Since my last post to PEA Soup was on the goods of childhood (on the question of whether some goods of childhood are intrinsically good or whether they are all valued on the basis of their effects on the life of the adult the child becomes), it seems appropriate that this post moves to the discussion in the other direction. I’m interested in a few different questions regarding old age and I’m wondering if anyone else has written on the topic.

As with children, the question of goods of a particular life stage seems to divide into two parts. First, are there goods specific to old age? Second, do the goods of old age count equally? That is, when are evaluating a life and asking how well it went do we count the goods of old age for the same as the goods of one’s middle years? You’ll recall that Michael Slote argues that the goods of childhood and the goods of old age count for less, not just because of the kinds of goods they are, but also because of the life stage in which they are located. His views about childhood seem implausible to me but so too do his views about old age. Thoughts? References to other discussions of this issue welcome. (Oh, I have read Mary Mothersill’s piece "Old Age" that was her APA Presidential Address and I’m pretty familiar with the philosophical literature on death as I write and teach in the area, and I have and love Margaret Walker’s edited collection Mother Time: Women, Aging, and Ethics.) Thanks.

8 Replies to “The Goods of Old Age

  1. Hi Samantha,
    Interesting questions. I just happened to come across a study in the latest issue of JOURNAL OF GERONTOLOGY: MEDICAL SCIENCES and apparently olfactory pleasure increases at later stages of the life span. The link is here:
    And so I guess that might make the *intensity* of olfactory pleasure a distinctive good of being aged (though I don’t think it counter-balances all the negatives that come with aging! :))
    On the issue of weighing goods- though this is not directly related to the distinctive goods of old age- there is lots on QALYs and healthcare economics. And I guess that might take one to a similar position to Slote’s, where one might claim that a benefit to the aged counts for less given the fact that the magnitude of said health benefit is likely to be small (because the recipient is likely to suffer other serious aliments or death in the near future despite providing the medical intervention).

  2. Thanks Colin. The olfactory pleasure example is new to me. Clearly there are lots of bad things that come with old age and it may be that one’s senior years contain less good than one’s prime-of-life years (whenever those are). I’m curious though as to whether that’s because the balance of good and bad is worse in old age, or whether that’s because of life-stage discounting (as Slote seems to think). Slote also has peculiar views about the goods of childhood (boy scout merit badges) and of old age (shuffle board trophies. That view aside, is there anything to his claim that old age goods count for less because of their temporal location? Cheers, Samantha

  3. Samantha
    I find the issues you are raising very interesting and important. It might be interesting to do an empirical study on how people view their lives and the ‘goods’ that they have considered important enough to develop and implement certain specific life goals and the means to achieve them. It might also be interesting to know if the older one gets one’s attitudes about the relative value of the goods themselves undergo a change and whether or not there is a shift in what is valued as a good.

  4. I also find Slote’s account of the Shape of a Life Phenomenon implausible. Instead, I’m sympathetic to Velleman’s account. Indeed, I’ve advocated a view, which I call the Not-for-Naught View, that is inspired by what he says in his “Well-Being and Time.” On the Not-for-Naught View, the redemption of one’s self-sacrifices in itself contributes to one’s welfare, for, on this view, it is worse to have sacrificed in vain than to have sacrificed for some point and purpose. On this view, we might say that one of the goods of old age, at least, if one has lived successfully, is that there are fewer sacrifices that are in need of redemption. So, in old age, one can relax more and not worry so much that one’s past investments and sacrifices might turn out to have been in vain. On this view, young adults who have sacrificed much for the sake of goals that have yet to come to fruition have the most at stake. If you’re interested, I discuss this view in my “Welfare, Achievement, and Self-Sacrifice”.

  5. That sounds like an interesting argument Doug. I suppose this gives us reason, when young, to make as few sacrifices as possible so our golden years will be even better in this respect! Actually, I think I know quite a lot of young people who seem to have adopted this strategy. I thought they were just being lazy, but I guess they are worried about creating too many sacrifices that might go unredeemed! 🙂

  6. Interesting topic!
    Schopenhauer has a section in his “Counsels and Maxims” that is titled “Ages of Life” and which you might find interesting.
    The pertinent sections are available on-line here:
    You can navigate to other parts of the text using the links in the box on the right side of the page – you have to scroll down a bit to get to it.

  7. Hi Colin,
    That’s right. It gives us a reason (i.e., a pro tanto reason), “when young, to make as few sacrifices as possible so our golden years will be even better in this respect.” Presumably, though, we have pro tanto reasons to achieve certain worthwhile goals and to ensure that we have a happy future and that these reasons provide us with reasons to make the necessary self-sacrifices.
    Of course, you were only making a joke, but I wanted to make sure that my position is clear.

  8. There’s a recent book on this topic by a literary critic : The Long Life by Helen Small (OUP, 2007). It’s roughly half philosophy, half criticism, all mixed together.

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