Narrative and Personal Good

It is now something of a commonplace that we think about our lives in story form.[1] According to a recent article in the New York Times, psychological research into the personal narratives we tell supports the idea that we are natural storytellers. [2] “The human brain,” the article reports, “has a natural affinity for narrative construction,” and this affinity apparently informs our efforts at self-understanding and influences our efforts at self-governance; we naturally construct personal narratives, which both frame how we see ourselves and guide how we conduct ourselves. From an explanatory standpoint, psychologists have sought to understand how the fact of our being storytellers—and storytellers with particular authorial bents—might help to explain how different individuals experience their lives. Normatively, and from the standpoint of clinical practice, they have been concerned to exploit what they learn in order to help people become the sorts of storytellers who tend sincerely to report leading more satisfying lives. Research of the sort that the Times article briefly summarizes would seem to lend at least some support to the work of philosophers who have appealed to the notion of narrative in addressing a host of philosophical questions. [3]

My interest lies with appeals to narrative that seek to address philosophical questions about welfare or, as I prefer to call it, “personal good.”[4] According to what I will call the “narrativity thesis,” the welfare value of a life depends, at least in part, on its “narrative unity” or “narrative structure”—on the holding of “narrative relations” among events in that life. I shall explain and raise doubts herein about that thesis. Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to the thought that some connection exists between personal narratives and personal good, and so I shall also offer some preliminary thoughts about how our storytelling might make an impact on our good.

As I shall understand it, the narrativity thesis combines three claims. According to the first claim, “relationalism,” the welfare value of a person’s life depends not solely on its components or parts at various times (on momentary welfare), but also on its shape – on the value-affecting relations among its parts over time. According to the second claim, “narrativity,” the relevant value-affecting relations are narrative relations. Finally, according to the third claim, “irreducibility,” the holding of narrative relations among parts of a life affects the welfare value of a life in a way that is not reducible to the contribution any other factor makes to the value of a person’s life.

The first claim rests on the recognition that for creatures like us—creatures that are persons or autonomous agents—individual welfare is not simply a matter of how well one’s life is going at particular moments. An individual might be engaged, at many moments, in activities she enjoys, for example, while failing ever to realize her principal aims. Persons have capacities for reason, memory, and imagination, for goal-setting, evaluation, and higher-order reflection. The ordinary exercise of these sundry capacities has the result that persons can attend to their lives not only from moment to moment; they can also take up a view of their lives as a whole, reflecting on themselves and their existence over time. These facts about persons surely affect what it takes for a life to be good for a person. [5]

The second claim invokes the idea of a specifically “narrative” relation. As best I can understand it, a narrative relation is a distinctively “meaning affecting relation.” Two events, E1 and E2, stand in a narrative relation to one another if the occurrence of E2 can plausibly be seen as affecting the meaning or significance of E1, either alone or together with other events. To affect the meaning or significance of another event is to constrain the evaluations one can truthfully make about the event, as well as the range of appropriate emotional responses. This seems to be the idea that is at work, for example, when David Velleman argues that the reason well-being isn’t additive and that the welfare value of a life depends on the narrative relations among events in that life is that later events “alter the meaning of earlier events, thereby altering their contribution to the value of one’s life.” [6] For example, subsequent events might alter the meaning of one’s efforts, making them a waste of energy or an expenditure that “paid off.” [7]

The third claim simply makes clear what I assume to be true, namely, that those who have explored the relationship between narrative and personal good take themselves to be saying something distinctive about the nature of personal good. That is to say, talk about narrative structure and narrative relations isn’t merely a fancy or metaphorical way of talking about aspects of personal good equally well-expressed—perhaps better expressed—in other terms.

