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Negative Utilitarian Population Ethics

 

B.Contestabile   First version 2014   Last version 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Abstract

 

1.  Introduction

2.  Notions of a Life Worth Living

     2.1  Overview

     2.2  Negative Preference Utilitarianism

     2.3  Reverting the Better-Than Relation

     2.4  Normative Considerations

3.  The Compensation of Quality by Quantity

     3.1  Linear Metric

     3.2  Non-Linear Metric

     3.3  Normative Considerations

     3.4  Comparison with Distributive Justice

4.  Conclusion

 

References 

Further Reading

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

 

Starting point

The Mere Addition Paradox was identified by Derek Parfit [Parfit 1984, Chapter 19]. It is characterized by the so-called Repugnant Conclusion, which says that (measured by the value of total welfare)

- a large population with a minimal average welfare can be ethically better than

- a small population with a high average welfare.

For a description and analysis see On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics.

 

 

Type of problem

A possible approach to remove the Repugnant Conclusion consists in revising the classical utilitarian notion of a life worth living [Stanford, chapter 2.4].  It turns out, however, that such revisions produce new counter-intuitive results. Gustav Arrhenius’ impossibility theorem of population ethics casts doubts on the whole project of finding a normative theory that coheres with our considered moral beliefs [Arrhenius, 265] [Spears].

 

 

Result

The Mere Addition Paradox can be avoided by a non-linear aggregation of qualities of life, which makes it impossible to replace very high qualities by very low qualities. The linear scales of classical utilitarianism do not adequately reflect the majorities’ intuitions (otherwise there wouldn’t be a Repugnant Conclusion). Linear scales overrate the value of low qualities in large populations.

 

Since the proposed non-linear metric prevents both

- an ethics of population growth, which produces lives barely worth living (Repugnant Conclusion) as well as

- an ethics of population decline, at the cost of an extremely suffering minority (Negative Repugnant Conclusion)

we could associate it with compassion or sympathy and therefore also with prioritarianism or (modern) negative utilitarianism. We prefer the latter term because of John Broome’s finding that prioritarianism – applied to general (not economic) welfare – is actually a metric within modern hedonistic utilitarianism [Broome 1991, 221-222].

 

The paradoxes of population ethics are caused by conflicting intuitions within a two parameter model (average welfare and population size). Conflicting intuitions are driven by conflicting interests. In the Mere Addition Paradox these interests are “quantity versus quality” respectively “expansionism versus perfectionism”. The proposed solution represents a compromise in this conflict. A compromise does not have the normative force of a mathematical proof. But the same is true, for example, with prioritarian welfare functions and progressive tax systems.

 

 

 

 

 

1.  Introduction

 

 

Starting point

The Mere Addition Paradox was identified by Derek Parfit [Parfit 1984, Chapter 19]. It is characterized by the so-called Repugnant Conclusion, which says that (measured by the value of total welfare)

-        a large population with a minimal average welfare can be ethically better than

-        a small population with a high average welfare.

For a description and analysis see On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics.

 

 

Type of problem

A possible approach to remove the Repugnant Conclusion consists in revising the classical utilitarian notion of a life worth living [Stanford, chapter 2.4]. It turns out, however, that such revisions produce new counter-intuitive results. Gustav Arrhenius’ impossibility theorem of population ethics casts doubts on the whole project of finding a normative theory that coheres with our considered moral beliefs [Arrhenius, 265] [Spears].

 

 

 

2.  Notions of a Life Worth Living

 

 

2.1 Overview

 

 

Semantics

For the purpose of this paper we can treat the terms happiness, (positive) welfare, quality of life and life satisfaction as synonyms.

The term suffering accordingly stands for uncompensated suffering [Fricke, 18] and is a synonym for negative welfare.

