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Population Ethics – A Compromise Theory

 

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  Comparison with Sider’s Principle

     3.4  Normative Considerations

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.

 

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 [Arrhenius, 58]. 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 (chapter 2.2), 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 [Contestabile 2014, 307-308]. 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)

 

 

Definition

(1)   NPU – as defined in this paper – considers life satisfaction to be the highest order preference. Preferences have to be ordered; otherwise the theory is meaningless [Broome 1999, 9-10].

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

(3)   In hedonistic utilitarianism non-existence (death) is given the value zero (see Quality-adjusted life year). Similarly, in NPU, the non-existence of preferences (death) is given the value zero.

(4)   NPU measures the difference to perfect life satisfaction (Fig.1, right hand side), in contrast to classical utilitarianism, which measures the difference to a neutral life (Table 1, far left).

 

Example:

Ron Anderson created a subjective suffering measure for each nation by simply taking the national average on Gallop’s life satisfaction, and reversing the scale by subtracting the mean from 11 [Anderson]. The NPU scale corresponds to Anderson’s scale but uses negative numbers (Table 1, far right)

 

Table 1

 

Classical

Utilitari-

anism

Suffering

Measure

[Anderson]

Description

adapted from [Anderson]

NPU

+5

0

happy

0

+4

1

-1

+3

2

-2

+2

3

-3

+1

4

-4

0

5

neutral

-5

-1

6

suffering

-6

-2

7

-7

-3

8

-8

-4

9

-9

-5

10

-10

 

 

Antifrustrationism

Statements (3) and (4) of the NPU definition are adopted from 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 only moral value is the absence of frustration.

-        A non-existing preference and a preference without frustration are given the same moral value (zero).

-        Since non-existence implies no frustrations, it is considered to the best possible state of affairs, a perfect state.

-        Since non-existence (despite its perfection) is given the value zero, no life can be worth living [Stanford, chapter 2.4].

 

 

Preferences

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

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. Hedonistic utilitarianism assumes that the different kinds of satisfactions and frustrations are commensurable. Non-hedonistic preferences are given a hedonistic re-interpretation. In the following we adopt the hedonistic view on preference utilitarianism.

 

 

Criticism

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

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

 

(2)   NPU implies that a perfect life of 1 year has the same value as a perfect life of 100 years [Stanford, chapter 2.4].

This problem 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. But the problem also disappears if 99 years perfect life satisfaction are devaluated in such a way, that they are equivalent to 99 years non-existence.

 

What are the arguments for devaluating preference-satisfaction?

We start with a metaphysical assumption and then look for an empirical alternative.

 

 

Hedonistic 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). Insofar as the Brahman is described as bliss [Raju, 54, 228] it is justified to depict it on the hedonistic scale. The idea of a perfect, impersonal and spiritual form of existence was adopted by some forms of Buddhism (in the following called perfectionist Buddhism). In this case the Nirwana experience is seen as a chance to get into touch with the Brahman in analogy to Hindu meditation.

The highest level of meditation is leading to a state, which the Buddha said is actually a subtle form of happiness (more sublime than pīti and sukha) also called a form of non-sensual happiness (Dhyana in Buddhism, Wikipedia)

 

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 perfectionist 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].

Human happiness is devaluated, but only relative to the Brahman. Human happiness is transient (Fig.4), whereas the Brahman lasts forever.

 

Fig.4

          Ecstasy       Infatuation               Contemplative Happiness                                                 Eternity in Brahman

 

 

 

Non-hedonistic Brahman

In NPU, human happiness is devaluated as well, but relative to non-existence (zero) and not relative to an assumed eternal bliss. The two concepts converge

-        if the Brahman is detached from the hedonistic scale and seen as “perfection beyond emotions”, “indescribable Absolute” [Fowler, 7].

-        if NPU enters the world of metaphysics and associates non-existence with a perfect, impersonal cosmic consciousness.