A plausible case can be made for the first claim. David Velleman has provided particularly compelling examples in support of the idea that the welfare value of a life depends in part on its shape, or as he puts it, on the order of events. Here is just one:

Consider two different lives you might live. One life begins in the depths but makes an upward trend: a childhood of deprivation, a troubled youth, struggles and setbacks in early adulthood, followed finally by success and satisfaction in middle age 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 imagine two such lives as 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. [8]

I have tried to offer elucidation of the second claim and will not explore it further here. In my view, the thesis is in need of greatest elucidation and support with respect to the third claim. How does narrative structure make a distinctive contribution to the welfare value of a life? How is it that by affecting the meaning of events in a life narrative relations affect its welfare value?

Now some have suggested that the order of events in a life affects its welfare value by affecting its meaningfulness. For example, Jeff McMahan writes that “the order of events makes a life better by making it more meaningful.”[9] Relatedly, Johann Brännmark observes that two kinds of narrative meaning are “relevant to how events affect the quality of our lives,” what he calls “contrastive meaning,” which arises from the way in which an event is situated relative to others, and “purposive meaning,” which concerns the way in which some of the things we do have a purpose or point that infuses other things we do with meaning. [10] The difficulty for this suggestion is that we lack a satisfactory account of what distinguishes assessments of a life’s meaningfulness from assessments of its welfare value, and so it is not clear what it would mean to say that narrative relations among events in a life make a life better for a person by making it more meaningful.

The basic difficulty for the narrativity thesis itself is that narrative relations and narrative structure seem to contribute nothing distinctive to the welfare value of a life; so the appeal to narrative would seem to capture nothing not already captured by extant theories of welfare.[11] Consider just two ways of illustrating the problem. As “objective list” theories emphasize, a life that is good for a person usually includes at its core engagement with or realization of at least some putatively objective goods. It includes what Stephen Darwall has called “valuing activities”—parenting, involvement with the arts, pursuit of knowledge, athletic endeavors, and other forms of development of personal excellences.[12] We know that engagement with a variety of goods takes time; indeed, it often occurs over quite an extended period of time. Moreover, valuing activities realize a good only through the activity of agents themselves, acting with a certain constancy of purpose and effort over time. No wonder, then, that the value of a life isn’t a matter merely of the value of momentary engagement in activities, undertakings, or relationships. But narrative relations do no independent work in understanding the welfare value of a life. To be sure, we can say, for example, that a person’s current success as a pianist “means” that her earlier years of study paid off. But the appeal to later events as conferring “meaning” captures nothing not already captured by appealing to the achievement of objectively valuable things over time, the successful engagement in valuing activities; and it is the latter achievement or success that partly determines the welfare value of a person’s life.

A second way of illustrating the problem appeals more explicitly to an alternative picture of the shape of a good life. John Rawls maintains that a good life for a person consists in the (approximate) realization of a rational life plan.[13] A person’s life plan will, as Rawls envisions it, involve certain central, though revisable, aims rooted in an agent’s reflective desires, with details of the plan—various sub-plans—filled in over time, and at the appropriate times, and in ways that are sensitive to an agent’s circumstances, including her options and available resources. A plan is, on Rawls’ picture, roughly a temporal and pragmatic ordering of rational desires. If a good life for a person consists in realizing a rational life plan, then failure to succeed in one’s plan amounts to failure to succeed in one’s principal aims and so failure to satisfy one’s central rational desires. Of course, we can say, for example, that the fact that a person has a successful medical practice “means” that her earlier investments of time and effort paid off. But the appeal to meaning, to narrative relations, captures nothing not already captured by appeal to successful realization, at least in part, of a rational plan of life. Again, the notion of narrative relations, the appeal to how later events affect the “significance” of earlier events, appears to make no independent contribution to the welfare value of a life.[14]

Undoubtedly, events in a life provide the materials from which a narrative can be constructed, and we can sensibly describe subsequent events as altering the meaning of earlier events. From the standpoint of value, however, all the work appears to be done by value-relevant facts about a person’s life, facts about her success or failure relative to aims, ends, desires, plans, or goods. It seems clear enough how, given earlier events, subsequent events might alter the value of one’s life. Earlier events were events of pursuing central desires, setting out to achieve a good, take steps to fulfill a plan of life. Later events determined whether one successfully pursued one’s desires, achieved something of genuine value, effectively implemented one’s plan. A life in which a person satisfies her most central and informed desires, attains genuine goods, succeeds in her rational aims, seems, ceteris paribus, a better life for her than one in which she does not.