 

In the context of population ethics we use the term axiology for the combination of

-        a structure of the hedonistic scale (linear or non-linear), including a notion of the life worth living and

-        a rule for aggregating welfare

 

 

Major notions

Changing the notion of a life worth living has a profound impact on the “better than” relation in population ethics and on the production of repugnant conclusions in particular. In order to investigate this impact we consider the notion of a life worth living as a parameter (like average welfare and population size). The major notions are the following:

         Extreme asymmetry

o   every life is worth living (i.e. non-existence is the worst case)

o   no life is worth living (i.e. non-existence is the best case)

         Moderate asymmetry

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 classical utilitarian definition of a life worth living. According to this definition 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].

 

Following the major notions of a life worth living in more detail:

 

 

Extreme asymmetry

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. 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, a conclusion which is repugnant for many people (Fig.1, left hand side) [Contestabile 2014, 299-300].

-        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 (Fig 1, right hand side).

 

Fig.1                                           

Hospital                                               Negative Preference

            axiology                                                   Utilitarianism

 

The value given to non-existence determines the kind of happiness that is pursued [Contestabile 2010, 107]:

-        If non-existence (of the ego) is associated with the worst case, then it makes sense to pursue the biological kind of happiness and strive for immortality.

-        If non-existence (of the ego) is associated with the best case, then it makes sense to pursue the meditative kind of happiness and eliminate desires.

 

Above axiologies entail 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 every life has a positive sign, so that there are only populations with positive totals (Fig.1, left hand side). This axiology is characterized by an extreme version of the (positive) Repugnant Conclusion (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. Every life has a negative sign, so that there are only populations with negative totals (Fig.1, right hand side). This axiology is characterized by an extreme version of the Negative Repugnant Conclusion (Fig.2, right hand side) [Broome 2004, 213-214].

 

Fig.2

 

Moderate Asymmetry

Attempts have been made to mitigate the Repugnant Conclusions:

-        To ease the discomfort of the Repugnant Conclusion, one could raise the notion of a life worth living (the neutral level) to a reasonably good quality of life [Broome 2004, 213]. In this case the Repugnant Conclusion is mitigated, but the Negative Repugnant Conclusion aggravated.

-        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.

 

 

Symmetry

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.3 avoids the aggravated forms of the Repugnant Conclusions and represents a kind of compromise or equilibrium [Broome 2004, 213-214, 264].

 

Fig.3

 

 

2.2 Negative Preference Utilitarianism (NPU)

 

 

Semantics

There are two definitions of the term preference:

1)      In antifrustrationism (and most philosophical papers) the term means desire. Associated terms are interest, attachment, motivation, goal, reason to act etc. Desires are tied to emotions and control behavior.

2)      In welfare economics (microeconomics in particular) and social choice the term defines a preference of ordering. The context is a choice between any variables that affect social welfare, mostly a choice between products or services.

Example: A consumer has a preference (desire) for apples. The same consumer also has a preference (desire) for oranges. If we say that the consumer prefers apples to oranges, then we rank preferences. The ranking is a preference in the economist sense.

-       The philosophical term preference (desire) is a rough preference of ordering (like something, indifference, dislike something)

-       The economic term is a specification of the philosophical term in a concrete situation of choice.

Today’s economists instinctively think comparative; philosophers seem not to (Ethics out of Economics, page 9)

Mostly the context discloses which interpretation makes sense.

 

Preference utilitarianism is usually seen as an alternative to hedonistic utilitarianism. There is a connection between the two theories, however, because preference-satisfaction is a kind of happiness and preference-frustration is a kind of suffering. But the connection is only obvious, if non-hedonistic preferences can be given a hedonistic re-interpretation.

 

 

Antifrustrationism

Antifrustrationism can be characterized by the following statements:

What matters about preferences is not that they have a satisfied existence, but that they don’t have a frustrated existence [Fehige, 518].

The satisfaction of a preference is not morally better than the non-existence of this preference. Preference-satisfaction has no moral value

 

Antifrustrationism does not prescribe a method of aggregating preferences. But preferences have to be ordered; otherwise the theory is meaningless [Broome 1999, 9-10]. If we assume that the highest order preference of human behavior is life satisfaction then antifrustrationism says that there are only lives with negative value [Stanford, chapter 2.4]. If non-existence is seen as the best possible state, then actual lives can only be worse.

