In an interesting portion of Derek Parfit’s brilliant work, Reasons and Persons, he considers an ethical problem in utilitarian philosophy. Allow me to use Parfit’s discussion of the mere addition paradox and the repugnant conclusion to expand on how I believe how the concepts of value, good and bad, and better and worse should be looked at. I’ll also explain why I think the mere addition paradox and the repugnant conclusion make some fundamental errors. I encourage everyone to read his book, but if you haven’t already it might be helpful to read this section on these problems from wikipedia.
When most people consider different moral situations they compare them as better or worse or one as good and the other as bad. When utilitarians do this they attempt to compare the well-being (or “happiness” or some other similar concept) of the people in each scenario. Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape is a good example of this – my discussion of it might help some readers follow the concept more clearly. Simplistically speaking, well-being is what is valuable so if case A has more well-being than case B: case A is better.
Parfit identifies what he sees as a paradox in certain cases using that framework. If we consider a greater sum of happiness (I’m using this term interchangeably with “well-being”) to be always better a repugnant conclusion could be drawn:
For any population of at least ten billion, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.
I dispute this conclusion and the existence of any paradox in appropriate utilitarian thinking. To make that case it is essential to understand that for something to have value it must be valuable to somebody. Sam Harris writes,
Consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other).
For the purposes of our discussion let’s take for granted that well-being (or phrased another way, for life to go as well as possible) is the ultimate goal. You’re welcome to dispute that, but these problems within utilitarianism use that as a starting point. If you just completely reject all possible forms of utilitarianism then me resolving these paradoxes might be of little interest to you anyway. Feel free to read on if you’re curious though.
If something only has value if it is valuable to a conscious creature then well-being is only valuable subjectively (in the sense that it needs a subject to experience it). Well-being isn’t of value inherently or “for its own sake.” I’m not even sure what well-being could mean if it’s not a state of an actual being. So how do we approach measuring whether one situation is better or worse in terms of well-being? As Parfit argues, it’s not worse for more people to exist. Is it?
If I’m right and the goal is to maximize the well-being of conscious beings, do we have to conclude that more people existing is always better if there is more total well-being? Referring to the wiki page charts (“The group’s size is represented by column width, and the group’s happiness represented by column height”), would Z really be better or no worse than A?
The reason why this isn’t a repugnant conclusion or paradox is because if we’re correctly using a utilitarian framework that holds consciousness to be the only proper domain of value we’re comparing the wrong things. Some questions don’t make sense even if they can be said. Consider the question, “What happened before time?” Even though it is difficult to grasp, physicists can explain that the question doesn’t make sense. Similarly, to compare total sums of or average happiness side-by-side doesn’t make sense – or at least isn’t what’s important.
There is no “better” or “worse” unless we ask, better or worse for whom? If we look at the mere addition problem and ask what’s better A or A+ you’ll see what I mean.
It is explained that, “In situation A, everyone is happy. In situation A+, there are the extra people.” The extra people lives have enough well-being that they are worth living. So is A+ worse than A? Most people intuitively think, “no, how could it be worse for more people to exist? Their lives are worth living, after all.”
But we haven’t established what is being compared. What is worse and worse for whom? As established before, we only need to consider the state of conscious beings. Something can’t just be “better” or “worse” in itself. So, you may ask, are the extra people “better off”? Well in A they didn’t exist, so you might assume that, yes, they are automatically better off by mere fact that they now exist and have greater than 0 well-being. As a corollary, are the extra people worse off in situation A? I say, no. Here’s where we get to the comparison problem. Nonexistence isn’t a “bad” state because nonexistent people don’t have consciousness. In fact, nonexistent people is a contradiction – nonexistent people aren’t people, they’re nothing. In fact, there is not even a “they.”
Let’s list some true observations. Everyone in A is at their max well-being; their situation is perfect. More people exist in A+, those extras could be better off. If everyone in A+ had the well-being of those in A, A+ would constitute a better situation for those within that world. Even though they are at a lower level of well-being, the extra people are not worse off compared to A because they don’t even exist in situation A. The extra people aren’t worse off in A because there are no extra people.
To help illustrate this consider what it would mean to conclude nonexistence is “bad” or “worse than existence.” We would have to conclude that we exist within an apparent infinity of badness because an unending number of nonexistent beings could exist but don’t. You would even have to conclude that the holocaust is trivial in terms of badness compared to the infinity of nonexistent beings. After all, the holocaust happened to a finite number of people and many of the victims who suffered were still able to experience well-being greater than 0. Of course, that is a preposterous conclusion. Clearly, the holocaust is worse than nonexistence because nonexistence doesn’t happen to somebody; the holocaust does.
