By In Ideas, Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (5)

Does the Shape of an Outcome Matter?

I am interested in knowing whether consequentialists have thought and whether they should think that the shape of an outcome matters when it comes to how good the given outcome of an action or a policy is. Before we get to this question, I want to first motivate this thought with the obvious analogy of an individual’s life.

In the debates about individual well-being, a view analogical to standard forms of consequentialism is, of course, something like Fred Feldman’s aggregative hedonism: “The intrinsic value of a life is equal to the sum of the intrinsic values of the minimal episodes of intrinsic attitudinal pleasure and pain contained in the life (Feldman 2004, 129)”. On this view, the shape of an individual’s life – whether it gets increasingly better or gradually worse – does not matter with respect to how good of a life the person lives. All that matters is the total sum of each moment’s amount of pleasure no matter how those lives are distributed over the course of the person’s life.

Many philosophers have thought that the previous view is false. They include Franz Brentano, A.C. Ewing, Michael Slote, David Velleman, Frances Kamm, Antti Kauppinen, and many others. Let me quote Velleman in full here as he states the opposing view very nicely (2015, 144):

“Consider two different lives that you might live. 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 by success and satisfaction in middle ages 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 image two such lives containing equal sums of momentary well-being. 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.

Yet even if we were to map each moment in one life onto a moment of equal well-being in the other, we would not have shown these lives to be equal good. For after the tally of good times and bad times had been rung up, the fact would remain that one life gets progressively better while the other gets progressively worse; one is a story of improvement while the other is a story of deterioration. To most people, I think, the former story would seem like a better life story – not, of course, in the sense that it makes a better story in the telling or the hearing, but rather in the sense that it is the story of a better life.”

There are then interesting debates between the philosophers who think that the shape of the life matters concerning just why an improving life would be better than a deteriorating one (even if they contain the same some of momentary levels of well-being). One popular suggestion is that the narrative structure of the lives makes the relevant difference.

Now, return to consequentialism. According to John Broome, there are two ways in which we can get from how thing are for different individuals at each moment to the value of an outcome as the value of the whole future. According to the ‘person route’, we first consider how good of a life each person has as a whole and we then put together all these individual evaluations. According to the ‘snapshot route’, we first aggregate how much value there is in the whole world at a time and we then use the snapshot evaluations to form determine how good the outcome is over the whole future. For the question I am interested in, it doesn’t really matter which one of these routes we take, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll use the snapshot route.

Thus, the traditional form of consequentialism analogical to Feldman’s view of good life would claim that the intrinsic value of an outcome is the sum of the intrinsic value of each momentary episode of the outcome (here I have just abstracted away from hedonism). On this view, again, the shape of the outcome – whether it gets increasing better or worse – does not matter with respect to how good the outcome is.

But, just like in the passage from Velleman we can imagine otherwise equally good lives that have different shapes, it seems like we can also imagine whole histories that have different shapes. We could have a history that begins from everyone being well-off (consider a paradise of plenty where everyone lives in a very natural way happily) and then deteriorates through civilisation, pollution, and war. We could also have a history that begins from a depressing struggle against the forces of nature and then gets gradually better through the development of culture, arts, and technology. Our actions do not, of course, determine which one of this type of histories come to be realized, but we could imagine two potential inventions of an individual instead. Gizmo A (think something like cars) would make everyone’s life much easier in the beginning but then gradually lead to disastrous pollution. Gismo B (think something like microprocessors) would initially not make much of a difference to anyone’s life but then gradually help people to live better lives.

In this type of cases, the sum of the intrinsic value of each momentary episode of the outcomes would be equally good in both options. The question then really is: should we here too follow Velleman’s view of the individual’s life: “For after the tally of good times and bad times had been rung up, the fact would remain that one [outcome] gets progressively better while the other gets progressively worse; one is a story of improvement while the other is a story of deterioration. To most people, I think, the former story would seem like a better story – not, of course, in the sense that it makes a better story in the telling or the hearing, but rather in the sense that it is the story of a better [history/outcome].”?

To finish off, three questions:
1. I think I have the intuition that the shape of the outcome matters here too. I’d be interested to hear whether others share this intuition.

2. In the case of lives, many want to refer to something like the narrative structure or agential involvement to explain why the shape of a life matters. Would similar justifications be available for the revised consequentialist axiology?