 

 

Definition

Negative preference utilitarianism (NPU) minimizes the aggregated total preference-frustration in a population [Fricke, 20]

(where preference-frustration is measured as the difference to a perfect life satisfaction).

 

NPU is counter-intuitive because

-        no state of affairs can be better than non-existence

-        even almost perfect life satisfaction is given a negative value (so called Reverse Repugnant Conclusion).

 

A theory about welfare that denies the possibility of lives worth living is quite counter-intuitive [Ryberg, 140-141].

It implies, for example, that a perfect life of 1 year has the same value as a perfect life of 100 years [Stanford, chapter 2.4].

 

In the following we explore ways to remove the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion. How can non-existence take a value, which is higher than almost perfect life satisfaction?

 

 

The metaphysical Brahman

A metaphysical value which is higher than almost perfect life satisfaction is the Hindu Brahman, sometimes described as eternal bliss [Raju, 54, 228]. Assuming that death means return to the Brahman (Fig.4) the “Stanford objection” above becomes:

“A perfect life of 1 year, followed by 99 years of Brahman perfection has at least the same moral value as a perfect life of 100 years.

 

Fig.4

          Ecstasy       Infatuation               Contemplative Happiness                                                 Eternity in Brahman

 

 

 

In Hinduism meditation is done to realize union of one's self, one's ātman, with the omnipresent and non-dual Brahman (Hinduism, Wikipedia). The idea of a perfect, impersonal and spiritual form of existence was adopted by some forms of Buddhism. In this case the Nirwana experience is seen as a chance to get into touch with the Brahman. There is a belief in an impersonal existence within the Brahman, but no belief in lasting personality traits.

 

The Nirvana resembles non-existence insofar as the ego is dead. One can imagine the death of the ego as the beginning of an impersonal spiritual form of existence within a transcendent reality. If finally the decomposition of the material ego into this spiritual form of existence is seen as a goal, then it becomes clear that the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion is not counter-intuitive for a Buddhist. Buddhism strives for a painless accordance with the inevitable. Non-existence of the ego is the only paramount preference which can absolutely and permanently be satisfied. Our intuition of perfect preference-satisfaction is characterized by the imagination of a land of milk and honey. According to Buddhism, this intuition is completely misleading. In the real world perfect preference-satisfaction can only be approached by eliminating preferences. The closeness of perfect preference-satisfaction (in the Buddhist sense) and non-existence is the key to escape the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion [Contestabile 2010, 108].

This form of Buddhism cannot be an implementation of NPU, because the Brahman is associated with the maximum value on the hedonistic scale, whereas in NPU the highest value is zero. For more information on this topic see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition, chapter Non-Existence as a Perfect State.

 

Sometimes, however, the Brahman is described as “perfection beyond emotions” or “indescribable Absolute” [Fowler, 7] and then seems to be completely detached from the hedonistic scale. Following two non-hedonistic and non-religious notions of the Brahman:

 

 

The biological Brahman

There are lives with and without consciousness. The biological Brahman – as defined in this paper – is restricted to lives with consciousness. Consciousness could have started with single-celled life, around 3.7 billion years ago [Reber] or much later in early vertebrates and early arthropods during the Cambrian explosion, about 540 million years ago [Holmes, 31].

Consciousness is not clear-cut. There is no single dividing line between those species that enjoy the glow of an inner universe and those that don’t. There is not just one single way of being conscious. The animal kingdom is suffused with other kinds of minds and other kinds of consciousness, and they are not just mini versions of human consciousness [Holmes, 31].

It is unclear where, within this development, the first species with an ego-consciousness appeared. There is a gradual development from the most elementary forms of consciousness to the highest forms of self-reflection (For the purpose of this paper we can use the terms ego and self as synonyms).

 

The ability to experience pain probably arose around 300 million years ago in the common ancestor of modern reptiles, birds, and mammals, i.e. in the first fully terrestrial vertebrate [Holmes, 29-30]; see The Biological Evolution of Pain. If that is true, then the emergence of consciousness preceded the emergence of pain by far in evolution. As a consequence there is an immense world of consciousness without pain, which could be associated with the biological Brahman. The dissolution of the self in meditation – which realizes a state of consciousness without pain as well – could be seen as a kind of “going backwards in evolution” until the stage where ego-consciousness did not yet exist. The meditating person “remembers” where he/she came from.

