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10th of March 2021
The Repugnant Conclusion is a term used by Parfit to describe a certain problem in utilitarian ethics (Parfit, 1984). In utilitarianism, we ought to strive for the greatest good (often characterized as either happiness or pleasure) for the greatest number. A society then where everyone is happy can be outweighed by a larger society where everyone is on the brink of misery. After all, when we calculate both situations, the larger population size in the latter makes for a greater overall happiness in the society. This is the Repugnant conclusion, and it leads to questions such as “Can we make the world a better place by creating additional happy people?” (Arrhenius, 2017).
In this essay, I will highlight a stance similar in nature and outcome to the variable value principle. A principle like this aims to seek a middle ground between total utilitarianism and average utilitarianism. In total utilitarianism, each person's “happiness score” is counted together, the higher the total happiness the better. In average utilitarianism on the other hand the aforementioned total happiness is divided by the total number of citizens and once again, the higher this score, the better. In some cases, total- and averageutilitarianism lead to the same conclusions, however in cases with either very large or very small populations the results between the two systems vary greatly. Average utilitarianism on its own leads to a few counterintuitive conclusions. Mainly that a society of any size with each member having a high happiness score is “worse” than a society with just one member who is happier. The balanced approach I will lay out in the remainder of this essay will address this issue.
Before I can start with this solution to the Repugnant Conclusion, I will first need to prove two things. First, that humans are generally happier if the human population is not too small and second that humans are generally happier if the human population size is not too big.
Starting with the first, it is clear to anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and psychologists alike that human beings work better in groups. This fundamentally starts in genetics. It is estimated that for the human species to survive a population of at least 14,000 adults is needed to ensure enough genetic diversity and to allow for the relatively long time it takes for a human child to reach adulthood (Smith, 2014). A population smaller than 14,000 humans would die out within a few generations.
The effects of overcrowding have also been studied, primarily in mice (Calhoun, 1962). In cases of serious overcrowding, the complete extinction of the population turned out to be inevitable.
The point I have attempted to make in this essay is that a population on either extreme side in terms of size is unsustainable. And it is exactly those extremes in which average- and total-utilitarianism find disagreement. I have shown in this essay (though only briefly) that in practice, average and total-utilitarianism will come to very similar conclusions and that incorporating average utilitarianism can mean the avoidance of the Repugnant Conclusion.
Arrhenius, 2017. Gustaf Arrhenius, Jesper Ryberg, and Torbjörn Tännsjö, “The Repugnant Conclusion,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta Spring 2017, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University (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).