In this case it is a non-hedonistic value (cosmic consciousness), which overrules human happiness, and not (the assumed) eternal bliss.

 

What is the value of non-existence on the hedonistic scale? There is no absolute nothingness; the void is a theoretical construct. The result of decay is simple chemical compounds [Wilhelm] which dissolve in the inanimate world. Human consciousness dissolves in the (assumed) cosmic consciousness.

-        In classical utilitarianism death is given the value zero (see Quality-adjusted life year, Wikipedia)

-        In NPU the non-existence of preferences is given the value zero (Fig.1, right hand side).

If non-existence (cosmic consciousness) overrules human happiness, then the latter has to be expressed in negative numbers (Table 1, far right).

 

The relative value of happiness is decisive. If we apply a hedonistic re-interpretation and associate the value of cosmic consciousness with eternal bliss, then NPU accords with the (less counter-intuitive) axiology above (Fig.4).

 

The idea of a cosmic consciousness is as old as philosophy, but has become topical again [Chalmers]:

-        The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has revived interest in panpsychism. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does. The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect.

-        The most popular empirically based argument for panpsychism stems from evolution. This argument begins with the assumption that evolution is a process that creates complex systems out of pre-existing properties but yet cannot make "entirely novel" properties.

(Panpsychism, Wikipedia)

 

 

NPU without metaphysics

Could NPU work without metaphysical assumptions? Following some attempts to find a solution:

1.      Even if there is no cosmic consciousness, non-existence is still characterized by the absolute absence of frustration.

    1. Is the absence of minor frustrations sufficient to claim a moral superiority of non-existence? The absence of even minor frustrations is a kind of perfection, indeed, but not the same kind of perfection as a cosmic consciousness. People waking up from coma or from a dreamless sleep do not report having met the highest value. They associate this state of the mind with a neutral value, zero or the non-existence of value. And – in the absence of metaphysics – death is often compared with (eternal) sleep.
    2. The absence of severe suffering, however, could be sufficient to claim a moral superiority of non-existence. In classical utilitarianism a life with negative welfare is not worth living by definition. If global welfare turns negative, then non-existence becomes the lesser evil (but not a perfect state). Early Buddhists aimed at non-existence (of the ego) without completely devaluating happiness and without believing in a heavenly refuge, simply because they thought that the magnitude of suffering on earth is intolerable (first Noble Truth). The confrontation with severe suffering (not minor frustration) marks the beginning of Buddhist reasoning (see Four sights). The axiology which matches this description is the Modern NU and not NPU.

 

2.      Another idea is to look at life from its end and then associate the highest value with the strongest value. The strength of death is not only the absence of frustration, but also the destruction of happiness. Respecting the strength of death means not getting attached to life. The happiness to be alive is more like a credit than a gift. Death, however, is only the strongest value with regard to the individual life and not with regard to life as a whole (Life is stronger than death, Pearl S.Buck). The identification with life as a whole is a chance to cope with the transience of the individual life, and a chance to challenge the eternity of non-existence with a long-lasting value. If life as a whole is given a negative connotation (1b) then there is still the alternative to reduce this negativity. Moral values like compassion and justice transcend the individual life as well as life as a whole. But again, the axiology which matches this description is the Modern NU and not NPU.

 

It seems that NPU is counter-intuitive, as long as we do not adopt a metaphysical value like cosmic consciousness. More reliable, however, are the findings of contemporary biology: Approximately 99.9% of each human’s genome is permanently being reborn [Embacher]. That is reason enough to focus on the suffering in the present world.

 

 

 

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. Our intuitions are shaped by biological forces. As a consequence the hospital axiology is popular, although it is as extreme as the (completely discarded) negative preference utilitarianism (Fig.1). 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 avoid the Repugnant Conclusion (Fig.2) by working with averages. But they necessarily generate positive totals because it is impossible to express a negative life evaluation with a negative number. This has the absurd consequence that the suffering people contribute to total “happiness”.