 

Is a conscious and painless form of life morally superior to an almost perfect life satisfaction? A moral superiority is defensible, if we compare these forms of life with the suffering in the human world. But if we compare them with almost perfect life satisfaction, then such superiority is counter-intuitive. There is a lack of happiness, mental richness, freedom of will, etc. The moral superiority is less counter-intuitive, however, if we focus on the inner perspective and compare it to the Nirwana experience:

-        From the inner perspective of a conscious, ego-less and painless form of life, the determinants of human life satisfaction (see Happiness Economics) are not relevant and not missed, as well as in the Nirwana experience.

-        Because of the absence of any frustration we could use the term perfection for the inner perspective. There is an analogy to the undisturbed state of mind in the Nirwana experience, where the term perfection is used as well.

 

The problem with the “Stanford objection” can be solved by assigning a minimal negative value to perfect life satisfaction. Perfect life satisfaction is a theoretical construct anyway because the awareness that happiness is always at risk prevents perfection.

 

In conclusion a comparison of axiologies with regard to the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion:

-        If non-existence is associated with the metaphysical Brahman (hedonistic perfection), then it is understandable that an almost perfect life is not worth living. If a perfect world exists, then it makes no sense to make it less perfect.

-        If non-existence is associated with the value zero (as in utilitarianism), then it is counter-intuitive to claim that an almost perfect life is not worth living (Reverse Repugnant Conclusion). In utilitarianism only lives with negative welfare are not worth living.

-        If non-existence is associated with the biological Brahman we have a new situation. The biological Brahman is perfect like the metaphysical Brahman, but its hedonistic value is zero (neither happiness, nor suffering). If perfection is given the value zero, then imperfect lives get a negative value. This concept saves the NPU.

 

 

 

2.3 Reverting the Better-Than Relation

 

Repugnant conclusions can be removed by changing the notion of a life worth living.

 

Repugnant Conclusion: Fig.5

Within the hospital axiology B is better than A, because total welfare is greater. If the notion of a neutral life is changed from N1 to N2 (dashed line), then A is better than B. The welfare of B becomes 0, because the positive welfare (upper half of B) is now canceled by the new negative welfare (lower half of B).

 

Fig.5

 

Negative Repugnant Conclusion: Fig.6

Within negative preference utilitarianism C is worse than A, because the total negative welfare is greater. If the notion of a neutral life is changed from N1 to N2 (dashed line), then A is worse than C, because the negative welfare (lower part of C) is now canceled by the new positive welfare (upper half of C).

 

Fig.6

 

Changing the notion of a life worth living is a very efficient way to circumvent the conflict between quantity and quality. By appropriately changing this notion one of the two populations to be compared simply “disappears”, i.e. its welfare is set to zero and the “better than” relation is reverted. The decision if A is considered to be better than B, B better than A, or A equivalent to B, depends entirely on the notion of a life worth living.

 

Is there a normative criterion to fix the notion of a life worth living?

 

 

 

2.4 Normative Considerations

 

 

Ethical intuitionism

At minimum, ethical intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge (Ethical intuitionism, Wikipedia).

“Our” intuitive awareness of value can only be the awareness of a majority, and not the awareness of everyone. In the conflict between the life-affirmers and the life-deniers the latter succumb, because the former have a better biological fitness. As a consequence, the most popular hedonistic scales favor the life-affirmers, despite of the aggravated form of the Repugnant Conclusion. We take the so-called Cantril Ladder as an example. The Cantril Ladder is used in the Gallup world poll and delivers, among others, input to the World Happiness Report. It has the following characteristics:

-        The notion of a life worth living is asymmetric (there are no lives with negative numbers).

-        The metric of the hedonistic scale is a linear point scale ascending from 0 to 10. Step 0 means that the scale knows neutral lives, in contrast to the hospital axiology, which only knows lives worth living (see chapter 2.1).

