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T.Wester, s2635879 22nd of March 2021
In utilitarian ethics, it is said that we ought to strive for the greatest good for the greatest number. In other words, to determine the “goodness” of a given situation, we simply measure every persons happiness and add all of them together, the higher this “happiness-value” is, the better the situation. There are thus two ways off increasing the worlds happiness-value, by either making everyone happier or by adding more people. This leads us to the problem however that an extremely large population with generally unhappy people still yields a high happiness-value even though we would not find such a society desirable. This means that instead of striving for greater quality of life or a balanced population, we should focus on merely adding people as long as they are not miserable. This problem is know as the Repugnant Conclusion and is also know as the mere addition paradox, formulated originally by Derek Parfit in his 1984 work titled “Reasons and Persons” (Parfit, 1984). This paradox has serious moral questions attached to it, such as whether it is our moral obligation to have children.
The Repugnant Conclusion seems inevitable in utilitarian ethics, but this is not necessarily so. Various ethicists have formulated methods of avoiding it, a few of which will be laid out below.
One of the ways in which utilitarians attempt to address the Repugnant Conclusion is by changing from “total utilitarianism” to “average utilitarianism”. In total utilitarianism, as explained above, we tally the total amount of happiness in a given situation. In average utilitarianism on the other hand, we take the average happiness of all persons in a given situation. This avoids the Repugnant Conclusion because a large society with overall low individual welfare is no longer desirable. This form of average utilitarianism is not very popular however, since it would prefer a society with only one very happy person over a society of any greater size with even one person being less happy. It seems thus that average utilitarianism leads to a dead end. What is important to realize however is that when analysing situations away from either extremely small- or large-populations, both forms of utilitarianism come to the same conclusions.
A second way of avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is by introducing a so-called “variable value principle”. Such a principle states that the amount of value added to a society for each new happy person decreases if the population is already very large. With such a principle in mind, the Repugnant Conclusion becomes easily avoidable since the new lives added would do more harm than good. In other words, extremely small- or large-populations are pulled towards the middle because of the respective increase or decrease in value of a happy human life. A variable value theory can thus create a compromise between average- and total-utilitarianism because the middle ground which such a theory creates is where average- and total-utilitarianism overlap.
Like other parts of population ethics, a variable value principle is not necessarily limited to the realm of philosophy. There is science showing both the detrimental effects of extremely small- (Smith, 2014) and large- (Calhoun, 1962) populations. In other words, the happiness of the population will decrease if that population is too crowded or too small.
Keeping this in mind we can answer some of the questions in population ethics, raised in relation to Repugnant Conclusion and otherwise. The Repugnant Conclusion raises issues such as: “Can we make the world a better place by creating additional happy people?” (Arrhenius,2017). We can now answer this question: Yes, we can make the world a better place by creating more happy people, but this is not necessarily so. There are situations (depending on the current population) in which we cannot make the world a better place by mere addition of people. Thus it is not someone's moral obligation to have children. The variable value principle also addresses the same question when asked in reverse: Can we make the world a better place by removing people or limiting their reproduction? The answer is the same as before: Yes, but not necessarily so.
Variable value theories in general are not without criticism however. Primarily, the Sadistic (Arrhenius, 2000) and Absurd (Parfit, 1984) conclusions are formulated. The former states that because the value a positive life adds changes depending on the pre-existing welfare of a given society, it may sometimes be better to add tormented lives than happy ones. The Absurd Conclusion results when one tries to circumvent the Sadistic Conclusion by stating that negative welfare does not decrease relatively with population size. Making such a statement would mean that a society with a large amount of happy people and one sad person is better than a society with twice as many happy people and twice as many sad people. Even thought the proportions stay the same, the value of the positive lives decrease, while that of the negative lives does not.
However, the variant of a variable value principle I present in this essay claims not that the value of positive lives decreases with lager population size, but that people will become less happy in overcrowded (or undercrowded) populations. Thus we can avoid the Sadistic Conclusion and with it the Absurd Conclusion as well.
In this essay I have first explained the nature of the Repugnant Conclusion and the way in which we arrive at it. I have shown that average utilitarianism can avoid the Repugnant Conclusion, while not being fully desirable due other paradoxes it creates. I have followed this up by attempting to make a case for a variable value theory which reconciles total- and average-utilitarianism taking the best from both systems. A variable value principle is scientifically and philosophically backed and solves the problem of the Repugnant Conclusion among others.
Arrhenius, 2000. Gustaf Arrhenius, “An Impossibility Theorem for Welfarist Axiology,” Economics and Philosophy 16, pp. 247-266 ( 2000).
Arrhenius, 2017. Gustaf Arrhenius, Jesper Ryberg, and Torbjörn Tännsjö, “The Repugnant Conclusion,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2017).
Calhoun, 1962. John B Calhoun, “Population density and social pathology,” Scientific American 206(2), pp. 139-149 (1962).
Parfit, 1984. Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Claredon Press (1984).
Smith, 2014. Cameron M. Smith, “Estimation of a genetically viable population for multigenerational interstellar voyaging: Review and data for project Hyperion,” Acta Astronautica 97, p. 16 (2014).