The so-called repugnant conclusion

disgustI have published two essays over at The Philosophers’ Magazine Online on the so-called “repugnant” conclusion, the idea that we have a moral duty to have as many children as possible, as long as that increases “happiness” defined in a specific quantitative fashion.

The first one is a response to Stockholm University Professor of Practical Philosophy Thorbjörn Tännsjö’s exposition of the idea, which gained notoriety when it was rejected for publication by Vox magazine. It eventually got published over at Gawker.

The repugnant conclusion is arrived at because, in Tännsjö’s words: “Most people live lives that are, on net, happy. For them to never exist, then, would be to deny them that happiness. And because I think we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness in the world, that means that we all have an obligation to make the world as populated as can be.”

I started my analysis by providing a couple of preliminary rebuttals, and then I got to the crux of the matter:

“one of the big elephants in the room of utilitarian discourse [is] a pachyderm that has plagued the whole approach since Bentham, and that John Stuart Mill already tried (unsuccessfully, I think) to remedy: how is one supposed to measure happiness anyway? There are a number of philosophical concepts of happiness on offer, and social scientists have their own versions too. But unless we settle on one of them, and — crucially — unless we can reasonably operationalize it (i.e., we can actually come up with reliable quantitative estimates) this is all fluffy talk.”

An even bigger elephant becomes apparent when one goes “meta,” so to speak “and asks why do we have a moral obligation toward increasing most people’s happiness to begin with? Where does this ‘fact’ come from? A hedonist would say that the focus should be on pleasure, not happiness. A communitarian will argue that we ought to reduce inequality first and foremost. A virtue ethicist would say that it is all about cultivating personal character. And so on. If one adopts any of these positions the so-called repugnant conclusion is not repugnant at all, for the simple reason that it is not a conclusion that follows from one’s moral axioms.”

In the second essay I go further than the specific arguments and counter-arguments concerning the repugnant conclusion and suggest that “the sort of reasoning that leads to [it] is nothing less than a clear telling sign of the corruption of the entire contemporary concept of moral philosophy. Rather than accepting the conclusion, we should reject the very way moral discourse is currently being carried out.”

The rest of that essay is an elaboration of this concept, which hinges on a comparison between modern-style moral philosophy (be it of a utilitarian or deontological flavor) with ancient Greco-Roman ethics, understood as the broader pursuit of a meaningful life.


Categories: Ethics, Social & Political Philosophy

43 replies

  1. DM,
    In virtue ethics, for instance, I am left to wonder “Why these virtues and not others? How do you decide what is moderation and what is excess? How do we weight the different virtues when they conflict?” and so on

    You look at what wise and virtuous people do. It’s done by example, hence the importance of role models in virtue ethics.

    The founders of the great religions were role models. Christianity celebrates its role models by canonising them as saints.

    But the point I really want to make is the role of good literature in conveying an understanding of the virtues. Our literature is suffused with moral awareness and the characters become examples of virtuous/non-virtuous behaviour. Through our literature we are exposed to many moral situations and we, as it were, rehearse them by immersing ourselves in the narrative.


  2. Massimo’s recent post about the book, The Martian, is a lovely example of what I mean.


  3. Back to my first comment; Massimo, other than my big-picture critique of utilitarianism, that we can’t have a view from nowhere, or from no-time, there’s the issue of, like SETI, how the moral equivalent of a Drake equation can be preloaded in all sorts of ways. Any further thoughts on that?


  4. “You look at what wise and virtuous people do. It’s done by example, hence the importance of role models in virtue ethics. And if this sounds outrageous or circular, it isn’t. It’s a lot like the Wittgensteinian treatment of the concept of game: it’s impossible to provide a precise definition, but it’s easy to point to how people use the word and learn that way.”

    I still can not see why the grecoroman style of doing ethics should be preferred, I mean its not like the romans and greeks didn’t commit great injustices and didn’t see anything wrong with slavery,misogyny and genocide. Seems like the “role models” they adopted were different from the ones any of us would consider good people.

    Which seems a problem with the virtue ethics approach, which people should I count as a role model and which do not? I have great admiration for people that were considered “heretics” and “indecent people” (indeed many see “rebellion” as a character flaw, even though we need rebels who fight for a just cause)

    So it seems like Virtue ethics must provide a standard for which this question can be settled , or embrace relativism and admit that what we count as good or bad has no rational motivation. But is merely a product of habit and custom, and that implies that ethical disputes cannot be resolved rationally if different people disagree as to what counts as a virtuous character.

    Although I don’t see much hope for consequentialism and other modern ethical frameworks, I think virtue ethics at least needs to be revised to be of use in a secular and cosmopolitan society in which different people have diverse conceptions on what is a good life, also , I don’t see how virtue ethics accounts for social progress,since for me Virtue ethics seems a very conformist view.