Reports on the basis of the Cantril Ladder necessarily generate positive totals. It is simply impossible to express a negative life evaluation with a negative number. This has the absurd consequence that the suffering people contribute to total “happiness”.

 

 

The role of language

In the hospital axiology, as well as in the Cantril Ladder, the language is changed in such a way that states of suffering are called states of low (but still positive) quality. It is assumed that the will to live creates positive emotions, which compensate suffering. But that is a gross simplification. Sometimes it is more realistic to describe the situation as a choice between the following 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

And sometimes there is a mixture and dynamic change between all these valuations.

The tolerance of suffering makes sense 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. It is, for example, represented by religious physicians who consider life to be holy. Genesis 9:7 reflects unconditional life-affirmation and leads to a correspondingly expansive populations ethics:

“As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it."

 

In contrast, negative preference utilitarianism does not recommend “being fruitful and increasing in number” at all (see chapter 2.2). Changing the notion of a life worth living has dramatic consequences and demonstrates that language is a tool and serves a purpose. Wittgenstein may have been the first philosopher who investigated how different languages mirror different forms of life.

 

 

Symmetry

A possible normative criterion is the equal treatment of the Repugnant Conclusions as depicted in chapter 2.2. If we fix the notion of a life worth living according to the symmetry-criterion, then the interests of the life-affirmers (hospital axiology) and the life-deniers (negative preference utilitarians respectively perfectionist Buddhists) are equally considered. In the following we adopt the classical utilitarian notion of a life worth living, because it covers both types of Repugnant Conclusions (positive and negative). If we have a solution for both types, then we can apply it to all notions of a life worth living discussed in chapter 2, in particular negative preference utilitarianism. We start with the assumption that the hedonistic scale is signed and linear (like Table 1, column 2) and later introduce non-linear scales (chapter 3.3).

 

Table 1

 

Cantril

Ladder

Signed

Scale

 

Description

adapted from [Anderson]

 

10

+5

happy

+1

9

+4

+1

8

+3

+1

7

+2

+1

6

+1

+1

5

0

neutral

0

4

-1

suffering

-1

3

-2

-1

2

-3

-1

1

-4

-1

0

-5

-1

 

 

As soon as the notion of a life worth living is fixed, we can focus on the conflict between quantity and quality.

-        Within the life-affirmers there is a conflict between perfectionists and expansionists.

-        Within the life-deniers there is a conflict between perfectionists and contractionists.

In chapter 3 we investigate these conflicts in more detail:

 

 

 

3.  The Compensation of Quality by Quantity

 

 

3.1 Linear Metric

 

 

The Repugnant Conclusion

Given a classical utilitarian logic and Table 1

-        1 person with the maximum positive quality of life (+5 points) can be replaced by

-        5 persons with the minimum positive quality of life (+1 point)

because total welfare is the same (Table 2). This is the root of the Repugnant Conclusion.

 

Table 2

 

 

1 person on level 5

 

+5

+1

+4

+1

+3

+1

+2

+1

+1

+1

 

 

 

 

 

 

       can be replaced by

 

 

 

 

 

 

 5 persons on level 1

+1

+1

+1

+1

+1

 

 

The Negative Repugnant Conclusion

Given a classical utilitarian logic and Table 1

-        5 persons with a minimum negative quality of life (-1 point) can be replaced by

-        1 person with the maximum negative quality of life (-5 points)

because total negative welfare is the same (Table 3). This is the root of the Negative Repugnant Conclusion.

 

Table 3

 

 

 5 persons on level -1

-1

-1

-1

-1

-1

 

 

          

        can be replaced by

 

 

1 person on level -5

 

-1

-1

-2

-1

-3

-1

-4

-1

-5

-1

 

 

3.2 Non-Linear Metric

 

In the area of positive welfare classical utilitarianism promotes population growth at the cost of the quality of life (Repugnant Conclusion).

In the area of negative welfare it promotes population decline at the cost of an extremely suffering minority (Negative Repugnant Conclusion).

