The Repugnant Conclusion

Thoughts about action on climate change can lead on to thoughts about population ethics.  If you worry about sustainability, it’s not diffiuclt to wonder about the resources people use, as well as the number of people who use them.  The population of our planet is growing and will continue to grow, all the while our resources will shift, diminish, and otherwise change as our climate changes.  The UN estimates that the teeming masses will increase from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by the year 2050.  There were only about a billion and a half people on a comparatively roomy planet just 100 years ago.  The jump is more than staggering.  You can wonder about the consequences.  The UN, for its part, just called for more family planning.

There’s a solid moral kicker in the UN’s call for action which has to do with the welfare of women.  Usually, the philosophical action with regard to population ethics has a lot more to do with human welfare generally.  What’s better:  a number of very happy people or a larger number of people with just-tolerable lives?  A few people on cushions or a lot of people picking through the dirt?  Parfit argues that the repugnant conclusion is difficult to avoid.  If what matters is human welfare, then you get more of that with lots of barely tolerable lives as opposed to a smaller number of well-off people.  There’s an interesting summary of the problem and replies here.

I’ve got the horrible feeling that the repugnant conclusion is irresistible, so long as we suppose that our thoughts about human welfare as such are on a par with our thoughts about an individual human’s welfare.  I can’t help thinking, too, that these sorts of thoughts aren’t quite on a par — anyway it will take some work to think the whole thing through.  Maybe this is yet another instance of our global worries outstripping our capacity to understand things locally.  We’re not bad at coming to conclusions about what’s best for you or for me or even for quite a few of us.  We are in danger of falling face first when we think too quickly about what’s best for all of us.  We can do better, but maybe it requires hanging looser, conceptually, and that’s not an easy thing for something like the UN to do.

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  1. Ted Honderich’s Principle of Humanity stuff is vulnerable to a version of this argument (i.e., an extremely long life lived just about tolerably comes out as better than a reasonably long life lived extremely well).

  2. Maybe if the basic moral impulse is to show respect and compassion for individuals, then we don’t have to aim for an aggregate of good made out of tiny bits of good for tons and tons of people. After all, respect and compassion make us not want people to be “picking through the dirt.”

  3. It’s the ‘aggregate of good’ bit that’s confusing me at present. If you are trying to compare the welfare of two sets of people, what are you comparing? Does human happiness just sum up like that?

    I’m starting to think that human happiness is a mixed bag, and if it is, what gets compared when we think about the welfare of different groups? I do still want to think about groups like that sometimes, I’m just not sure how to do so.

  4. But isn’t it just sheer aggregating that leads to the repugnant conclusion, whatever further issues there are about the mixed goods that may go into the aggregate? (But maybe your point is that those issues could block aggregation….)

  5. Without getting into the math, it seems impossible to compare bad lives with good lives. People who lead what those with what might be conventionally described as good lives call “bad lives” don’t necessarily see them as bad lives. There is an inner quality to each life, which has nothing to do with
    whether one has a toilet or not. I’m not against population control or in favor of people living without clean drinking water, but it just seems meaningless to talk about bad lives and good lives, because that is immensely subjective, and by subjective, I mean that one cannot experience the life of another.

  6. Eric MacDonald

    Perhaps I should just stay out ot this one, since summing utility always seemed to be an impossible thing to do. Betham famously said that pushpin is as good as poetry provided the pleasure is as great, but it has never been clear to me that calculating pleasure or utility or whatever measure of good you have is anything more than trying to carry water in a sieve. I have always thought that Bentham’s point was that you can’t calculate quatities of pleasure, so you shouldn’t make judgements about how different people achieve fulfilment in their lives. The fact that A feels as fulfilled or as satisfied as B is enough to go on, even if, from C’s standpoint, A’s way of achieving fulfiment is pretty down-market, e.g., playing pushpin instead of reading Wordsworth.

    So, saying that 7 billion people with .4 utility on average (69 billion 999 million 999 thousand 999.9 total units of utility) is better than 2 billion people with .6 uility on average (19 billion 999 million 999 thousand 999.9 total units of utility), doesn’t really compute for me. And I still don’t see how the repugnant conclusion is forced unless you make some unwarranted assumptions.

    So even if, as I think Amos is right to say, you can’t really compute utility, what forces the repugnant conclusion? Can some one help me out?

  7. Leaving aside for the moment that ‘sustainability’ doesn’t actually mean anything at all, what if more people actually results in greater ‘sustainability’?

    The ‘teeming masses’ who live near each other in greater numbers are better able to protect themselves from the effects of ‘unsustainability’; it amplifies their creativity and productivity.

    For example, we know that where the least ‘sustainable’ populations live – the North, and the West – there is greater protection from the (changing) elements, and greater dynamism capable of producing alternatives in the face of shortages and in times of crisis than there is in the developing world. A ‘natural disaster’ in the developed world has far fewer human consequences than in the underdeveloped world. We can say then that there is no such thing as a natural disaster; the causes are always social. It is lack of development which causes disaster. Accordingly, although development has consequences – perhaps which even increase in their absolute measure – the effect of those consequences is reduced by the development itself. And you can’t achieve development with a reducing, aging, dispersing population. ‘Sustainability’ is corrosive to development and to society. It will make more people more vulnerable to climate by ripping apart the stuff that society consists of.