3. Have any consequentialists defended this idea (I’m sure they have but I don’t think I’ve come across)? I was looking at the well-known quote from Brentano on this (from the Foundation and Construction of Ethics): “Let us think of a process which goes from good to bad or from a great good to a lesser good; then compare it with one which goes in the opposite direction. The latter shows itself as the one to be preferred. This holds even if the sum of the goods in the one process is equal to that in the other.” This seems to be generally about processes and not just lives and the surrounding discussions do not seem to be about individual well-being either. Perhaps Brentano was objecting to Bentham in this way.

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5 Responses to Does the Shape of an Outcome Matter?

  1. Ben Bramble says:

    Interesting post, Jussi. Something like this might explain why, if human extinction is inevitable, it is better that it occur later rather than sooner. Jimmy Lenman has a really interesting discussion on this in his paper “On Becoming Extinct” (2002). He writes: “Not only do individual human lives have a certain narrative structure but so too, given our unique endowment with language, writing and culture does human history. And when we think of the prospect of human extinction, perhaps we think of it as an evil in the same way as we think of the premature death of an individual as an evil. If we have read our Wells or Stapledon or Asimov we may be caught up in some capitalized vision of The Future and think of extinction as tragically robbing us of that future much as the death of a child might tragically rob her of her future. Certainly, if we have such a future, our descendants
    will then look back on our own times as, in a sense, the childhood of our race much as we, from our perspective, might so view the time of the early hominids.” (Note: Lenman himself is not a fan of this proposal.) His paper has references to other relevant work, by Jonathan Bennett and Gregory Kavka.

  2. Jamie Dreier says:


    If the shape of a life matters, it’s very likely that the overall good will inherit temporal shapeliness from its constituents, don’t you think? This is true even if you like the snapshot route, although ‘inherit’ might not be the best word in that case.
    But you are looking for an extra effect, beyond the effect of temporal order on the personal good in individual lives. It might be difficult to disentangle the two effects without some cleverly constructed examples.

    I share Broome’s suspicion that in the end we cannot separate conceptually the amount of good at a time from the contribution that good makes to the overall good (the ‘dispersal’ strategy, that is, seems right and sensible to me), so my intuitions are not going to be useful. But I think this is an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about a related topic — dispersal through states of nature — and getting myself confused.

    Oh, and the Narrative Structure idea is a more radical one than the example (of the difference between the Getting Better life or civilization and the Getting Worse one), because the example is consistent with the Principle of Temporal Good, whereas many of the Narrative Structure examples are not. Are you looking for the radical idea, or the more tractable one?

  3. Hi Ben

    thanks for that reference. I better have a look at Jimmy’s suggestion and the references he gives. It might be that what he has in mind here is stronger than what I was thinking.

    Hi Jamie

    I think we might get some effect from the shapes of lives, but you are right I am looking for more. We could compare two worlds in which each individual’s life has a certain trajectory (say, upwards). But, in the other one these trajectories are in each generation at a slight higher level and in the other at a lower one. And we can stipulate that the mere addition of whole lives in the two histories are equal. I was wondering if in these types of cases you still get an extra effect so that the world that has an upward trajectory is better.

    I was first wondering whether the consequentialists should accept the less radical idea, but I guess a further question is whether they should accept something like the Narrative Structure idea and its further commitments.

  4. Jamie Dreier says:

    I think one obstacle to your ‘something more’ is the Principle of Personal Good. It would have to be violated by any method of comparison that afforded importance to the shape of the life of a civilization over and above the importance of the shape of the life of a person. And to me, the Principle of Personal Good is much more compelling than the Principle of Temporal Good.

  5. Right – exactly! The question is whether consequentialists should accept the Principle of Personal Good. Personally, I have never been fond of that principle. It seems to me that the betterness of distributions might depend on desert, for example, as well (I take it Temkin argues in this way) and not only on whether individuals have equally good lives in the distributions. So, the question here seemed to be, given that there are situations where that principle might fail anyway, would there be motivation for the consequentialists to also reject it also due to the shape of the outcomes? I’ve got an intuition, not very strong admittedly, that they perhaps should do so. Perhaps I am wondering whether the same arguments that motivate taking the shapes of lives into account in evaluations of lives could be used to support making the same move in the evaluations of worlds.