Despite the doubts I have just raised about the narrativity thesis, I am sympathetic to the idea that our personal narratives make some distinctive contribution to personal good. Here, I want to offer some brief speculations. If we are to see how narrative relations can, by affecting meaning, make a distinctive difference to the welfare value of a life, we need to think about narrative functionally: we need to think about the effects of our storytelling about our lives. Where narrative does its distinctive work, I suggest, lies in the way that constructing and internalizing narratives about our lives can help us to effect or sustain a certain relationship to our lives and to ourselves as “author/protagonist.”

I have argued elsewhere that something is good for a person when she stands in a relation of “fit” or “suitability” to that thing and that this relation has certain characteristic features.[15] When a person is so related to a thing—an activity, undertaking, or relationship with another—her engagement tends to support her sense of her own worth or value. It tends to be enlivening rather than enervating. It tends to provide an important component of her identity and a sense of direction in life, and so to contribute to her self-understanding. And finally, it provides a source of internal motivation. We can stand in the good-for relation to a variety of pursuits and people. Although some of the things that comprise our good may fit us “right off the rack,” so to speak, many others become a part of our good—come to be related to us in the right way—only through our effort. Partly through our choices, training, and action, our adjustments of our attitudes and expectations, we work to bring ourselves into a relationship—a fit—with what come to be our central vocations and avocations. Through our efforts, we bring ourselves into the interpersonal connections that come to be our central human loves.

My hunch is that what our storytelling does in affecting our good is of a piece with what our other activities do in bringing us into the good-for relation with many of those things that come to be a part of our good.[16] The narrative relations that hold between events in a life constrain the evaluations a person can truthfully make about events, but they do not ordinarily necessitate a particular life story. It is open to a person to entertain many faithful narratives about her life, depending on how she interprets events and on which events she emphasizes. My suggestion is that internalizing certain narratives can affect a person’s good by helping her, as she reflects on events in her life, and as she takes up a view of herself and her life, to see herself and her life in a way that supports her sense of her own worth, that helps to secure her sense of who she is and a sense of direction, and that motivates her to move forward.

I am suggesting that it is, in part—though only in part—through our storytelling that we secure a relatively ongoing relation of fit to our lives and to ourselves as the author/protagonist of those lives. I say only in part, because, of course, the way that we secure a fit with ourselves and our lives is, in the first instance, by doing what it takes to provide the materials from which attractive stories can be constructed. Lives in which we have successful relationships, careers, commitments, and pastimes, not merely at a time, but over time, naturally provide the makings for compelling narratives. So do lives which develop in ways that can be represented in stories of overcoming hardship, of redeeming past mistakes, of steady improvement — lives, that is, with generally uphill trajectories. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that in living such lives, we actually achieve things of value that benefit us; we actually succeed in aims that matter to us. But we also get the benefit that comes of being the controlling authority over ourselves and our lives, of being able to make sense of our lives and to represent them to ourselves as a product, ultimately, of our own autonomous efforts.

If my speculations are on the right track, we can see why our storytelling would be especially important in the face of failure, while contributing to our welfare across the range of more or less successful lives we might find ourselves living. When we have experienced relative success in securing our good—when we have embarked on careers we find stimulating and in which we can find some real success, when our principal relationships are healthy, when we are able to pursue our aims effectively—we will almost automatically thereby have secured a fit with ourselves and our lives; we will have a sense of ourselves as controlling authority over ourselves and our lives. It is when we fall short, when our careers are marred by failure or misfit, our principal relationships are unhealthy, we are ineffective in pursuing our aims, that effort may be needed to prevent ourselves from becoming alienated or disconnected from ourselves and our lives or to restore a connection when disconnect has occurred. I conjecture that it is the effects of our storytelling which I have been describing that psychologists try to exploit insofar as they seek to enable us to be happier autobiographers.[17]


[1] This brief essay is drawn from a manuscript entitled “The Story of a Life.”