 

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. The symmetric force to the (Nietzschean) will to live is the Hindu will to leave the cycle of (genetic) reincarnation (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.

 

 

Normative compromise

A possible normative criterion is the equal treatment of the Repugnant Conclusions as depicted in chapter 2.1. 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. We start with the assumption that the hedonistic scale is signed and linear (like Table 2, column 2) and later introduce non-linear scales (chapter 3.2).

 

Table 2

 

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 2

-        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 (see Table 3). This is the root of the Repugnant Conclusion.

 

Table 3

 

 

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 2

-        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 (see Table 4). This is the root of the Negative Repugnant Conclusion.

 

Table 4

 

 

 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 5

 

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 5 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 5, column 2.

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

Total welfare B = (quality-level 2) x (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 applying the devaluated qualities of Table 5, column 4 (it doesn’t matter if column 4 or 5 is used, because only the relative value is decisive):

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

Total welfare B = (quality-level 2) x (devaluation-factor 0.125) x (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 surveys (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 comparing averages. But average utilitarianism has several theoretical deficiencies [Arrhenius, 54-57]. Following two examples:

1.      A population consisting of a single person with high welfare is better than a huge population with only slightly less average welfare.

2.      Creating a life with welfare below the average is immoral.

 

 

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 5 with Table 6).

 

Table 6

 

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 Comparison with Sider’s Principle

 

 

Definition

Sider’s principle first divides a population into two ordered sets: one set with the welfare profiles of the people with positive welfare, in order of descending welfare; and another set with the welfare profiles of the people with negative welfare, in order of ascending welfare. Sider’s principle dampens the value of the welfare of different people to different degrees depending on their place in the orderings of the positive and negative welfare profiles. The higher a person’s positive welfare relative to the welfare of others, the less dampening of the value of this person’s welfare will take place and, consequently, the more she will contribute to the value of the population. The value of the person with the highest welfare will not be dampened at all. The more negative a person’s welfare is relative to the welfare of others, the less dampening of the disvalue of this person’s welfare will take place and, consequently, the more she will detract from the value of the population. The disvalue of the person with the most negative welfare will not be dampened at all [Arrhenius, 68] [Sider].

So far our concept (Table 5 and Table 6) accords with Sider’s principle.

 

 

Criticism

Gustav Arrhenius declares Sider’s principle to be flawed [Arrhenius, 69] because of the following comparison (Fig.9). Populations are devaluated according to Sider’s principle (in our case according to Table 5, column 4).

 

Fig.9

Populations before devaluation

 

Population A

Total welfare A = (quality level 4) x (20 persons) = 80

Average welfare A = (total welfare) / (40 persons) = 2

Here we apply the devaluation to each group of persons within A that has the same quality level:

Devaluated welfare A1 = (quality-level 4) x (devaluation-factor 0.5) x (20 persons) = 40

Devaluated welfare A2 = (quality-level 0) x (devaluation-factor 0.0) x (20 persons) = 0

Devaluated welfare A = +40

 

Population B 

Total welfare B = (quality level 2) x (40 persons) = 80

Average welfare B = (total welfare) / (40 persons) = 2 (i.e. quality level 2)

Here we apply the devaluation to the average welfare of the whole population:

Devaluated welfare B = (quality-level 2) x (devaluation-factor 0.125) x (40 persons) = 10

 

Population C 

We assume that population C has quality level 3

Total welfare C = (quality-level 3) x (40 persons) = 120

Average welfare C = (total welfare) / (40 persons) = 3

Devaluated welfare C = (quality-level 3) x (devaluation-factor 0.25) x (40 persons) = 30

 

Conclusion

Population C has higher total welfare, higher average welfare, and it is more equal than population A;

yet, Sider’s principle would rank A as better than C [Arrhenius, 69].

 

 

Reply

In Table 5 column 4 we see that the value of a population increases exponentially with the quality level.

-        Population A1 has quality level 4

-        Population C has quality level 3

Consequently population C is twice as much devaluated as population A1 (see Fig.10).

