What Does the Shape of a Life Tell Us About Its Value?
Published online: 21 March 2017
Ó Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017
In a recent article in Ethics, Dale Dorsey examines the ‘‘shape of a life hypothesis’’
to see what it implies about the prudential value of a life. As Dorsey deﬁnes the
shape of a life hypothesis, ‘‘lives are better when they have an upward, rather than
downward, slope in terms of momentary well-being.’’
Although Dorsey’s primary
aim is to show the only plausible reading of the shape of a life hypothesis does not
undermine temporal neutrality or intralife aggregation, he also concludes that the
shape of one’s life does tell us something signiﬁcant about a person’s well-being.
The literature on the shape of a life hypothesis is divided over the question of
why shape matters. Hedonists provide the most simple, straightforward answer:
upward sloping lives are better, because we care about the trajectory of our lives,
and are made happier (or experience more pleasure) when our lives get better rather
The hedonist’s response, however, implies that uphill and downhill
lives are not hedonically equal, for a person’s awareness of the trajectory her life is
taking inﬂuences her happiness or pleasure, which is then reﬂected in her well-
being. Hedonists do not accord the shape of a life any special signiﬁcance; rather,
shape, like myriad other factors, is relevant to well-being only insofar as it
contributes to the overall hedonic value of one’s life.
Many theorists are not happy with the hedonists’ response, however, for they
hold a much stronger version of the shape of a life hypothesis. On this stronger
reading, the shape of a person’s life is signiﬁcant even if she doesn’t care about it.
Thus, even if we assume two lives are exactly hedonically equal, and the only
& Christine Vitrano
Department of Philosophy, Brooklyn College, CUNY, 2900 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn,
NY 11210, USA
Dale Dorsey, ‘‘The Signiﬁcance of a Life’s Shape,’’ Ethics 125 (2015): 304.
See Fred Feldman, Pleasure and the Good Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), pp. 124-141.
J Value Inquiry (2017) 51:563–575