Newman, Lockhart, and Keil recently published their finding that when judging a person’s overall moral goodness or badness across a lifetime, we seem biased toward the end of life (at Cognition here). According to this theory, we do not judge the moral qualities of a person’s lifetime character by merely adding up the ‘moral points’ of her individual actions over that life. Instead, if Scrooge or Andrew Carnegie turns things around at the end of their lives, we will attribute much greater goodness to them across their whole lives because we give greater consideration to what people do at the end of their lives than we give to the rest of their lives, when determining the moral character of a life. I think that the data presented by Newman et al. are open to at least two other explanations, however.
Fans of theories of well-being will notice a parallel in the debate just described, between theories of how to aggregate for lifetime moral goodness and theories of how to aggregate for lifetime well-being. Newman et al. are essentially comparing moral analogues of additive theories of lifetime well-being (favored by hedonists, such as Feldman and Kahneman) and a Michael Slote-style time-of-life theory. Additive theories of lifetime well-being say that lifetime well-being is just the sum of (non-relational) well-being contained in each moment of that life; let’s stipulate that additive theories of lifetime character similarly hold that a person’s lifetime goodness is just the sum of the goodness of each action in that life. Slote’s time-of-life theory holds, by contrast, that the contribution of a moment to lifetime well-being depends on when it happens (for him, greater contribution attaches to mid-life moments of weal and woe), so it cannot be counted without first weighting it according to temporal location; Newman et al., similarly, are theorizing that, in folk moral assessment, the contribution of an act to lifetime character depends on when in that life the moment happens (greater contribution attaches to end-of-life).
It seems to me that character-analogues of two other theories of aggregating for lifetime well-being can be put to use in the domain of lifetime goodness judgments. Not only can these two theories explain the data presented by Newman et al.; they also might render those judgments rational. This is important, because time-of-life theories seem to render our evaluations not just biased, but downright irrational. Why should the mere location of a point in a life matter to that point’s contribution to lifetime well-being or character?
First, the data: Newman et al. initially presented participants with vignettes about “Jim,” who in one version spends most of his adult life engaging in bad behavior, then later in adulthood turns things around to act morally, and then dies unexpectedly a year later; in another version, the order of Jim’s change is reversed, to go from good to bad; in two other versions, Jim does not undergo any change—he just stays good or bad. Participants rated Jim’s life nearly as good when he briefly changed to good at the end of his life as when he was good throughout, and similarly for being bad. This seems to tell against the view that we judge lifetime character additively. Moreover, it is the end of life that seems to matter in our judgments because if the aberrant good or bad year is placed thirty years before death, Jim doesn’t receive the same ratings. Finally, if Jim continues living after his change of character, the effect weakens—Jim is considered more moral when he dies than when he just continues living after his change. Thus Newman et al. settle on a time-of-life theory of folk judgments of lifetime goodness.
But another theory that can explain these data is a character analogue of the narrative theory of well-being favored by David Velleman and Doug Portmore. According to this theory (roughly, and blurring together differences between Velleman and Portmore), later events can change the meaning of earlier events, and thereby change their contribution to lifetime well-being. For example, having a costly investment pay off handsomely is better than paying the same costs and losing the investment but simultaneously winning a monetarily equal lottery, because only the former makes your earlier sacrifice a good investment—the value to your lifetime well-being of the earlier event has now increased, even though its momentary value didn’t retroactively change. Some participants in the Newman et al. studies may have had something similar in mind in the case of Jim: perhaps the reason that Jim is rated so well after a change toward the end of life is that it also changed the significance of his earlier curmudgeonly behavior. That is, we can read that early behavior as part of a narrative of moral improvement, where the earlier moments were moral costs paid in the service of learning how to be a good person, thereby counting for more than they do in the case of the Jim who is good only in early adulthood and bad for decades after that—earlier good behavior cannot render later behavior sacrifices in the service of learning how to be good. (In fact, this theory also explains another finding of Newman et al.: Jim’s favorable rating after a positive change is secured when his change is genuine rather than simply motivated by, say, his knowing that he will die soon.)
Another theory that can explain the data is a character analogue of my own loss/gain account of lifetime well-being. On this account, losing momentary well-being is bad for a life and gaining momentary well-being is good for a life. Similarly, it may be that having one’s actions go from good to bad (or bad to worse) itself contributes to having a bad lifetime character, while making moral progress itself contributes to good lifetime character; making moral progress is itself morally good and moral backsliding is itself morally bad. The employment of such a theory would explain the evaluations of Jim’s lifetime character: when he gets better, that itself is good, and to some degree makes up for his earlier failings, which would bring those evaluations closer to evaluations of a Jim who was always good.
We can see why, then, comparing the improved-but-died Jim to the improved-and-continues-living Jim doesn’t tell us enough. Because “it is…ambiguous whether or not the [improved-and-continues-living] person would change back,” that pair of cases doesn’t discriminate between the effect of Jim’s death, the effect his reform has on the narrative significance of his earlier bad acts (because we don’t know if still-living Jim’s reform is true), or the place of his reform in an overall trend of moral improvement or decline (because we don’t know whether still-living Jim will continue the trend upward). We need more research, then, to discriminate between whether we ordinarily follow an irrational time-of-life theory of lifetime character, a narrative theory of lifetime character, or an improve/decline theory of lifetime character. It would also be interesting to see whether the latter two theories could be characterized in a way that makes them seem as justifiable as their well-being counterparts.