In the post about the last and extremely depressing chapter of Peter Singer’s last and extremely depressing book, we’ve addressed a scenario comparison made by the philosopher Derek Parfit (quoted by Singer) regarding the moral obligations for future generations.
In this post we want to address Parfit’s most famous contribution to the field of population ethics which is a paradox in moral philosophy called The Repugnant Conclusion.
The paradox is presented in a book called Reasons and Persons written about 30 years ago, and is considered since then as an iconic work in the field of analytic philosophy.
Basically the paradox is the following – according to utilitarian thought, we ought to choose a world in which billions upon billions of people are living lives barely worth living over a world in which much less people are living extremely happy lives, if the sum of the happiness in the extremely populated world is greater than the sum of the happiness in the extremely happy world.
The argument sounds counter intuitive when presented in this form, however Parfit shows that in a gradual process that is the obligated moral conclusion.
So he asks to imagine 3 worlds:
1. World A which has 1 billion people who are living extremely happy lives. To simplify the comparison we’ll define that their life value is averaging 100.
2. World A+ which is exactly the same as world A only with an additional 1 billion people who their lives are of value 80. So the average of this world is 90.
The intuition should be that world A+ is better or at least not worse than world A, since how can the mere addition of happy lives be worse? That is especially the case in classical utilitarianism since world A+ contains more happiness in total.
3. World B which is of 2 billion people whose life value is an average of 91. This world is surely better than A+ since the ‘worst off’ group gains more than the ‘better off’ group loses. The ‘worst off’ group gains 11 while the ‘better off’ loses 9.
So if world B is better than world A+ which is as good as world A than logically world B is better than world A.
The problem starts when applying the same kind of argument to world B and a world C with 4 billion people with an average value of 75. Then world C would be better than world B which is better than world A and so world C is better than world A. Repeating this gradual process would reach a world Z which contains billions upon billions of people whose lives are barley worth living, but still is better than world A.
To put it more simply, if each life out of the 1 billion people in world A has 100 unites of happiness, then the overall sum is 100X1,000,000,000 unites.
If each life in world Z has 1 unite of happiness, but there are trillions of people, then the overall sum is 1X1,000,000,000,000,00… unites. Much more than in world A in total.
The paradox is that logically we must prefer a world we certainly don’t want.
This is not another case of a conflict between the first intuition and the following rational inferring. Even after consenting with the inner logic of the scenario, still the thought that world Z is the best world, is a repugnant conclusion.
Recently a number of philosophers have suggested to simply accept the paradox’s conclusion (that world Z is indeed better) since rejecting it using various ethical theories have so far failed, with some even ending up with worse outcomes.
This is not the place to elaborate about these attempts and why they fail, mainly since it is not the theoretical principal behind the paradox in-itself that is in the center of our interest in this post, but rather its practical context. However we do wish to shortly explain why, what is probably the most intuitive response to the paradox, considering the average well-being instead of the sum, not only fails but ends up worse.
According to considering the average well-being approach, adding new lives makes a world worse if the value of these lives is below the average and vice versa. So imagine a world in which there is one person who lives a life full of suffering, and another world in which one billion people live lives full of suffering except for one minute of pleasure for each. According to average utilitarianism the first world is worse than the second one since its average is worse. Obviously the conclusion that a world in which a billion people suffer all their lives is better than a world in which one person suffers all his life is more repugnant than the original repugnant conclusion.
Parfit wrote this paradox as part of broader discussion regarding the moral status of future generations, the effects of population growth on existing people and on future people.
The reason we are bothering you with this kind of issue, all the more so one that seems to be merely a hypothetical problem for theoretical ethics, is that it is not so if we consider animals. Then it becomes practical ethics.
When considering nonhuman animals, our actual world is much worse than the theoretical world Z which was invented specifically to repugnant us.
In order that world Z would be better than world A, Parfit made it a world which is barely worth living, but not a world full of suffering. In fact Parfit emphasizes that world Z is not a world of pain and hardships but a world of muzak (elevator music) and potatoes. An extremely boring and unexciting world with nothing worth living for in it. That is the kind of world that thinking it’s the best, is a repugnant conclusion.
The theoretical world which we are supposed to be repugnant by is without comparison much better than the world we already live in. Billions of animals are born into a life of suffering from birth to death.
When counting the animals, world Z is not repugnant, it is an improvement.
Obviously the primary terms of the worlds are not totally analogical, but that doesn’t weaken the repugnant conclusion we infer from the repugnant conclusion, but quite the opposite. As in our world, Parfit’s Z is a world in which people are bringing more humans into life, at least theoretically and on the face of it, as ends and not as means. And still in a world with limited resources it is clear to him that the value of each life would be seriously compromised and that’s a world he doesn’t want (and it seems that most if not all agree). When it comes to animals, billions upon billions of them are brought into the world merely as means to others’ ends, and their lives are much worse than the lives of people in world Z. So the analogy doesn’t work from that sense since as repugnant as world Z would be it is a paradise compared with world real.
Given that the width of the lines represent the number of sentient beings and the height their welfare, then if we add the animals into Parfit’s charts, all of the worlds would be endless lines well below their current position.
Not only that our actual world is much worse than world Z, but it is also none paradoxical. Despite that it is an extremely horrible world, most humans prefer it, but as oppose to world Z they don’t feel repugnance about their preference. On the contrary, they take pleasure of what makes it so repugnant.
If preferring the imagined world Z in a theoretical mind game is a repugnant conclusion, then how should we call preferring the actual world in real life?
We are bothering you with the issue since in the last 30 years many moral philosophers are bothering themselves with solving the paradox so they can avoid the repugnant conclusion. If they bother themselves with a theoretical ethical problem, trying to avoid the repugnant conclusion, we sure must bother ourselves with a practical problem trying to avoid the continuation of this repugnant world.
Our arguments are obviously not directed at the philosophers who live in world A and need to imagine world Z so they can deal with a theoretical problem. We direct our arguments at activists who know they live in a much worse world than world Z but still don’t act like it. Activists don’t need a thought experiment to realize to what kind of a horrible world we can reach since they know we already live in such a world. It is about time we act accordingly.
The real world has long ago surpassed world Z. In terms of horribleness our world is world Z to the power of a trillion. And every year it is getting worse, due to the growing human population with each one increasing the number of suffering animals. To which world must we get before you realize that the best world is an empty one?