A non-linear metric prevents both kinds of counter-intuitive ethics.

 

 

Positive welfare

The classical utilitarian axiology has an inflationary effect for two reasons:

-        The quality of life is finite, so that the quantity has to be expanded in order to maximize welfare.

-        It is easier to increase the population size than the average welfare.

The classical utilitarian aggregation of welfare (chapter 3.1), however, is not God-given. It stems from economics, where welfare can be added like amounts of money. In population ethics, in contrast, we have to deal with general welfare and the hedonistic scale has to be adapted to the corresponding intuitions. We could, for example, use an exponentiation with base = 2 for devaluating lower qualities:

 

Table 4

 

Cantril

Ladder

Quality level

Number of persons

required to replace

1 person on level 10

2n

Devaluation-factor

2-n = 1 / 2n

Revaluation

in percent

 

10

+5

20 = 1

20 = 1

51.48

 

9

+4

21 = 2

2-1 = 0.5

25.74

 

8

+3

22 = 4

2-2 = 0.25

12.87

 

7

+2

23 = 8

2-3 = 0.125

6.44

 

6

+1

24 = 16

2-4 = 0.0675

3.47

 

5

0

 

 

 

 

Total

 

1.9425

100.00

 

 

 

If we apply Table 4 to the example in chapter 3.1, then 16 persons on quality level 1 are required to replace 1 person on level 5 (instead of 5 persons). Low qualities are devaluated relative to high qualities.

 

 

Comparison with classical utilitarianism

Let us assume we compare the populations in Fig.7 according to the rules of classical utilitarianism, using the quality levels of Table 4, column 2.

Total welfare A = (quality-level 4) times (100 persons) = +400

Total welfare B = (quality-level 2) times (201 persons) = +402

B is better than A. This is a mild example of the Repugnant Conclusion.

 

Fig.7

 

 

And now we compare the same populations with the devaluated qualities of Table 4, column 4 (as long as the task is only to decide if A is better than B it doesn’t matter if column 4 or 5 is used):

Total welfare A = (quality-level 4) times (devaluation-factor 0.5) times (100 persons) = +200

Total welfare B = (quality-level 2) times (devaluation-factor 0.125) times (201 persons) = +50.25

A is better than B, the Repugnant Conclusion has disappeared (Fig.8):

 

Fig.8

 

 

Conditions for removing the Repugnant Conclusion

With a current world population of 7.7 billion people the devaluation has to be in the magnitude of 1010 in order to make the Repugnant Conclusion disappear.

         So far we have been working with signed and symmetric hedonistic scales.

With a base = 103 the maximum devaluation on quality level 1 is (103)-4 = 10-12, so that it is impossible to replace quality level 5 by quality level 1.

         The most important data sources for population ethics (OECD Better Life Index, Satisfaction with Life Index, Where-to-be-born Index, World Happiness Report. etc.) work with exclusively positive numbers. Almost all OECD countries now contain a life evaluation on a 0 to 10 rating scale, usually a question about life satisfaction [Helliwell, 15]. The corresponding extreme form of the Repugnant Conclusion is avoided by calculating averages. But average utilitarianism has several theoretical deficiencies, see [Arrhenius, 54-57].

 

 

Negative welfare

An analogous approach can be used to compare populations with negative total welfare. In this case the conflict between quantity and quality takes the following form:

-        the interest to reduce negative total welfare (negative quantity) versus

-        the interest to reduce the negative average welfare (negative quality).

 

The example with the Negative Repugnant Conclusion in chapter 3.1 demonstrates that it is (too) easy to replace negative quantity by negative quality. We therefore replace the classical utilitarian scale by a devaluation table, which is symmetrical to the one above (compare Table 4 with Table 5).

 

Table 5

 

Cantril

Ladder

Signed point

Scale

Number of persons

required to replace

1 person on level 0

2n

Devaluation-factor

2-n = 1 / 2n

Revaluation

in percent

5

0

 

 

 

4

-1

24 = 16

2-4 = 0.0675

3.47

3

-2

23 = 8

2-3 = 0.125

6.44

2

-3

22 = 4

2-2 = 0.25

12.87

1

-4

21 = 2

2-1 = 0.5

25.87

0

-5

20 = 1

20 = 1

51.48

Total

0

 

1.9425

100.00

 

 

For the value of the base the symmetrically analogous considerations apply as for the range of positive welfare.