Therefore, it should be more clear that A and A+ aren’t perfectly comparable. The difficultly arrises because of how our minds work. It’s kind of like the “don’t think of a pink elephant” problem. When someone tells you not to think of something, it is extremely difficult not to think of it. As such, to think of nonexistent beings makes us imagine beings. Arguing that it’s better for them because they’d not exist in the other scenario seems to fall into that type of cognitive illusion. Once we talk about “their” existence we can’t help but think of “them” as conscious beings. If a person isn’t in existence they can’t experience anything. Does a nonexistent person have worse balance or a worse sense of smell? No, no sense of balance or smell exists to be worse. Our brains are constructed in a such a way that we can easily personify something and empathize with it. If I asked if it was good or bad to be a rock, you might try to imagine yourself as a rock. Maybe you’d think that would suck. But if you can’t be a rock; once “you’re a rock” you wouldn’t be you. You wouldn’t be a you. It wouldn’t suck or be good or be bad. Rocks aren’t conscious so good and bad doesn’t apply.
Let’s think of this another way. If the goal wasn’t to maximize well-being but rather to completely satisfy our appetites (maximize the food in our stomachs) you might be able to better see the problem with the earlier comparisons. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume you can’t overeat. If you’re comparing it with well-being or happiness in your mind, let’s assume that the population change doesn’t have any effect on the well-being of the existing people. Let’s also assume that food (resources) is infinite – there isn’t a finite amount of available happiness either.
5 people stand in our house (existence). All 5 persons’ stomachs are full – we completed our goal.
Illustration by Drew Simenson
If 5 more people walk into the house with their stomachs 3/4 full just because there is more food in bellies overall doesn’t make the situation better.
Illustration by Drew Simenson
So calculating total food seems ridiculous. The extra 5 people certainly aren’t worse off either. It just means there is more work to be done; since it doesn’t require the original 5 people to regurgitate their food up to feed the new group of people it’s not worse for anybody. It is simultaneously a situation in need of improvement (giving charity to A+ would be useful but not to A) but not worse for anybody.
Does that mean we can’t compare the two situations from a third party perspective? No. Clearly if you had to decide which world you lived in assuming you’d be put in the same state of being as the others, situation A is better than A+.
I submit that it is neither good nor bad to simply add people to the population so long as it doesn’t affect the well-being of anyone else. It only makes sense to look at the conditions of each situation and ask what, if anything, we could make better.
If only two people, Adam and Eve, existed and they were perfectly happy would having a child be morally good or a moral obligation? Assume that their happiness isn’t affected positively or negatively by the addition of their child (far fetched I realize). A utilitarian could answer that it didn’t run counter to the goal because no conscious creature’s well-being was made worse by that decision. Therefore, I’d argue their choice to have a child wouldn’t be morally good or bad (assuming also that the child’s life would be worth living). They’d have no moral responsibility to others to have a child – there are no others. They only acquire moral responsibility to maximize the child’s well-being once, and if, they have a child. There would only be a moral obligation to have children if having those children helped increase well-being of other conscious beings that are currently in existence. Of course, once they popped into existence we couldn’t use them as slaves or something because we would now have to be concerned with their conscious well-being. People should have children only if they believe that they (and assuming others exist) and others would be happier/better off (in a broad sense) to do so (also with the caveat that the child’s life is “worth living”). Think of it this way: do you think people ought to have children if that means everyone is going to have worse lives?
Does any of this mean that if people were all perfectly happy it would be morally wrong to bring them into existence? No – look at the difference between A and A+ again. The extra people’s existence didn’t result in any loss of well-being for the first group. So as long as the mere addition of extra conscious beings doesn’t ever cause more suffering to the initial group nobody is getting worse. The population in A is better off than the total population of A+. But again no one is worse off for those extra people to exist so it isn’t morally wrong to bring them into existence. The goal isn’t to keep well-being maximized for its own sake. It is to maximize the well-being of anybody who exists. Remembering that people experience life as an individual rather than a group also helps us keep this in perspective.
If this has implications for birth it also has implications for death. We don’t increase conscious creatures’ well-being by killing people off because that is lowering their well-being and will lower the well-being of their family, friends, and anyone that could have been helped by them directly or indirectly. I discuss a related topic here. On an extreme level, this also make it theoretically possible for voluntary human extinction to be a morally neutral or (in some more extreme cases) a morally good choice. For that to happen, it’d have to be actually voluntary and everyone would have to be no worse by refusing to have children. It is almost certainly impossible in practice however. I find it difficult to believe that people would truly be happier deciding to not have children – but if somehow that was the case, so be it.
If people left the stage after a reasonable run, in the fullness of time intelligence could evolve again (dolphin-people? chimp-people? orchid people?). And then, in due course, when this new species deciphered human books or reached the marker that might be left for them on the windless moon, they would know that man ended his dominion so that theirs might begin. Imagine, then, how they will regard us. It is, far and away, the greatest act of goodness ever contemplated, the ennoblement of a whole species; an act, almost, of angels.
Until that day we should be content to fill our bellies.
Special thanks to Drew Simenson for providing illustrations for me. To contract Drew about his graphic design work you can email him here.