Tag Archives: ethics

Is it repugnant?

Derek Parfit‘s ‘Repugnant Conclusion‘ is that for any world of extremely happy and fulfilled people, there is a better world which contains a much larger number of people whose lives are only just worth living. This is a hard to avoid consequence of ethical theories where more of whatever makes life worth living is better. It’s more complicated than that, but population ethicists have had a hard time finding a theory that avoids the repugnant conclusion without implying other crazy seeming things.

Parfit originally pointed out that people whose lives are barely worth living could be living lives of constant very low value, or their lives could have huge highs and lows. He asked us to focus on the first. I’m curious whether normal intuitions differ if we focus on a different form of ‘barely worth living’.

Consider an enormous and very rich civilization. Its members appreciate every detail of their lives very sensitively, and their lives are dramatic. They each regularly experience soaring elation, deep contentment and overpowering sensory pleasure. They are keenly ambitious, and almost always achieve their dreams. Everyone is successful and appreciated, and they are all extremely pleased about that. But these people are also subject to deep depressions, and are easily overcome by fear, rage or jealousy. Sometimes they lie awake at night anguished about their insignificance in the universe and their impending deaths. If they don’t achieve what they hoped they can become overwhelmed by guilt, insecurity, and hurt pride. They soon bounce back, but live is slight fear of those emotions. They also have excruciating migraine headaches when they work too hard. All up, the positives in each person’s action packed life just outweigh the negatives.

Now suppose there is a choice to have a small world of people who only appreciate the pleasures, or a much much larger world like that described above. Perhaps it turns out that the overly pleasured people are unable to be made productive for instance, so we can choose a short future with a large number of people enjoying idle bliss with our saved up resources, or an indefinitely long future with an incredibly much larger number of productive people each enjoying small net positives. How crazy does it seem to prefer the latter at some level of extreme size?


I give my interpretation of the results here.

Satisfying preferences by creating them

Sarkology points out that the intuition against it being a good thing to create new lives may be this:

…You are supposed to help people by satisfying their (already fixed and existent) preferences. Not by modifying those preferences to meet reality. Or God forbid, invent those preference ex nihilo.

Could this intuition be correct?

Suppose someone else invents a preference somehow. Lets say they enjoy an evening with a loved one in the presence of the scent of roses, and thus begin a lifelong fondness for that smell. Can you help the person by satisfying this new preference?

If not, you could never help anyone. All preferences are created somehow. So let’s take the usual view that you can help by satisfying preferences others have invented.

What about the person who created the preference? Did he do right or wrong in creating it?

If he did neither right nor wrong, then I could also do neither right or wrong by creating a preference. Then could I do good by fulfilling it? I can’t see why it should matter whether these two acts are done by different people or the same one. If I can do good this way, then why can’t I do good by doing both of these things at once, creating a preference in a situation which also causes it to be fulfilled? If I can do good that way, then the above intuition is wrong.

It could be incorrect to fulfil preferences ‘by’ creating them if creating them is a bad enough act to make up for the good got by fulfilling them. Which would entail that the world would be a better place had many satisfied and happy people not been born, and that having babies is generally a very bad thing to do. I think these things are far more unintuitive than the above intuition being wrong. What do you think?


Image by ღLitle fleaღ via Flickr

Compare the unconceived – don’t unchain them

People often criticise me of thinking of potential people as Steven Landsburg describes without necessarily endorsing:

…like prisoners being held in a sort of limbo, unable to break through into the world of the living. If they have rights, then surely we are required to help some of them escape.

Such people seem to believe this position is required for considering creating good lives an activity with positive value. It is not required, and I don’t think of potential people like that. My position is closer to this:

Benefit and harm are comparative notions. If something benefits you, it makes your life better than it would have been, and if something harms you it makes your life worse than it would have been. To determine whether some event benefits or harms you, we have to compare the goodness of your life as it is, given the event, with the goodness it would otherwise have had. The comparison is between your whole life as it is and your whole life as it would have been. We do not have to make the comparison time by time, comparing each particular time in one life with the same time in the other life.

That is John Broome explaining why death harms people even if they hold that all benefit and harm consists of pleasure and pain, which are things that can’t happen when you are dead. The same goes for potential people.

Yes, you can’t do much to a person who doesn’t exist. They don’t somehow suffer imaginary pains. If someone doesn’t exist in any possible worlds I agree they can’t be helped or harmed at all.  What makes it possible to affect a potential person is that there are some worlds where they do exist. It is in the comparison between these worlds and the ones where they don’t exist where I say there is a benefit to them in having one over the other. The benefit of existing consists of the usual things that we hold to benefit a person when they exist; bananas, status, silly conversations, etc. The cost of not existing relative to existing consists of failing to have those benefits, which only exist in the world where the person exists. The cost does not consist of anything that happens in the world where the person doesn’t exist. They don’t have any hypothetical sorrow, boredom or emptiness at missing out. If they did have such things and they mattered somehow, that would be another entirely separate cost.

Often it sounds crazy that a non-existent person could ‘suffer’ a cost because you are thinking of pleasures and pains (or whatever you take to be good or bad) themselves, not of a comparison between these things in different worlds. Non-existent people seem quite capable of not having pleasures or pains, not having fulfilled preferences, not having worthwhile lives, of not having anything at all, of not even having a capacity to have. Existent people are quite capable of having pleasures (and pains) and all that other stuff. If you compare the two of them, is it really so implausible that one has more pleasure than the other?

