Population Ethics with Negative Welfare

 

B.Contestabile       admin@socrethics.com       Aug 2016

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Abstract

 

1.  Introduction

2.  The Negative Repugnant Conclusion

3.  Lives (Not) Worth Living

4.  (A)symmetric Scales

5.  Theory versus Practice

6.  Conclusion

 

References 

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

 

Starting point

Population ethics with negative total welfare only exists in theory. A positive total suggests that it is morally justified to expand populations. The positive scenario, however, is far from trivial, see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

 

 

Type of problem

Why does population ethics – in practice – always assume that total welfare is positive?

What are the consequences for population ethics, if total welfare is negative – as suggested by the Buddhist Truths?

 

 

Result

There is enough suffering in this world in order to justify the Buddhist view, but there is a deep-rooted (biological) interest to evaluate human life positively. The most important surveys on life satisfaction

- exclude negative numbers so that the totals are necessarily positive.

- use linear and symmetric scales, so that the happiness of the majority compensates the suffering of the minority.

 

If total welfare is negative, then utilitarianism suggests shrinking populations. This policy, however, is confronted with the Negative Repugnant Conclusion. If the shrinking process increases the degree of suffering then it is questionable if the quantitative reduction justifies the qualitative increase of suffering. The most obvious way to circumvent the problem consists in switching to negative average utilitarianism.

 

 

 

 

 

1.  Introduction

 

 

Starting point

Population ethics with negative total welfare only exists in theory. A positive total suggests that it is morally justified to expand populations. The positive scenario, however, is far from trivial, see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

 

 

Type of problem

Why does population ethics – in practice – always assume that total welfare is positive?

What are the consequences for population ethics, if total welfare is negative – as suggested by the Buddhist Truths?

 

 

 

2.  The Negative Repugnant Conclusion

 

For populations with negative total welfare [Contestabile 2010, 110] there is a mirror image of the Mere Addition Paradox:

                                                 

Fig.1

   

 

In Fig.1 population A, B and C have a negative quality of life. Population A is at the negative maximum, i.e. all preferences are dissatisfied. In classical utilitarianism, the only criterion which is used to evaluate populations with negative value is the accumulated suffering:

 

         Intuition 1:

A+C is worse than A, as long as all lives in C are not worth living.

The suffering of the additional people C is added to the one of A.

 

         Intuition 2:

Let’s assume that state 2 and 3 contain the same number of people. Then

B is worse than A+C, as long as the accumulated suffering in B is higher than in A+C.

 

If B is worse than A+C, then it is also worse than A. This, however, leads to the so-called Negative Repugnant Conclusion:

 

A very large population (B) with a minimally negative welfare is worse than

a very small population (A) with an extremely negative welfare

as long as the sum of suffering in B is greater than in A.

 

The Negative Repugnant Conclusion disappears, if we assume that the additional population C does not worsen the state of affairs, i.e. if we assume that the lives in population C are worth living. The more the suffering of the C population approaches the negative maximum, however, the more this view becomes counter-intuitive. How could A+C not be worse than A, if the C-population severely suffers? And why should a suffering population be better than an empty population? There are two ways to defend this intuition:

         Devaluate non-existence; associate non-existence with immeasurable loss and eternal night.

         Upgrade existence; compensate (negative) states of suffering with the (positive) will to survive.

 

 

 

3.  Lives (not) worth living

 

Intuitions about non-existence are driven by the interest to avoid suffering/frustration and the (conflicting) interest to survive [Contestabile 2010, 109-111].

The intuition that suffering has a higher moral value than non-existence is e.g. defended in hospitals, where the prime interest is to avoid death. In many hospitals it is assumed that even in a state of horrible suffering there is still a minimal quality of life. Since these hospitals do not know lives with negative welfare, death is given the value zero (see Quality-adjusted life year, Wikipedia).

         If this axiology is applied to population ethics, then there are only populations with positive totals, so that the Repugnant Conclusion applies (Fig.2, left hand side).

         The mirror image of this axiology can be found in negative preference utilitarianism, where the prime interest is to avoid frustrations [Contestabile 2014, 307-308]. If there are only populations with negative totals, then the Negative Repugnant Conclusion applies (Fig.2, right hand side).

 

Fig.2

According to utilitarian theory there is a level of welfare, at which the value of a life is neutral [Broome, 142]. Above this level a life is worth living, below it is not worth living. A neutral life is given the value zero on the hedonistic scale [Broome, 257]. Lives worth living get a positive sign, lives not worth living a negative sign:

         In the hospital axiology every life has a positive sign (Fig.2, left hand side)

         In negative preference utilitarianism every life has a negative sign (Fig.2, right hand side)

In classical utilitarianism happy lives have a positive sign and suffering lives a negative sign. As a consequence both kinds of repugnant conclusions apply (Fig3).

 

Fig.3

 

Attempts have been made to mitigate the repugnant conclusions:

         The so-called critical level utilitarianism [Blackorby] maintains that it is unethical to create new lives that fall below a critical level of welfare. Lives below this critical level are given a negative sign. In this case the Repugnant Conclusion is mitigated, but the Negative Repugnant Conclusion aggravated (Fig.4, left hand side).

         If, conversely, an axiology tolerates a certain level of suffering by giving it a positive sign, then the Negative Repugnant Conclusion is mitigated, but the Repugnant Conclusion aggravated (Fig.4, right hand side).