    Sustainability escapes scrutiny as a political ideology, yet it is an organising principle that will be used to tell people how to live, and how to relate, and what to expect. If it were communism, or capitalism doing much the same thing, it would be advanced, or challenged through the political process. It would have to win elections. It would have to argue its corner, and win by consent or fade into obscurity. Instead, it achieves its legitimacy through appeals to authority in the language of ‘science’.

    How peculiar that it is science which tells us how we ought to live and how many of us there ought to be. After all, it’s a lot harder to do science when you have a sustainable, albeit subsistence lifestyle.

    100 years ago, when there were just 1.5 billion people, there were also fewer resources. Uranium was not a resource. Oil was only just becoming a resource, and far less of it was extractable through the technology of the time. There was no plastic. There were a fraction of the materials available to industrial processes that there are today, and far fewer industrial processes. Everything was in short supply. Even people living in more developed countries suffered from diseases associated with malnutrition, and infant mortality was no rare thing.

    We have more resources now because there are more people, living closer together, and doing more, living better lives. The repugnant conclusion has a false premise: that ‘sustainability’ is good. Indeed, the premise is fairly repugnant by itself.

  8. Jean and Eric, I think probably sheer aggregating, as Jean says, is what nudges us towards the conclusion. The trouble I’m having, maybe, is that sometimes comparisons between different people (and their welfare) matter, particularly when we think about what to do about the planet. So what’s getting compared?

    I don’t think it can be sheer aggregates (as maybe Amos and Eric say, above) of happiness-stuff, or whatever. That’s why I get the feeling that the conclusion can be resisted. But the alternative, letting a million flowers bloom and thinking of human welfare as a genuinely mixed bag, leaves you with a mush of stuff that you’ve got no hope of comparing. How then can we think about what’s right when it comes to big groups of people?

  9. James: It’s impossible to compare happiness levels or good lives with bad lives, but when it comes to groups of people, one certainly can compare literacy rates, life expectancies, income distributions, the possibility to vote, etc. A more just world is not necessarily a world where people are happier or even where people experience better lives, but a more just world seems to be a good in itself. Justice is good and that’s that. Freedom is good and that’s that.
    Levels of both justice and freedom can be compared, if not measured exactly, in ways that good and bad lives cannot.

  10. This debate is the philosophical equivalent of an optical illusion: it’s not quite as it looks, because we make assumptions we don’t quite realise we’re making. When you see the assumptions, the Repugnant conclusion is not nearly as repugnant as it initially appears.

    Lots of people living poor, grim lives means many, many more people than the small-but-happy scenario. We naturally exaggerate the welfare of individuals rather than their number because it’s easier to think about individual welfare than numbers of people (it’s easier to imagine being rich or poor, happy or desperate, than it is to imagine being one thousand people or three thousand). Nine ecstatic lives are better than ten sad ones, but are they really better than ten million?

    Second, if a population is unsustainable so people die, then the total number of people will fall and the scenario will yield less happiness than the Repugnant Conclusion argument seems to imply. Accepting there must be some quasi-Malthusian limit on the number of people the earth can sustain allows us to add ‘fear of an early death’ as a factor reducing individual well-being, which draws the optimum back towards a middling number of people living middling lives. And what’s so repugnant about that?

  11. James asks, ‘How then can we think about what’s right when it comes to big groups of people?’

    Isn’t this chiefly a political quesiton?

    Iain King says that nine happy lives is better than ten sad ones. But the point of politics, according to some, is that ten sad lives can express their disatisfaction at their state of affairs, and use their combined force to acheive a change.

    It is not for Iain to decide what is or isn’t a life worth living. By assuming to be able to decide (using some form of Mathusianism), he undermines the prospect of those who live unhappy lives to challenge their circumstances in favour of the view that their happiness is purely a matter of their environmental – rather than social – circumstances.

    This is something James seems reluctant to answer. Malthusianism and environmental ethics stand in the way of political change, and switch the emphasis of politics from a process by which legitimate change is acheived, to merely controlling the ‘teeming masses’.

    Iain might as well say that eugenics is the solution to poverty.

  12. Ian’s bit here: ‘(it’s easier to imagine being rich or poor, happy or desperate, than it is to imagine being one thousand people or three thousand)’ makes a point I was struggling with in the post. I do wonder not only if it makes sense to sum welfare but, even if it does, how well we can think about the welfare of A LOT of people. Maybe I can’t keep it all in my head long enough to trust my conclusions in this connection.

    There is that utilitarian thought that we should think about preference satisfaction instead of some summation of happiness or welfare aggregate. But we might then be in the same mess when it comes to reflection on which preferences count and whether they count in different ways.

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