into how happy you are.

Cumulatively there's no question Z is ahead, but then again so is Z's unhappiness. To mirror Bill's math, the cumulative and average years of happiness (unhappiness) are roughly:

W: 45, (5), 0.9, (0.1)
X: 70.5, (9.5), 0.8813, (0.1188)
Y: 74.4, (10.6), 0.8753, (0.1247)
Z: 75.24, (10.76), 0.8749, (0.1251)

If your object is to avoid sad years, the answer is WXYZ.

If your object is to accumulate happy years, it's ZYXW.

If you set one unhappy year as being a negative happy year and seek a net it's (64.48,63.8,61,40) = ZYXW.
Since all the lives are positive overall, the longer lives are all better cumulatively and on average by every measure except simple pain avoidance.

How about adding life V, 1000 years at 0.5? Average happiness way down, average unhappiness way up, a net of zero years over the whole span? Who here would take that over the other four?

What about life V, 5000 years at 0.5, followed by 1 year at 0.1? Is 4000 extra years of so-so worth a year of torture? Would it matter whether the bad year came first, last or in the middle?

BT Murtagh said...

Obviously one of those was supposed to be life U... lets say the 1000 years of humdrum.

To make up for the error, I offer you life T, 500 years years of 0.9 happiness and 500 at 0.1 happiness, randomly distributed.

Is it better or worse than U? Which is preferable, the reliable humdrum or idyllic stretches in Paradise interspersed with years of living Hell?

Tony said...

I'd choose the life of Y.
My justification is that the later 50 years are happier than the first 35.
I guess having more details, of potential periods of profound pain or mental suffering would probably affect my choice.

Vicki said...

I know from my own experience that happiness is a very subjective thing at any time in your life. I got a life changing health problem at 50 and when I first got it, I was very unhappy and thought I would rather die than be like that forever, with little energy and unable to achieve what I used to do. But now, 3 years later, I would say my overall happiness is just the same as it was before I got my illness, although I have had several doctors tell me that I deal with it very well (I made a conscious effort not to let it get me down after a certain point).
As I know that the illness will certainly shorten my life, I now concentrate on quality rather than quantity of life and the goals I have in life have changed a lot.
I know this is not an answer to your question, Russell..... I would choose the longest life (Z) as I think it is something we instinctively want to do (live longer that is) while happiness is more a subjective thing. eg would you choose to live an extra year if you knew that in that year people close to you were going to die?

Russell Blackford said...

I find it very interesting that most people seem to want more life, as long as it's reasonably happy ... and no one (or almost no one) is reasoning: "Hmmm, you don't feel anything at all while you're dead, so the length of life doesn't matter. All that matters is the level of happiness you have while you're actually alive." Thus, no one is saying that W is best. By implication, I take it that no one thinks it's futile to extend the human lifespan unless we can also raise the average level of happiness in a full life. Yes? Indeed, you seem committed to the view that even some small lowering of average happiness across a whole lifespan could be acceptable in exchange for a significantly longer life in which the extra years are essentially happy.

I do have some more questions, but they can await another post. Any responses at this stage?

Russell Blackford said...

I'd also like to see some responses to BT Murtagh's questions.

Bill LaLonde said...


For me, being alive and happy is better than being alive and unhappy, but even being alive and miserable beats being dead. I find being alive and experiencing to be inherently valuable, regardless of the content of that experience.

Therefore, I do indeed believe that increasing lifespan has value even without increasing (or with a bit of lowering) of happiness.

Regarding BT Murtagh's questions, though, I'm not sure that the value of having 1000 years of life is sufficient to outweigh the essentially miserable quality of those many years in comparison to a relatively short but very happy life, for me. I balk at considering the happiness level to be at a set point for so long, though-- seems a lot can happen in 1000 years.

Moses said...

There's not enough information to make a complete decision vis the whole mental illness issue, but with the information provided... I'd go with Z because life is full of ups and downs and happiness is relative.

But dead is dead.

Caraleisa said...

Being alive and generally reasonably happy, I opt for length. But if my choice changed to alive but miserable, no. I'd prefer to be gone. BUT it's personal perspective which determines happiness. Stephen Hawking, for example, would appear to have found sufficient happiness despite his horrid physical condition to go on. Someone could be physically fine, but suffer from unrelenting mental anguish - were that me, I believe that I'd find no point in living.

BT's question - 5000 good yrs with only one year of torture - from my pov, no. Not worth it. TORTURE is agony. I don't believe it'd be possible enjoy happiness after experiencing a year of such anguish... in any case, I would never opt for it. Death is preferable. A year of moderate unhappiness, on the other hand, sure. Also, I don't think I'd want to live 5000 yrs, unless I could take it in smaller chunks with times of non-consciousness in between. Maybe 1000.

Blake Stacey said...

Variety is a red herring, since your boredom or excitement is naturally factored into how happy you are.

This sort of quality-by-fiat bugs me a little. I think this is (at least in large part) why I'm having a hard time choosing any of the options given in the original post. It seems just unrealistic enough that I can't bring my normal standards of judgement to bear, but simultaneously realistic enough that I feel like I should be able to do so.

Jean Hollis Weber said...

I found this question hard to relate to, because all the happiness levels were so high. I would not classify the overall happiness of my first 30 years as much over 6.5, maybe 7 at most. Things improved after that, and since I turned 50 (some time ago) I'd classify my overall happiness level as much higher (though with definite ups and downs). So on the basis of my personal experience, I'd definitely go for Z, the longest life.

kukatörpe said...

If you pursue such a mathematical evaluation you shouldn't try to implement real life experience to the chocie. If you want realistic answers you need a realistic question. Keep it up!