  5. And, Massimo said it’s too late for his “five,” but biology and archaeology unite, and historical interpretation changes may follow,if this holds up; 4,800-year-old plague bacteria found:


  6. “The founders of the great religions were role models. Christianity celebrates its role models by canonising them as saints.”

    The concept of “role model” is a good model for self-betterment, I think: Find the daily practices from the bios of your role models from history and practice them. (A correction to the above: It’s Catholicism but not Protestantism that “celebrates its role models by canonising them as saints.”)

    For myself, I don’t find that any of the founders (or “saints”) of the great religions (Jesus, Buddha, Paul, et al.) are good role models for self-betterment though. I have others in mind.


  7. “The founders of the great religions were role models. Christianity celebrates its role models by canonising them as saints.”

    I suppose I’m just being a killjoy here, but we all have goals, or the desire for goals motivating us and we do strive for that apex, or peak of betterment, knowledge and awareness, but at the end of the day, we all still rise up and fall back down. Hopefully to inspire others to continue the journey and build on what we have left behind.

    One of the problems and reasons for why things break down though, is that we do tend to lose sight of the foundations, as we strive for the summits. So possibly we might examine motivation from a more bottom up achieving point of view, than a top down achievement point of view. If we do stare out from our own little hillock, or group mountain top, the big picture is a multitude of such effort, stretching to infinity.

    Which is not to denigrate such effort, but to better understand it. Possibly so the trajectory of our wave is more toward going the distance and possibly skipping further across the surface, rather than scaling the highest heights, but coming back down with an awful thud.


  8. trajectory of our arc….


  9. @Massimo, @Labnut

    I don’t get how role models help. There are positive and negative role models. Some people might model themselves after Jesus, and that’s great, but others might model themselves after Genghis Khan, and that’s not so great.

    It seems to me you need some criteria for identifying good role models. Utilitarianism provides a basis for such criteria. I’m not saying you need to perform experiments to measure utility or even think in these terms, most of us do it automatically without deep introspection.

    But meta-ethically utilitarianism provides a robust account of what it is we are doing when we agree that Jesus was a good role model and Genghis Khan was not.


    > But it is. Coalescence theory is pretty well established in population genetics.

    The Wikipedia article you linked to does not seem to support the point that you made. It seems to be more about the frequency of alleles and less about whether you are likely to have descendants in a few generations. If I understood you correctly then your claim is factually refuted by the evidence — it is not unusual or rare for people to have great-grandchildren.

    I think either you’re misapplying a truth (Coalescence theory) or I’m misunderstanding your claim.

    > it’s impossible to provide a precise definition, but it’s easy to point to how people use the word and learn that way.

    I’m not looking for a precise definition, but I think there’s a problem when you cannot provide even a vague description of what kinds of properties distinguish virtues from vices without resorting to an arbitrary list, because what counts on this list varies from culture to culture. I don’t see a problem with having utilitarianism provide the criteria for that distinction: virtues are traits which tend to promote happiness, well-being and so on (utility), vices are traits which tend to do the opposite. From there we can come up with a list of virtues, identify good role models and so on.

    > It has been useful for thousands of years to people all over the world (not just Western cultures, for instance Confucianism).

    It has been useful as a practical framework for social control, I agree, but not as a philosophical meta-ethical framework and only incidentally and occasionally as a means of promoting what we would call moral behaviour. Meta-ethically it just doesn’t do the job of getting at what ethics are fundamentally about. And because of this it can be used to do great harm in cultures where unhealthy traits are held to be virtues and the role models are monsters. It can be useful not only to promote moral behaviour but to sustain cruel systems of control and oppression.

    Hate to automatically lose the argument by bringing up a comparison to Nazis, but a Nazi could see himself as conforming to virtue ethics by, for instance, viewing loyalty to one’s race (and hatred of others) as a virtue and taking Hitler as a role model. In order to point out what is wrong with this approach I think you need to appeal to something more fundamental than just having a list of virtues and the concept of role models.

    Virtue ethics promotes conformity to some ideal, self-discipline and self-control and all that jazz, but if the ideal you are disciplining yourself to conform to is a bad one (as judged from a utilitarian perspective) then you are not going to be a good person. Virtue ethicists ignore this, I feel, but because most of them have good (from a utilitarian perspective) ideals nowadays, this is not a problem — apart from the fact that they are blind to the utilitarian foundations of their worldview.

    Or, you know, just equate eudaimonia with utility and perhaps the problem goes away! Maybe it’s just a difference in emphasis.


  10. DM,

    I wish I had more time this week to engage with your other comments, but I’m preparing for four back to back trips.

    That said, I think I commented before, on Scientia Salon, and even back on Rationally Speaking, that there is no such thing as meta-ethical utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is not a meta-ethical theory. Cheers!


  11. Massimo,

    “Second, virtue ethics doesn’t have a concept of maximizing anything. Third, even within a deontological framework, we have now switched from happiness to welfare. I’d argue that depending on how one conceptualizes welfare (or, really, happiness), the sort of world described by the RC actually decreases welfare compared to, say, our world.”

