E-Mich - "Age and well-being: Ethical implications of the U-curve of happiness"

CHAIRE HOOVER Louvain-La-Neuve

14 septembre 2021

12h45 - 14h00

Mardi intime de la Chaire Hoover par Christopher WAREHAM (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)

While many expect happiness to decline in old age, research into well-being and happiness suggests otherwise. Happiness is U-curved, with the bottom of the U, the unhappiest part, experienced in middle age and happiness increasing thereafter. This surprising diachronic phenomenon presents ethical questions concerning the way we perceive our own and other peoples’ lives and how individuals and society ought to respond to ageing. This paper fleshes out some of these implications. I claim the U-curve could influence, inter alia, our attitudes to our own ageing, debates concerning prioritisation of the elderly in health decisions, and attitudes towards end-of-life decisions.

As an example of how the U-curve can influence the conclusion of an applied ethical problem in population ethics, I revisit Peter Singer’s claim that substantially extending later life would reduce total utility. Singer argues that given a fixed population, declines in happiness at the end of life could result in reduced population happiness, even if each individual was better off. With some qualifications, I defend Mark Walker’s claim that, in undermining the crucial empirical assumption that life gets worse as we age, the U-curve casts doubt on Singer’s critique of life extension.