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Population Ethics without Paradoxes

 

by Socrethics   First version 2014   Last version 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Abstract

 

1.  Introduction

2.  The Notion of a Life Worth Living

     2.1  Overview

     2.2  Extreme Asymmetry

     2.3  Moderate Asymmetry

     2.4  Symmetry

     2.5  Variable Notion

     2.6  Normative View

3.  Aggregating Qualities of Life

     3.1  Classical Utilitarianism

     3.2  Questioning Commensurability

     3.3  Non-linear Scales

     3.4  Flexible Scales

     3.5  Normative View

4.  Conclusion

 

References 

 

 

 

 

 

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 2000, 265].

 

 

Result

Although paradoxes are unavoidable in theory, there are ways to circumvent them in practice:

 

1  Non-linear aggregation of qualities

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. Linear scales overrate the value of low qualities (in large populations) and therefore promote expansionism at the cost of the average welfare.

 

2  Weighted averages

Population ethics, the endeavor to find a “better than” relation in terms of welfare and population size is reminiscent of classical utilitarianism, which started with the slogan “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Happiness Economics, which pursues the classical utilitarian goal most clearly today, developed a simple practical method. It calculates the average life satisfaction based on surveys and investigates the statistical determinants; see Short History of Welfare Economics.

In population ethics there are good reasons to circumvent the Mere Addition Paradox and use the same averages (as Happiness Economics) for comparing populations. The population size is not a (statistically significant) determinant of life satisfaction and therefore not relevant for the “better than” relation between populations. There is a normative demand, however, which has to be considered in Happiness Economics as well as population ethics: The view of an impartial observer asks for a negative utilitarian metric in the calculation of averages.

 

 

 

 

 

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 2000, 265].

 

 

 

2.  The Notion 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, non-linear), including a notion of lives worth living and

-        a rule for aggregating welfare

 

 

Competing 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:

 

 

 

2.2 Extreme Asymmetry

 

 

Interests and intuitions

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

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 (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 satisfy as many desires as possible.

-        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 as many desires as possible.

 

 

Quantity versus quality

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 there are only populations with positive totals, so that the (positive) Repugnant Conclusion applies (Fig.2, left hand side) [Contestabile 2010, 105].

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 (Fig.2, right hand side) [Broome 2004, 213-214].

 

Fig.2

 

2.3 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 (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).

 

Fig.3

2.4 Symmetry

 

We repeat the characteristics of extreme asymmetries, in order to compare them with symmetry:

         In the hospital axiology every life has a positive sign (Fig.1, left hand side).

It is characterized by an extreme version of the Repugnant Conclusion (Fig.2, left hand side).

         In Negative Preference Utilitarianism every life has a negative sign (Fig.1, right hand side).

It is characterized by an extreme version of the Negative Repugnant Conclusion (Fig.2, right hand side).

In classical utilitarianism happy lives have a positive sign and suffering lives a negative sign. As a consequence both kinds of Repugnant Conclusions apply. 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].

 

Fig.4

 

 

2.5 Variable Notions

 

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.

In practice this notion cannot be changed every time two populations have to be compared. But how can it be fixed?

 

 

 

2.6 Normative View

 

 

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 the majority, 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 are asymmetric and life-affirming (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 2.2).

Reports on the basis of the Cantril Ladder necessarily generate positive totals and avoid the problem of whether (and how) suffering can be compensated by happiness.

 

 

The role of language

-        In the hospital axiology 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 a positive feeling, which compensates 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 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 often represented by religious physicians who consider life to be holy. In population ethics the consequences of an unconditional life-affirmation reflect Genesis 9:7 “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it."

 

-        Negative Preference Utilitarianism is counter-intuitive, because even almost perfect happiness is given a negative value. This degradation of happiness makes sense, however, in perfectionist Buddhism which assigns the maximum positive value to non-existence [Contestabile 2010, 107]. Perfectionist Buddhism is driven by the interest to experienceeternal bliss” (Brahman) after death. The Brahman concept originates in Hinduism and was later adopted by some forms of Buddhism [Fowler, 34]. Life is characterized by dukkha, a term which relates to physical pain, unsatisfied desires and the fact that the happiness is not durable, so that almost all possible states have a negative connotation. As a consequence the ethical goal is to leave the cycle of rebirths. Interestingly Buddhists – in contrast to some Hindu sects – never followed a suicide cult [Beckwith, 85]. But they pursued a retreat-oriented lifestyle and adhered to the ethical ideal of childlessness.

 

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.

 

 

The impartial observer

A possible normative criterion is the equal treatment of the Repugnant Conclusions as depicted in chapter 2.4. 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 utilitarianism respectively perfectionist Buddhism) are equally considered. This represents the view of a strictly hedonistic and impartial observer, without existence bias.

The concept of impartiality goes back to Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant and was taken up in the 20th century by John Rawls and John Harsanyi. The existence bias is a current field of research.