The classical utilitarian setting in Fig.3 avoids the aggravated forms of the repugnant conclusions and represents a kind of compromise or equilibrium [Broome, 213-214, 264]

 

Fig.4

 

 

4.  (A)symmetric scales

 

So far we adopted the classical utilitarian view that the hedonistic scale is linear and symmetric (Fig.5, left hand side). If the scale is symmetric, then – according to surveys on life satisfaction – the suffering of the minority (shaded square) can be compensated by happiness of the majority (white square) and the resulting total is positive. In classical utilitarianism negative totals (Fig.3 right hand side) could only occur in catastrophic scenarios. In order to express the intuition that “the actual suffering in the world cannot be compensated by happiness” one has to

         use asymmetric scales as practiced in negative utilitarianism or

         multiply the symmetric scale by an asymmetric weighting function – as practiced in prioritarianism

(Fig.5, right hand side)

 

What is the impact of asymmetric scales on population ethics?

If the same asymmetric scale is applied to all populations under consideration, then it has no influence on comparisons:

 

The core idea of the Priority View is that gains in welfare matter more, the worse off people are, and losses in welfare matter less, the better off people are. Prioritarianism defines an axiology for societies with the same number of people [Arrhenius, 110]

 

Fig.5

 

The asymmetry has an influence, however, if non-empty populations are compared with an empty population [Contestabile 2016].

In our example

       the symmetric scale (Fig.5 left hand side) makes the population better than an empty population,

       the asymmetric scale (Fig.5 right hand side) makes it worse than an empty population.

 

Similar to the intuitions about lives (not) worth living, the intuitions about (a)symmetric scales are driven by the interest to avoid suffering/frustration and the (conflicting) interest to survive:

       Symmetric scales are defended by the majority, who believes that survival justifies global suffering.

       Asymmetric scales are defended by the minority, who believes that survival cannot justify the actual suffering in the world.

 

 

 

5.  Theory versus Practice

 

 

Lives (not) worth living

There is enough suffering and risk in this world in order to justify the Buddhist view, but there is no deep-rooted (biological) interest to shrink populations. As a consequence there is – in practice – no population ethics with negative totals. The most important surveys on life satisfaction use the hospital axiology so that the totals are necessarily positive. There are lives with low quality, but no negative numbers. Positive numbers insinuate that every life is worth living. Examples: OECD Better Life Index, Satisfaction with Life Index, Where-to-be-born Index, World Happiness Report.

 

 

(A)symmetric scales

There is enough horror in this world in order to question symmetric scales, but there is a deep-rooted (biological) interest to evaluate human life positively. The most important surveys use linear and symmetric scales, so that the happiness of the majority compensates the suffering of the minority. The positive utilitarian scenario, however, is far from trivial. The Buddhist denial of the world cannot easily be dismissed as being irrational [Contestabile 2016].

 

 

Aggregation

In order to compare the welfare of nations one has to use averages so that the population size doesn’t matter. In this case the Repugnant Conclusion does not apply, because it is not possible to improve the average by simply expanding a population.

Average utilitarianism is the most popular theory among welfare economists [Arrhenius, 53].

In theory average utilitarianism is counter-intuitive, because

       a single person with a certain average quality of life (e.g. 61% of max.) is morally better than

       a huge population with a minimally lesser average (e.g. 60% of max.)

However, since in practice there are no single-person nations, the neglect of the population size is accepted.

 

Is average utilitarianism also applicable for populations with negative totals?

Let us assume that the majorities’ positive perception is distorted and the Buddhist’s negative perception realistic. In this case average utilitarianism is still a plausible method of aggregation, because it avoids the Negative Repugnant Conclusion. For more information on this axiology see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.

 

 

Optimization

The relation between population size and quality of life is a complex matter, but it is plausible to assume that there is an optimal range of population sizes, below and above which the average quality of life decreases. The optimum range depends on the historical situation; see Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering.

There are simulation models that estimate the GDP per capita for different demographic trends, so that in theory, it is possible to derive a population policy which optimizes average welfare. In practice, however, the simulation models are not reliable (so far) and life satisfaction cannot be reduced to economic welfare (see Short History of Welfare Economics).

 

 

 

6.  Conclusion

 

There is enough suffering in this world in order to justify the Buddhist view, but there is a deep-rooted (biological) interest to evaluate human life positively. The most important surveys on life satisfaction

- exclude negative numbers so that the totals are necessarily positive.

- use linear and symmetric scales, so that the happiness of the majority compensates the suffering of the minority.

 

If total welfare is negative, then utilitarianism suggests shrinking populations. This policy, however, is confronted with the Negative Repugnant Conclusion. If the shrinking process increases the degree of suffering then it is questionable if the quantitative reduction justifies the qualitative increase of suffering. The most obvious way to circumvent the problem consists in switching to negative average utilitarianism.

 

 

 

References

 

1.      Anderson Ron (2012), Human Suffering and Measures of Human Progress, Presentation for a RC55 Session of the International Sociological Association Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina

2.      Arrhenius Gustav (2000), Future Generations, A Challenge for Moral Theory, FD-Diss., Uppsala University, Dept. of Philosopy, Uppsala: University Printers

3.      Blackorby Charles, Bossert Walter, Donaldson David (2004), Critical Level Population Principles and the Repugnant Conclusion, in The Repugnant Conclusion, Essays on Population Ethics, Kluwer Academic Publishers

4.      Broome John (2004), Weighing Lives, Oxford University Press, New York

5.      Contestabile Bruno (2010), On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.11, No.1, 103-113, Routledge, London

6.      Contestabile, Bruno (2014), Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.15, No.2, 298–311, Routledge, London

7.      Contestabile, Bruno (2016), The Denial of the World from an Impartial View, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.17, No.1, 49-61, Routledge, London