 

Fig.10

Populations after devaluation

 

The exponential function in Table 5 is required to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion. A modification of Sider’s principle for small populations – where the Repugnant Conclusion is less repugnant – is proposed in chapter 3.4.

A possible argument for C is its equal distribution of welfare. In the following we have a closer look at this argument:

 

 

The distribution of welfare

Examples for the distribution of welfare are:

(1a) egalitarianism, promotes equal welfare for everybody

(1b) prioritarianism or negative utilitarianism, increases the moral weight of suffering people relative to happy people

(1c) Maximin principle, says that the worst-off have lexical priority

(1d) classical utilitarianism, tolerates every distribution which maximizes total welfare.

 

Examples for evaluating the amount of welfare are:

(2a) classical utilitarianism, chapter 3.1

(2b) Sider’s principle, chapter 3.2

 

 

The Egalitarian View

We start with an example from old welfare economics. Let’s assume the society consists of two persons P1 and P2, who dispose of two goods G1 and G2. The welfare function according to Pigou would look as follows:

1.      Social welfare (W) is the total of the two individual utilities (U): W = U1 + U2

2.      The utility function is identical for both persons. It is assumed that the utility (usefulness) of the two goods is the same for both persons.

3.      The utility function U = U (q1, q2) is of the Gossen type, i.e. the marginal utility decreases with increasing consumption.

Under a given GNP the maximum social welfare can be attained, if the goods are equally distributed among the two persons [Kleinewefers, 41].

As long as utility functions are assumed to be linear – as in classical utilitarianism – it does not matter, if the welfare of the most or the least wealthy is increased. But if we assume a diminishing marginal utility of welfare (as in Pigou’s welfare functions) then it makes sense to increase the welfare of the least wealthy. Under the influence of Gossen’s laws a part of the welfare economists turned towards egalitarianism without being particularly compassionate.

 

Let us assume egalitarianism (1a) overrules (2a) and (2b), i.e. the distribution of welfare overrules the amount of welfare:

This has the absurd implication that a population with very high welfare and some inequality is worse than a population of equally tormented people [Arrhenius, 104].

A more familiar example is the comparison of

-        a competitive society with high welfare and inequality and

-        an egalitarian population with lower welfare

A weakness of Pigou’s theory lies in the assumption that the society isn’t affected by the redistribution. If we take into account that the society’s total income is negatively affected by the redistribution (because hard working people lose the motivation to create additional income) then the optimal redistribution is rather prioritarian than egalitarian.

 

 

The Priority View

A different consideration in favor of prioritarianism (and against egalitarianism) is the following:

 

Fig.11

 

 

The two populations A and B in Fig.11 are equally large and have the same average utility. The only difference is that there is inequality in A whereas B is perfectly equal. Is it not obvious that B is better than A and does that not show that equality of welfare is a value in itself? Why would we otherwise rank B as better than A? I certainly agree that B is better than A but this is not because I value equality of welfare as such, but because the worst off are better off in B than in A and because I think that the loss of the best off is more than compensated for by the gain of the worst off. In other words, I think that we mistake intuitions about the value of equality of welfare with intuitions about priority of the welfare of the worst off [Arrhenius, 106].

 

The application of the Priority View devaluates populations of the A-type relative to populations of the C-type, i.e. it accounts for inequality; see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering.

 

The Priority View is a general model:

-       Maximin is a border case within the priority view where the moral priority of all quality levels converges towards zero, except the moral priority of the worst-off. If this principle is applied to population ethics then the absolute quality level of the worst-off decides about the ranking of a population, regardless of the total amount of welfare.

-        Classical utilitarianism is a border case within the priority view, where every quality level has the same moral weight. Populations are ranked according to their amount of welfare. The distribution of welfare within the population is no issue.