 

Populations with negative total welfare occur

-        in catastrophic scenarios within the classical utilitarian axiology (chapter 2.1, Fig.3 right hand side) and

-        in negative utilitarianism, see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering

 

A practical example in negative utilitarianism is the decision between

-        fighting world hunger

-        preventing torture

With the same amount of money many more people can be saved from starvation than from torture.

 

 

 

3.3 Normative Considerations

 

 

Ethical intuitionism

As already mentioned “our” intuitive awareness of value can only be the awareness of a majority, and not the awareness of everyone. The conflict between quantity and (positive) quality is a conflict between expansionists and perfectionists. Conflicting interests drive conflicting intuitions, so that the perfectionists and expansionists have a different perception of repugnancy [Contestabile 2010, 109-110].

Our example (Table 4) are calculated with base = 2. However:

-        Perfectionists tend towards base = 103, because they prefer a higher quality of life, even at the cost of a smaller population. Non-linear scales with a very high value of the base approach the incommensurability of low quality with high quality. Base = 103 satisfies the condition for removing the Repugnant Conclusion.

-        Expansionists tend towards base = 1, because they prefer larger populations, even at the price of a lower quality of life. In this case there is no devaluation at all, i.e. the expansionists prefer the classical utilitarian axiology.

 

For negative qualities (Table 5) the revaluation is symmetrically analogous.

 

 

Adaptive model

The model could be adapted to the population size as follows:

-        In tiny populations (groups of people) the expansionists’ intuition (base =1) is given priority (i.e. we get the classical utilitarian axiology).

-        In huge populations (countries) the perfectionists’ intuition (base = 103) is given priority (in order to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion).

In between the value of the base is a function, which increases with the population size.

 

This solution represents a compromise in the conflict between perfectionists and expansionists. A compromise does not have the normative force of a mathematical proof. But the same is true, for example, with prioritarian welfare functions and progressive tax systems.

 

 

Mathematical view

For practical purposes the revaluation should be a function of the quality level, as in Table 6 and Table 7.

 

Table 6

 

Cantril

Ladder

Quality level

x

Revaluation

2x

Revaluation

In Percent

 

10

+5

25 = 32

50.79

9

+4

24 = 16

25.40

8

+3

23 = 8

12.70

7

+2

22 = 4

6.35

6

+1

21 = 2

3.17

5

0

20 = 1

1.59

Total

63

100.00

 

 

For negative qualities (Table 7) the revaluation is symmetrically analogous.

 

Table 7

 

Cantril

Ladder

Quality level

x

Revaluation

2-x  = 1 / 2x

Revaluation

In Percent

 

5

0

1

1.59

4

-1

2

3.17

3

-2

4

6.35

2

-3

8

12.70

1

-4

16

25.40

0

-5

32

50.79

Total

0

63

100.00

 

 

Furthermore, since the input of the revaluation function consists of (pre-calculated or estimated) averages the variable (x) has to be a rational number and not an integer. Fig.9 is a graphical representation of such functions.

 

There are basically three kinds of exponential functions y = ax

(1)   The function on the right hand side is a continuous version of Table 6 with a =2.

(2)   The function in the middle corresponds to classical utilitarianism, i.e. no revaluation.

(3)   The function on the left hand side is a continuous version of Table 7 with a = 0.5

 

Fig.9

 

 

This picture was taken from the internet (author unknown)

 

 

 

3.4 Comparison with Distributive Justice

 

Axiologies are tools and serve a purpose. In the following we compare two different purposes:

Purpose (1): Find the better population with regard to the internal distribution of welfare

Purpose (2): Find the better population with regard to the amount of welfare (chapter 3)

 

Examples for the distribution of welfare are

(1a) elitist distribution, tolerates a high quality of life for a minority

(1b) negative utilitarian distribution, increases the moral weight of suffering people relative to happy people (see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice)

(1c) egalitarian distribution, promotes an equal quality of life for everybody

 

Let us assume that the majority favours the negative utilitarian distribution of welfare (which is functionally equivalent to a prioritarian distribution).

