Tradeoffs between good and bad parts of lives

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In discussions about the disvalue of bad parts of life compared to the value of good parts of life, one idea that comes up is what tradeoffs someone makes or would make.1 For example, someone might say “I would accept 1 day of torture in exchange for living 10 extra happy years.” But there are a number of complications related to such ideas. For example, a person might make one judgment at home in front of her computer and a different one when actually under torture.

Priority: 8/10

Research questions

  • What, if anything, can be concluded from the actual or hypothetical tradeoffs people make?
  • Are some of people’s statements or actions about tradeoffs reliable indicators of the value and disvalue of the choices? If so, which statements and actions?
  • What do past torture victims think about these kinds of tradeoffs? Many people haven't ever experienced extreme suffering and so may not understand how bad it can be. Is there any level and any amount of good life for which the torture victim would re-live her torture?
  • Do retrospective judgments of the badness of pain differ from in-the-moment assessments?2
  • How should we make tradeoffs between large amounts of mild suffering (e.g., lifelong leg deformities in a broiler chicken) vs. short periods of extremely intense suffering (e.g., a broiler chicken who fails to have his/her throat slit gets boiled alive in a defeathering tank)? Can pain scales like the McGill Pain Questionnaire inform these questions?


For some theories of value, such as Buddhist axiology, the tradeoff to accept 1 day of torture in exchange for living 10 extra happy years is not a tradeoff between a short period of quality of life “on the minus side” and a long period of life “on the plus side.” Rather, as long as the 10 extra happy years are troubled by something such as a desire to change one’s situation, the 10 extra happy years are not on any “plus side,” but rather not as good as, for example, a state of meditative tranquility or nonexistence. For this research topic, we suggest leaving it open whether value theories such as Buddhist axiology are correct, and investigate tradeoffs between good and bad parts of life from the perspective that the happy years may be “on the plus side” or better than nonexistence.

Examples of related topics

Time Trade-Off Method

A method used in health economics, see Wikipedia's article on time trade-off. References include:

  • Attema, Arthur E., et al. “Time Trade-off: One Methodology, Different Methods.” The European Journal of Health Economics 14 (2013): 53–64.
  • Robinson, A., and A. Spencer. “Exploring Challenges to TTO Utilities: Valuing States Worse than Dead.” Health Econ. (2006): 393–402.
  • Tilling, Carl, et al. “Protocols for Time Tradeoff Valuations of Health States Worse than Dead: A Literature Review.” Medical Decision Making (2010).

Revealed preference

Wikipedia's article on revealed preferences.

Other related works


  1. Such tradeoffs may be relevant for questions about what weight one should give such badness and goodness in one’s moral deliberations.  (back)
  2. See, for instance, empathy gap and "Remembrance of labor pain: how valid are retrospective pain measurements?"  (back)