It seems that a life that gets progressively better (the Uphill Life or UHL) is often preferable to one that gets progressively worse (the Downhill Life or DHL), even where both lives contain qualitatively identical events and experiences, only in a different order — I borrow these terms from Feldman 2004. To illustrate, consider David Velleman’s description of two possible lives:
One life begins in the depths but takes an upward trend: a childhood of deprivation, a troubled youth, struggles and setbacks in early adulthood, followed finally by success and satisfaction in middle age and a peaceful retirement. Another life begins at the heights but slides downhill: a blissful childhood and youth, precocious triumphs and rewards in early adulthood, followed by a midlife strewn with disasters that lead to misery in old age. Surely, we can imagine two such lives containing equal sums of momentary welfare. Your retirement is as blessed in one life as your childhood is in the other; your nonage is as blighted in one life as your dotage is in the other. (1991, 49-50)
Intuitively, it seems that the first life where things get progressively better is preferable to the second where things get progressively worse. The first is a better life, not (just) in the sense that it makes for a better life story, but (also) in the sense that it is a better life to lead, prudentially speaking. This seems true even if we imagine that the two lives differ only in the sequence of and relationships between the qualitatively identical events and experiences of which both lives are composed. But why is this? Some philosophers (e.g., Slote 1983) think that such examples show that the benefits and harms that are incurred later in life have a proportionately greater effect on the value of one’s life than the benefits and harms that occur very early in life. On this view, it’s the mere timing of a harm/benefit that affects its impact on one’s life. However, Velleman convincingly argues that this is not the case. On his view, the reason a benefit that comes later in life can have a more profound impact on the value of one’s life is that benefits experienced later in life can redeem earlier misfortunes. So a life that gets progressively better is, in some cases, to be preferred to a life that gets progressively worse, because only in the case of the former and not the latter can one’s earlier misfortunes be redeemed. In the life that gets progressively better, the earlier trials and tribulations can lead to the later successes and thereby redeem themselves. But in a life where the successes precede the misfortunes, the misfortunes will not have served any purpose and so will have been suffered in vain.
So it’s not the timing of the benefits and misfortunes but the causal relations between them that explains why a life that gets progressively better is often preferable to one that gets progressively worse. This point can be illustrated by another one of Velleman’s examples:
In one life your first ten years of marriage are troubled and end in divorce, but you immediately remarry happily; in another life the troubled years of your first marriage lead to eventual happiness as the relationship matures. Both lives contain ten years of marital strife followed by contentment; but let us suppose that in the former, you regard your first ten years of marriage as a dead loss, whereas in the latter you regard them as the foundation of your happiness. The bad times are just as bad in both lives, but in one they are cast off and in the other they are redeemed. (1991, 55)
In this example, the timing, sequence, and trajectory of events and experiences are identical, for in both cases the years of strife and the years of happiness occur in the same order and at same stage of one’s life, and both lives have the same positive trajectory—improving rather than declining. The two differ only in terms of the causal relations between the years of strife and the years of happiness. In one case, the years of strife were instrumental in bringing about the later years of happiness. In the other, the subsequent years of happiness were just a windfall, and the proceeding years of strife were a complete wash. So, again, we see that it is not the timing, order, or trajectory of events and experiences within a life that impact its welfare value, but rather the causal relations between them.
Having identified the causal relations as the relevant factor, I offer what I call the “Causal Link Principle” as the best explanation for why a life that gets progressively better is often preferable to a life that gets progressively worse. According to the Causal Link Principle (CLP), the prudential value of an episode of welfare (e.g., an episode of pleasure) or ill-fare (e.g., an episode of pain) can depend on the presence or absence of a causal link between it and some desired end. For instance, an episode of pain that is causally linked to the production of some desired end is of less prudential disvalue than an otherwise identical episode of pain that isn’t so linked. In other words, it is better not to suffer in vain.
When I speak of an episode of ill-fare or welfare (EP) being causally linked to some desired end (DE), I have in mind two possibilities. One possibility is that EP set off a causal chain that resulted in DE such that, were it not for EP, DE would not have come about. Another possibility is where that which caused DE also caused (or set off a causal chain resulting in) EP such that there was no way to bring about DE without bringing about EP as well. EP was, in this case, an unavoidable side effect of bringing about DE.
In a later post, I’ll explain how CLP can allow us to account for posthumous harm.