tumblr visitor





Lives Worth Living and Repugnant Conclusions


by Socrethics   First version 2014   Last version 2018







Table of Contents


1.  Introduction

2.  Extreme Asymmetry

3.  Moderate Asymmetry

4.  Symmetry






1.  Introduction


In the following we will discuss population ethics with different notions of a live worth living: 

         Extreme asymmetry means

o   every life is worth living or  

o   no life is worth living


         Moderate asymmetry means

o   a life is worth living, if it reaches a certain level of happiness or

o   a life is worth living, if it does not fall below a certain level of suffering.


         Symmetry corresponds to the utilitarian definition of a life worth living.

According to utilitarian theory there is a level of welfare, at which the value of a life is neutral [Broome 2004, 142]. Above this level a life is worth living, below it is not worth living. A neutral life has the value zero on the hedonistic scale [Broome 2004, 257].


The term (positive) welfare is used as a synonym for happiness and well-being in this paper.




2.  Extreme Asymmetry



Conventional Horror and Reverse Repugnant Conclusion

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

1.      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. Since these hospitals do not know lives with negative welfare, death is given the value zero (see Quality-adjusted life year, Wikipedia). Even the most horrible life is considered to be worthy of preservation [Contestabile 2014, 299-300]. We call this the Conventional Horror (Fig.1, left hand side). According to the hospital ideology the will to live creates a positive feeling, which compensates suffering. More realistically, however, the patient only has a choice between two evils:

a.      The suffering caused by illness, injuries, age-related morbidity etc.

b.     The suffering caused by the imagination of a painful death and non-existence.

2.      The complete opposite can be found in negative preference utilitarianism [Contestabile 2014, 307-308] where even an almost perfect life is not worth living. This is called the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion [Stanford, chapter 2.4] (Fig 1, right hand side).



Hospital                                               Negative Preference

            axiology                                                   Utilitarianism

Intuition and interest

1.      The Hospital axiology is counter-intuitive, because even nearly maximum suffering is given a positive value and non-existence is given a neutral value (zero). This tolerance of suffering makes sense, however, in a “biological” axiology which assigns the maximum negative value to non-existence. The “biological axiology” is driven by the interest to survive under all circumstances.

2.      Negative Preference Utilitarianism is counter-intuitive, because even almost perfect happiness is given a negative value and non-existence is given a neutral value (zero). This degradation of happiness makes sense, however, in perfectionist Buddhism [Contestabile 2010, 107] which assigns the maximum positive value to non-existence. Perfectionist Buddhism is driven by the interest to experienceeternal truth and bliss” (Brahman) after death. The Brahman concept originates in Hinduism and was later adopted by some forms of Buddhism [Fowler, 34].

The hospital axiology is closer to the majority’s intuition, because it has a biological root.



Positive and Negative Repugnant Conclusion

Furthermore above axiologies are characterized by two Repugnant Conclusions that have to do with the relation between quantity and quality.

1.      If the hospital axiology is applied to population ethics, then there are only populations with positive totals, so that the (Positive) Repugnant Conclusion applies [Contestabile 2010, 105] (Fig.2, left hand side).

2.      The mirror image of this axiology can be found in negative preference utilitarianism, where the prime interest is to avoid frustrations. If there are only populations with negative totals, then the Negative Repugnant Conclusion applies [Broome 2004, 213-214] (Fig.2, right hand side).




3.  Moderate Asymmetry


Attempts have been made to mitigate the repugnant conclusions:

         The so-called critical level utilitarianism [Blackorby, 2004] [Contestabile 2010, 110] 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.3, 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.3, right hand side).




4. Symmetry



Classical utilitarianism

A neutral life is given the value zero on the hedonistic scale [Broome 2004, 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.1, left hand side)

         In Negative Preference Utilitarianism every life has a negative sign (Fig.1, 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. The classical utilitarian setting in Fig.4 avoids the aggravated forms of the repugnant conclusions and represents a kind of compromise or equilibrium [Broome 2004, 213-214, 264].





Negative total welfare

A negative total (national, global) welfare can be caused

         by catastrophic scenarios within classical utilitarianism (Fig.4, right hand side)

         by negative asymmetric axiologies, applied to “normal” scenarios.


There are two basic approaches to implement negative asymmetric axiologies:

-        Asymmetric notions of a life worth living as described in chapter 2 and 3

-        Weighting functions and asymmetric hedonistic scales as described in Hostility to Life and the Minimization of Suffering.






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

2.      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

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

4.      Contestabile Bruno (2010), On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics, Contemporary Buddhism, Vol.11, Issue 1, 103-113, Routledge, London

5.      Contestabile Bruno (2014), Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition, Contemporary Buddhism, Vol.15, Issue 2, 298–311, Routledge, London

6.      Fowler Merv (1999), Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic, Brighton