 

Table 1

 

Cantril

Ladder

Signed

Scale

 

Description

[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

 

 

For the further analysis we use a signed symmetric scale (Table 1, column 2) and adopt the classical utilitarian notion of a life worth living (chapter 2.4). As soon as the notion of a life worth living is fixed, however, the conflict between quantity and quality pops up again [Contestabile 2010, 107-108]:

-        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.  Aggregating Qualities of Life

 

 

3.1 Classical Utilitarianism

 

 

The Repugnant Conclusion

Given a classical utilitarian logic

-        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. 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

-        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. This is the root of the Negative Repugnant Conclusion (sometimes also called Sadistic 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

 

 

Can the problem be solved by considering the different qualities of life to be incommensurable?

 

 

 

3.2 Questioning Commensurability

 

 

Gustav Arrhenius

In the chapter “A possible solution to the Mere Addition Paradox” [Arrhenius 2000, 94] Gustav Arrhenius questions the commensurability of the different qualities of life:

 

Fig.7

 

 

In the above diagram, A is a population of people with very high welfare, B is a much larger population than A but consisting of people with very low welfare. C is a population of the same size as AB. Everybody in C has very low welfare but they are all better off than the people in B. Moreover, there is perfect equality in C and the total welfare in C is higher than in AB [Arrhenius 2000, 92].

 

(…) there is a (somewhat) plausible source of incommensurability from a welfarist point of view to which we were going to return. This is it: We might find it impossible to weigh a very huge number of minute gains in welfare against a smaller number of great losses. And by claiming that AB is better than C or that these populations are incomparable; we can escape the Mere Addition Paradox [Arrhenius 2000, 95]

 

 

Incommensurability

The aggregation of incommensurable preferences is the most general approach to solve conflicts of interest. The “repugnancy” of a population can be considered to be a matter of individual preference. A majority-definition of “repugnancy” is then derived by aggregating the individual preferences for each combination of population-size and welfare. If the individuals are well informed about the consequences of a certain population policy and if they can freely express their attitude towards risk, the aggregation of their preferences delivers an intersubjective criterion to decide between policies. The focus shifts to forecasting and educational advertising.

 

There is a theoretical hurdle in the process of aggregation. Incommensurable preferences lead to Arrowian impossibility theorems [Arrhenius 2000, 264]. No voting system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide ranking while also meeting a certain set of reasonable criteria [Arrow]. In practice this theoretical obstacle can be bypassed. The Arrowian impossibility theorem only becomes effective if three or more options are at stake and not if the voters have to accept or reject a specific population policy. If the majority prefers

-        a huge population with a low average welfare to

-        a small population with a high average welfare

then we cannot talk of a repugnant conclusion, because the decision is obviously not counter-intuitive for the majority.

 

 

Limited commensurability

Limited commensurability means that we consider

-        the different quality levels to be incommensurable, but not

-        the different values within a quality level

In other words: Within each quality level the classical utilitarian method is applied.

 

In this case there is a problem with the borders between quality levels.

Example (see Fig.8):

Population A is better than B (although its average welfare is only slightly higher than the one of B), because the border between quality level 4 and 5 is exactly between the average welfare of A and B.

 

Fig.8

A better rule for the comparison of two populations therefore works without borders. Eliminating borders means eliminating incommensurability. In the following we assume that all qualities of life are commensurable, as in classical utilitarianism. But we will make it less easy to replace high qualities of life by low qualities.

 

 

 

3.3 Non-linear Scales

 

 

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

(x)

Number of persons

required to replace

1 person on level 10

Devaluation-factor

2-x = 1 / 2x

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. Note that the exponent (x) can be a rational number. We use quality levels in order to link theory with practice (surveys).

 

 

Comparison with classical utilitarianism

Let us assume we compare the populations in Fig.9 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.9

 

 

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.10

 

 

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

The devaluation of lower qualities allows approaching incommensurability, but avoids the problem of the borders between quality levels (chapter 3.2, Fig.8)

 

 

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

(x)

Number of persons

required to replace

1 person on level 0

Devaluation-factor

2x

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 (Fig.4 right hand side) and

         in negative utilitarianism, see Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering and [Contestabile 2010, 110].

 

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.

 

 

The neutral zone

The exponential devaluation of lower qualities removes the problem with the borders between quality levels (chapter 3.2, Fig.8). But there is one exception: the border between positive and negative quality remains.

 

Example (Fig.11):

Population A is clearly better than B, although the difference in quality is only minimal. A minimal difference in quality does not justify reversing the sign of quantity and the implied huge change in the valuation of total welfare. In all other instances a similar difference within positive (or negative) quality does not cause a comparable change in the valuation of total welfare.

 

Fig.11

 

Obviously we need a neutral zone between positive and negative quality, a state which could be described as “not suffering, but also not happy”. In our signed scale this is the quality level zero (see Table 1). Furthermore – in terms of the devaluation function – the transition between positive and negative quality (and vice-versa) has to be smooth. The non-linear functions in Table 4 and Table 5 satisfy this condition (Fig.12, dashed line):

-        The revaluated quality of life converges slowly towards zero, if the original positive quality (i.e. the one in the survey) approaches zero.