Is axiology (2) affected by (1)?

No specific method for aggregating the (transformed) welfare of different lives seems to follow from the core idea of the Priority View and, hence, it is hard to see how this idea could affect our evaluation of different-number cases [Arrhenius, 110].

However:

If the axiology for the distribution of welfare is characterized by compassion – as in the case of negative utilitarianism – then it makes sense to design the revaluation of the amount (chapter 3.2) on the same basis. A compassionate distribution combined with a classical utilitarian population ethics doesn’t make sense.

 

 

 

4.  Conclusion

 

The Mere Addition Paradox can be avoided by a non-linear aggregation of qualities of life, which makes it impossible to replace very high qualities by very low qualities. The linear scales of classical utilitarianism do not adequately reflect the majorities’ intuitions (otherwise there wouldn’t be a Repugnant Conclusion). Linear scales overrate the value of low qualities in large populations.

 

Since the proposed non-linear metric prevents both

- an ethics of population growth, which produces lives barely worth living (Repugnant Conclusion) as well as

- an ethics of population decline at the cost of an extremely suffering minority (Negative Repugnant Conclusion)

we could associate this metric with compassion or sympathy and therefore also with prioritarianism or (modern) negative utilitarianism. We prefer the latter term because of John Broome’s finding that prioritarianism – applied to general (not economic) welfare – is actually a metric within modern hedonistic utilitarianism [Broome 1991, 221-222].

 

The paradoxes of population ethics are caused by conflicting intuitions within a two parameter model (average welfare and population size). Conflicting intuitions are driven by conflicting interests. In the Mere Addition Paradox these interests are “quantity versus quality” respectively “expansionism versus perfectionism”. The proposed solution represents a compromise in this conflict. A compromise does not have the normative force of a mathematical proof. But the same is true, for example, with prioritarian welfare functions and progressive tax systems.

 

 

 

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.      Beckwith Christopher I. (2015), Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, Princeton

4.      Brooks Michael (2012), Reality: A universe of information, New Scientist, 26 Sep

5.      Broome John (1991), Weighing Goods, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

6.      Broome John (1999), Ethics out of Economics, Cambridge University Press, UK

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

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

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

10.  Fehige Christoph (1998), A Pareto Principle for Possible People, in C. Fehige and U. Wessels, eds., Preferences, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter

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

12.  Fricke Fabian (2002), Verschiedene Versionen des negativen Utilitarismus, Kriterion Nr.15, p.13-27

13.  Helliwell, John, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. (2015), World Happiness Report. New Nork, The Earth Institute, Columbia University Press.

14.  Holmes Bob (2017), Why be conscious?, New Scientist, 13 May, 29-31

15.  Keown Damien (2009), Buddhism, Sterling, New York

16.  Lumer Christoph (2005), Prioritarian Welfare Functions, in Daniel Schoch (ed.): Democracy and Welfare, Paderborn: Mentis

17.  Parfit Derek (1984), Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, Oxford

18.  Raju, P.T. (1992), Philosophical Traditions of India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi

19.  Reber, A. S. (2019), The First Minds:  Caterpillars, Karyotes, and Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

20.  Ryberg, J. (1996), “Is the Repugnant Conclusion Repugnant?”, Philosophical Papers, XXV, 161-177.

21.  Spears Dean (2019), Why Variable-Population Social Orderings Cannot Escape the Repugnant Conclusion, The University of Texas, Austin

22.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016), The Repugnant Conclusion

23.  Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2013), Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake Simile (MN 22), translated from Pali. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 17 Dec, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.than.html

24.  Webster David (2005), The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon, RoutledgeCurzon, London

25.  Wilhelm Peter (2007), Bestatterwebblog

 

 

Further Reading

 

1.      Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering

2.      The Denial of the World from an Impartial View