 

 

Ethical priority and metric

According to John Broome the amount of welfare is not even known, without specifying ethical priorities:

“(…) we have no metric for a person’s good that is independent of the priority we assign it.” (Broome 2004, 222)

In other words: Comparing amounts of welfare prerequisites a consensus on the ethical priority of each level of welfare.

-        The most important indices OECD Better Life Index, Satisfaction with Life Index, Where-to-be-born Index, World Happiness Report etc. calculate unweighted averages, i.e. the (implicit) consensus is classical utilitarianism.

-        Classical utilitarianism, however, distorts reality because it does not account for the asymmetry between suffering and happiness. The metric of the surveys first has to be transformed into a metric, which maps this asymmetry. The transformation is functionally equivalent to a weighting function in prioritarianism and devaluates populations with more inequalities relative to population with less inequalities. Sider’s principle can then be applied to the realistic values.

For more information on Broome’s concept see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering.

 

 

 

3.4 Normative Considerations

 

 

Mathematical view

From a mathematical point of view there is no smooth transition from the function in Table 5 to the function in Table 6. Because of this discontinuity we replace the exponential functions by a power function:

 

Table 7

 

Cantril

Ladder

Quality level

x

Revaluation

x2

Revaluation

In Percent

 

10

+5

52 = 25

45.46

9

+4

42 = 16

29.09

8

+3

32 = 9

16.36

7

+2

22 = 4

7.27

6

+1

12 = 1

1.82

5

0

02 = 0

0.00

Total

55

100.00

 

 

For negative qualities (Table 8) the revaluation is symmetrically analogous.

 

Table 8

 

Cantril

Ladder

Quality level

x

Revaluation

x2

Revaluation

In Percent

 

5

0

(0)2 = 0

0.00

4

-1

(-1)2 = 1

1.82

3

-2

(-2)2 = 4

7.27

2

-3

(-3)2 = 9

16.36

1

-4

(-4)2 = 16

29.09

0

-5

(-5)2 = 25

45.46

Total

0

55

100.00

 

 

Fig.12

The following picture shows the smooth transition from negative to positive values for the power function x2.

 

 

This picture was taken from the internet (author unknown)

 

 

 

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 7) is calculated with exponent = 2. However:

-        Expansionists prefer large populations, even at the price of a lower quality of life. The expansionists prefer the classical utilitarian axiology (exp = 1) and tolerate the Repugnant Conclusion.

-        Perfectionists prefer a higher quality of life, even at the cost of a smaller population. Non-linear scales with a very high value of the exponent approach the incommensurability of low quality with high quality. With exp = 14 the maximum revaluation of quality level 5 is (5)14 = 6.10 billion. Even in the largest nations China and India the population is far below 6 billion, so that it is impossible to replace quality level 5 by quality level 1. The Repugnant Conclusion disappears.

How could a compromise between expansionists and perfectionists look like?

 

 

Normative compromise

The best solution is probably a compromise which depends on the population size:

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

-        In huge populations (China, India) the perfectionists’ intuition (exp = 14) is given priority (in order to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion).

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

 

This solution represents a compromise in the conflict between perfectionists and expansionists [Arrhenius, 58]. 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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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 [Arrhenius, 58]. 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.      Broome John (1991), Weighing Goods, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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

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

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

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

8.      Embacher Franz (2003), Mendel und die Mathematik der Vererbung, Universität Wien. http://homepage.univie.ac.at/franz.embacher/Lehre/aussermathAnw/Vererbung.html

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

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

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

12.  Chalmers, D.J. (1995), Facing up to the problem of consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, 200−219

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

14.  Kleinewefers Henner (2008), Einführung in die Wohlfahrtsökonomie, Verlag W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart

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

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

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

18.  Sider, T. R. (1991), “Might Theory X Be a Theory of Diminishing Marginal Value?”, Analysis 51 (4), 265-271

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

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

21.  Wilhelm Peter (2007), Bestatterwebblog

 

 

 

Further Reading

 

1.      Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering

2.      The Denial of the World from an Impartial View