[2] See Benedict Carey, “This is Your Life (and How You Tell It),” New York Times, May 22, 2007,

[3] Of course, some would question the psychological research. They would deny that they think about themselves or their lives in narrative terms, that they are “authorial agents,” that they take any concern with how their lives cohere considered as a whole. They would insist that the only self of which they are aware and in which they take any interest is the self they are now, and that their only concern with respect to their own lives is for the here and now. See Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity,” Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December (2004): 0034–0006.

[4] For some examples of work that suggests connections between narrative and personal good, see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), J. David Velleman, “Well-Being and Time,” reprinted in The Possibility of Practical Reason, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 78-79, Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Johan Brännmark, “Leading Lives: On Happiness and Narrative Meaning,” Philosophical Papers 32 (2003): 321-343.

[5] For related ideas, see Velleman (2000: 78-79): “…a person himself has both a synchronic and a diachronic identity. The perspectives from which synchronic interests are assessed, unlike the financial perspective, are not optional points of view that a person may or may not adopt from time to time. They are perspectives that a person necessarily inhabits as he proceeds through life, perspectives that are partly definitive of who he is. An essential and significant feature of persons is that they are creatures who naturally live their lives from the successive viewpoints of individual moments, as well as from a comprehensive, diachronic point of view.”

[6] Velleman (2000: 58).

[7] See Velleman (2000: 68). Velleman concludes that the value of a life is what he calls a “strongly irreducible second-order good,” where a second-order good is “a valuable state of affairs consisting in some fact about other goods” and its irreducibility requires that it “possess value over and above that of its component first-order goods…” Velleman (2000: 69-70).

[8] Velleman (2000: 58).

[9] McMahan (2002: 178, and, more generally, 175-180).

[10] Brännmark (2003: 337). In discussing the importance of narrative meaning to the value of our lives, Brännmark rejects Susan Wolf’s position of “regarding meaning and happiness simply as two components of the human good.” He insists that “Once we truly grant importance to such matters it does … seem more reasonable to understand meaning as something more pervasive, as something that modifies, or at least is potentially able to modify, the value contributed to our good by most of the things that make up our lives” (337).

[11] For skeptical worries different from the one I consider, see Brännmark’s brief discussion (2003: 321-322).

[12] See Stephen Darwall, Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), Ch. IV.

[13] See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), §§63-64.

[14] Perhaps those who have emphasized the importance of narrativity, or the holding of narrative relations among events in a life, merely meant to call attention to the fact that the value of our lives requires the presence of goods the attainment of which requires sustained and successful effort over time. Or perhaps they meant their talk merely to be another way of expressing the need for the sort of structure in a life that others would express by talking in terms of a rational life plan. I assume, however, that if this were all they meant to say, they would have made that clear. But see, e.g., Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 47-51, where he discusses the idea of our having a narrative understanding of our lives in relation to our need, as agents, to have an orientation toward the good.

[15] See Connie S. Rosati, “Personal Good,” in Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons (eds.), Metaethics After Moore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[16] See Rosati (2006).

[17] According to the Times article briefly discussed in the introduction of this essay, psychologists have observed , among other things, that persons who are able to reinterpret painful episodes with greater compassion fare better. And some of the effects of psychotherapy, when it works, are attributed to the way in which it enables people who feel helpless to alter their self-stories so as to restore a sense of their own power. Assuming that the research on which these claims rest is reliable, my philosophical speculations fit nicely with the empirical findings.

3 comments to Narrative and Personal Good

  • This is an excellent piece, but I don’t think you’ve given Galen Strawson’s critique its due. Strawson distinguishes (1) a psychological claim – everyone understands her own life as a narrative – from (2) a normative claim – everyone should so understand her life – and denies both. You note his denial of (1) – Strawson says he doesn’t understand himself at all narratively, and suspects that plenty of other people don’t either. But you don’t engage with his attack on (2): Strawson thinks that narrative self-understanding may well be bad for us. Your hunch that telling a life story may be a way to deal especially with bad circumstances seems vulnerable to this thought: the proper response to bad circumstances is to try to change them, not to tell a self-deluding story which makes things seem alright.