‘Potential people’ makes people think of non-existing people, but for potential people to matter morally, it’s crucial that they do exist in some worlds (in the future) and not in others. It may be better to think of them as semi-existing people.

I take it that the next counterargument is something like ‘you can’t compare two quantities when one of them is not zero, but just isn’t there. What’s bigger, 3 or … ?’ But you decide what quantities you are comparing. You can choose a quantity that doesn’t have a value in one world if you want. Similarly I could claim all the situations you are happy to compare are not comparable. Getting one hundred dollars would not benefit you, because ‘you without a hundred dollars’ just won’t be around in the world where you get paid. On the other hand if you wanted to compare benefits to Amanda across worlds where she may or may not exist, you could compare ‘how much pleasure is had by Amanda’, and the answer would be zero in worlds where she doesn’t exist. Something makes you prefer an algorithm like ‘find Amanda and see how much pleasure she has got’, where you can just fail at the finding Amanda bit and get confused. The real question is why you would want this latter comparison. I can see why you might be agnostic, waiting for more evidence of which is the  true comparison of importance or something, but I don’t recall hearing any argument for leaping to the non-comparable comparison.

Orange juice 2

Image via Wikipedia

In other cases it is intuitive to compare quantities that have values, even when relevant entities differ between worlds. Would you say I have no more orange juice in my cup if I have a cup full of orange juice than if I don’t have a cup or orange juice? I won’t, because I really just wanted the orange juice. And if you do, I won’t come around to have orange juice with you.

I have talked about this a bit before, but not explained in much detail. I’ll try again if someone tells me why they actually believe the comparison between a good life and not existing should come out neutral or with some non-answer such as ‘undefined’. Or at least points me to where whichever philosophers have best explained this.

If ‘birth’ is worth nothing, births are worth anything

It seems many people think creating a life has zero value. Some believe this because they think the average life contains about the same amount of suffering and satisfaction. Others have more conceptual objections, for instance to the notion that a person who does not exist now, and who will otherwise not exist, can be benefited. So they believe that there is no benefit to creating life, even if it’s likely to be a happy life. The argument I will pose is aimed at the latter group.

As far as I know, most people believe that conditional on someone existing in the future, it is possible to help them or harm them. For instance, suppose I were designing a toy for one year olds, and I knew it would take more than two years to go to market. Most people would not think the unborn state of its users-to-be should give me more moral freedom to cover it with poisonous paint or be negligent about its explosiveness.

If we accept this, then conditional on my choosing to have a child, I can benefit the child. For instance if I choose to have a child, I might then consider staying at home to play with the child. Assume the child will enjoy this. If the original world had zero value to the child, relative to the world where I don’t have the child (because we are assuming that being born is worth nothing), then this new world where the child is born and played with must have positive value to the child relative to the world where it is not born.

On the other hand suppose I had initially assumed that I would stay at home to play with any child I had, before I considered whether to have a child. Then according to the assumption that any birth is worth nothing, the world where I have the child and play with it is worth nothing more than the one where I don’t have it. This is inconsistent with the previous evaluation unless you accept that the value of an outcome may  depend on your steps in imagining it.

Any birth could be conceptually divided into a number of acts in this way: creating a person in some default circumstance, and improving or worsening the circumstances in any number of ways. If there is no reason to treat a particular set of circumstances as a default, any amount of value can be attributed to any birth situation by starting with a different default labelled ‘birth’ and setting it to zero value. If creating life under any circumstances is worth nothing, a specific birth can be given any arbitrary value. This seems  harder to believe, and further from usual intuitions, than believing that creating life usually has a non-zero value.

You might think that I’m unfair to interpret ‘creating life is worth nothing’ as ‘birth and anything that might come along with it is worth nothing’, but this is exactly what is usually claimed. That creating a life is worth nothing, even if you expect it to be happy, however happy. I am most willing to agree that some standard of birth is worth nothing, and all those births in happier circumstances are worth more, and those in worse circumstances worth negative values. This is my usual position, and the one that the people I am debating here object to.

If you believe creating a life is in general worth nothing, do you also believe that a specific birth can be worth any arbitrary amount?

Why are promisers innocent?

It is generally considered unethical to break promises. It is not considered unethical to make promises you would have been better off not to make. Yet when a promise is made and then broken, there is little reason in the abstract to suppose that either the past promiser or the present promise breaker made a better choice about what the future person should do.

Wedding Photography

Image from icaromoreno

For instance suppose a married woman has an affair. Much moral criticism is usually directed at her for having the affair, yet almost none is directed at her earlier self for marrying her husband in the first place.

It’s not that the later woman, who broke the promise, caused more harm than the earlier woman. Both of their acts were needed together to cause the broken promise. The later woman would have been acting just fine if the earlier woman hadn’t done what she did.

I think we direct all criticism to the later women who breaks the promise because it is very useful to be seen as someone who thinks its important to keep promises. It is of little use to be seen as the sort of person who doesn’t make stupid promises, except as far as it suggests we are more likely to keep promises.

This seems to me a clear case of morality being self serving. It serves others too in this case as usual, but the particular form of it is chosen to help its owner. Which is not particularly surprising if you think morality is a bunch of useful behaviours evolved like all our other self serving bits and pieces. However if you think it is more like maths – something which is actually out there, and we have somehow evolved to be able to intuitively appreciate – it is more surprising that it self serving like this.