-        The revaluated quality of life converges slowly towards zero, if the original negative quality (i.e. the one in the survey) approaches zero.

 

Fig.12

 

3.4 Flexible Scales

 

 

Variable base

According to chapter 2.6 the conflict between quantity and (positive) quality is a conflict between expansionist and perfectionist interests. Conflicting interests drive conflicting intuitions, so that the perfectionists and expansionists have a different understanding of repugnancy [Contestabile 2010, 109-110]:

-        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.

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

 

A possible compromise consists in making the base dependent on the population size.

-        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).

One could argue that in small populations, lives with low quality contribute to the survival value, so that it is justified to choose base = 1. In large populations this contribution becomes unimportant for survival, at least if there are plenty of lives with a higher quality.

 

The arrows in Fig.12 indicate that

-        the function in the positive area gets increasingly convex with growing population size,

-        the function in the negative area gets increasingly concave with growing population size.

 

 

Variable exponent

Instead of the base, the exponent can be used to model the perfectionist and the expansionist intuition. Furthermore the exponent can – as well as the base – be made dependent on the population size in order to reach a compromise between the conflicting interests.

 

 

Infinite population size

The population size is always finite, because the resources are finite. Nevertheless in theory it is sometimes assumed that the population size is not limited. Since the devaluation increases exponentially and the population size only linearly, it is guaranteed that the Repugnant Conclusion disappears.

 

 

 

3.5 Normative View

 

 

Ethical intuitionism

By varying the parameters (number of quality levels, base, exponent) the majority’s intuitions can be modeled in concrete populations. However, if the parameters are fixed by a democratic vote – similar to the vote for a progressive tax system – then there is not much gain as compared to a concept with incommensurable qualities (chapter 3.2). But even without concrete values for the parameters the normative message is clear enough: classical utilitarianism overrates the value of low qualities of life in large populations.

 

Questioning the linear scale of classical utilitarianism is not a new idea in ethics. A prominent example is prioritarianism. Exponential weighting functions have e.g. been proposed by Christoph Lumer [Lumer].

 

Axiologies are tools and serve a purpose:

(1)   The purpose of above revaluation function is to compare the welfare of populations with different number of people.

(2)   The purpose of a prioritarian weighting function is to compare the welfare of populations with the same number of people, but different notions of distributive justice.

 

Purpose (1) and (2) do not depend on each other, i.e. the Repugnant Conclusion affects both

(a)    compassionate policies, who strive for a high quality of life for everybody

(b)   elitist policies, who promote a high quality of life for a minority.

 

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 (…). It seems that the Priority View (…) is an idea mainly about how to distribute welfare among a fixed number of people [Arrhenius 2000, 110].

 

 

The impartial observer

From the perspective of an impartial observer there are reasons to disregard the population size:

-        The expansionist interest is an expression of the existence bias. Consequently – given that an impartial observer does not have an existence bias – the higher average welfare is decisive in the choice between populations. If two populations have the same size, then the one with the higher average is also the one with the higher total welfare.

-        An impartial observer who has to choose between populations considers the occurrence of happiness and suffering as probability distribution [Contestabile 2016]. If there is no existence bias, then the population size is irrelevant, i.e. the population with the higher average is better.

-        Another argument for excluding the population size is the fact that the metric for comparing happiness with suffering is uncertain. The uncertainty is such that we do not know the sign of total welfare and therefore also the sign of the average [Contestabile 2016]. It does not make sense to multiply this uncertainty with the population size.

This result accords well with the current practice to compare countries on the basis of average welfare. Average utilitarianism is the most popular axiology among welfare economists [Arrhenius, 53]. The crucial point remains the metric, which is used to calculate the averages. The view of an impartial observer asks for a negative utilitarian metric [Contestabile 2016].

 

 

 

4.  Conclusion

 

Although paradoxes are unavoidable in theory, there are ways to circumvent them in practice:

 

1  Non-linear aggregation of qualities

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. Linear scales overrate the value of low qualities (in large populations) and therefore promote expansionism at the cost of the average welfare.

 

2  Weighted averages

Population ethics, the endeavor to find a “better than” relation in terms of welfare and population size is reminiscent of classical utilitarianism, which started with the slogan “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Happiness Economics, which pursues the classical utilitarian goal most clearly today, developed a simple practical method. It calculates the average life satisfaction based on surveys and investigates the statistical determinants; see Short History of Welfare Economics.

In population ethics there are good reasons to circumvent the Mere Addition Paradox and use the same averages (as Happiness Economics) for comparing populations. The population size is not a (statistically significant) determinant of life satisfaction and therefore not relevant for the “better than” relation between populations. There is a normative demand, however, which has to be considered in Happiness Economics as well as population ethics: The view of an impartial observer asks for a negative utilitarian metric in the calculation of averages.

 

 

 

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.      Arrhenius Gustav (2008), Egalitarianism and Population Change, in A.Gosseries & L.Meyer (eds.) Intergenerational Justice, Oxford UP

4.      Arrow Kenneth J. (1966), Social Choice and Individual Values, Wiley, New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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