    More generally, your hunch seems to have a subjectivist assumption in the background: that whether someone’s life is going well is importantly a matter of whether she is satisfied with it, or perhaps better whether she can make sense of it. But objectivists – me, for example – are going to insist that someone can be radically wrong about how well her life is going. To pick an extreme example, consider the miserable fact that many victims of domestic abuse adjust their understanding of their own lives such that (they say) they want to be in that abusive relationship, it’s what they deserve, etc. That narrative seems both delusive and poisonous, and a less satisfying, less sense-making story could well be better for that person (not least because it would be true).

  • Thank you for your comment, Sam. I’m sure you can appreciate that in such a short entry, it would be difficult to address Strawson adequately, while also addressing the issue I most wanted to consider. But let me explain why I do not address Strawson directly even in the longer manuscript from which the excerpt is drawn.

    As I see it, or at least as saw it when I last read his article, Strawson’s claims do not have much direct bearing on the issue that most interests me (though I’ll be sure to reread the article when I am ready to revise the manuscript). First, regarding the psychological claim, I myself don’t contend that everyone understands his own life in narrative form, and I wouldn’t particularly want to take issue with Strawson’s self-report or conjectures about other people. I merely repeat a claim reported in an article without taking a position on it. My own misgivings about the psychological claim partly concern whether we have a clear enough understanding of what counts as thinking of one’s life in “narrative” terms. If the requirements for narrative thinking are fairly complex, involving, say, a complete whole-life story, then it is extremely doubtful that most people think of their lives in this way. If the requirements are pretty simple and easily met, then the claim that people think about their lives in story form begins to look trivial. Second, regarding Strawson’s normative claim, whether thinking of our lives in narrative form is bad for us depends on what it involves. I talk in terms of stories that are faithful to the facts. I do not mean to offer a brief on behalf of “self-deluding” stories, though I accept that most of us engage in a certain amount of self-deception and that self-deception may sometimes be a benefit. In any case, there is no incompatibility between my suggestion as to how our storytelling might have a welfare impact and the thought that “the proper response to bad circumstances is to try to change them.” On the contrary, internalizing a story that gives a person a sense of being the controlling authority over her own life might well be critical to her ability to undertake the needed changes.

    In any case, my interest was not with defending the telling of personal narratives but rather with understanding how narrative could have any welfare impact at all. For reasons offered in the entry and the manuscript, it seems that on extant appeals to narrative, narrative does not itself contribute anything to personal good. I was interested in the question of whether there is any way to make out a connection between personal narratives and personal good that has narrative itself doing some distinctive work.

    As for your more general sense that my position rests on subjectivist assumptions, I certainly don’t think that whether a person’s life is going well is importantly a matter of whether she’s satisfied with it. At least, that’s no part of my analysis of personal good. Just how the view I defend elsewhere is or is not subjectivist is not a matter I’ve given much thought, mostly because I have doubts about the clarity and importance of the distinction between subjectivist and objectivist accounts of personal good. It seems to me that any plausible subjectivism would and could allow that individuals can be pretty radically mistaken about how their lives are going. Informed-desire theories, for example, certainly allow this. You raise the problem of adaptive preferences, and I agree that any welfare theorist will want to have something to say about that problem, as well as about the limits of self-deception. But again, my point is not about delusive narratives, and so I can agree with you that adopting a story that seriously distorts the truth about one’s situation tends to be problematic; to put the point in my own terms, such a story wouldn’t give one a “fit” with one’s life. Again, my interest was in trying to see how narrative—how our storytelling—might itself make a welfare impact. I was neither advocating that we construct personal narratives nor arguing that they are in any way central to personal good.

    There is much more to be said, of course, but I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks again.

  • Gary Comstock

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