    I agree completely, I think these concerns complement mine (that the argument projects aggregate-consequentialist concerns onto other views).

    I also am a big fan of your work on stoicism and find it very valuable, I’m just not sure I’m sold yet. My views on normative ethics are a bit messy, which I guess is fitting since the subject is messy too. I do think there’s a lot to be said for how many of the ancients viewed the enterprise of ethics, but I’m hesitant on most of the stuff that’s more specific than that. Which brings me to the issue of

    “…it’s precisely the sort of extreme-scenario thought experiment that I have started to think is not just useless, but downright pernicious to ethical reasoning.”

    Might part of the problem be the history of trying to find something like a conceptual analysis of “good?” Not necessarily a literal conceptual analysis, but in the ballpark of necessary and sufficient conditions for the property “goodness” that would be constitutive of all instances of moral goodness, whether it be a property of actions, outcomes, people, etc. In contrast to a set of rules-of-thumb for concrete decisions, or for getting along, or for being satisfied enough with life that you can be ready to die, or what have you.

    I also want to touch briefly on the Adam and Eve argument. I agree with DM in that I don’t see duties to generic future individuals as particularly helpful for Tännsjö, even granting arguendo that we have such duties.

    In the real world, we might say “well even if I decide not to have children, it is overwhelmingly likely that a great number of humans shall, and so there will be a future population whose conditions of life I can causally affect.” I take this to be the crux of “generic future individuals” as used in arguments about e.g. climate change.

    But in the Adam and Eve situation it is not overwhelmingly likely that there will be generic future individuals; Adam and Eve in fact have major causal influence on the very existence of any future humans whatsoever. So it seems to me the argument tacitly relies on the notion that there’s an obligation to bring people into existence anyway, which I think is ridiculous.

    Someone might react “so it would be okay for them to not bring human civilization into existence?” Indeed I might say that, but there are potentially other grounds for giving Adam and Eve a reason to start civilization. Imagine Adam and Eve know what human civilization can achieve if it exists; science, art, fun, etc. They might go “well those would be good things to have, but a human civilization with a reasonable number of people is a prerequisite for those goods, and we have major causal influence on the existence of such a population, so maybe we should bring more people into the world.”

    This doesn’t in itself rely on duties to the people who would be brought into existence, simply a recognition of the fact that the existence of a population of n people is necessary to achieve certain desirable things, and that they currently have a huge influence on whether a population of n people will exist. Once that population exists, people might go “we should try to maintain a population of n people, but we don’t have to bring any more into existence,” and indeed bringing more into existence might be harmful to the goods identified before. For example, if the economic needs of caring for a massive population mean art and fundamental science and leisure have to be increasingly abandoned.

    Note that this would be very easy to read through a utilitarian lens, but it doesn’t have to be nor do I intend it to be. The goods in question might not be quantifiable, certainly not on any kind of additive scale, but we can still recognize prerequisites for achieving those goods.

    Now I’m with Massimo in questioning the value of this kind of thought experiment for developing an ethics, but I don’t think Tännsjö’s argument here works even as a thought experiment.


  12. Here’s an explanation which I think does tie up a few lose ends:

    Massimo has told us that his coming book asserts that philosophy has indeed made progress over the years, given the vast arrays of positions which it has cultivated. Fair enough. Furthermore, some such as Daniel Kaufman say that philosophy shouldn’t even be in the “reality studing” business, but rather in the “criticism” business, adding merit to the position that philosophers shouldn’t be judged harshly for not achieving generally accepted understandings of reality. I’ll add this to their positions — utilitarianism has failed just as surely as philosophy’s various other ideologies, because proponents from Bentham to Singer claim it to be both “real” (and thus practically useful), as well as “moral.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to any notable utilitarian that reality itself may not be “moral.” But just as there is no getting around the repugnancy of utilitarianism, I don’t believe there is any way of getting around its reality. Thus I’d agree that philosophers will never achieve any generally accepted ethical understandings, if they continue to search for something which simply doesn’t exist.

    I instead call myself a “subjective utilitarian,” and this position holds that qualia defines good/bad for any given personal or social subject. Thus I am not the same subject right now as I will be in one hour, nor the same subject as the people of America, nor its population of birds, nor any other defined subject which experiences qualia. Good from this theory for any given subject, shall be its positive minus negative qualia, over a specified period of time. Yes trillions of subjects eking out slightly positive qualia for trillions of years, would indeed be quite positive for this defined subject as a whole. Nevertheless it’s my own happiness, and that of my family, and that of the various societies which I belong to (like Plato’s Footnote!), which pertains to me.

    I believe that this theory will ultimately bring science a (sometimes repugnant) ideology which helps us effectively lead our lives, as well as structure our societies. Furthermore I believe that this theory will bring our still primitive mental and behavioral sciences, a founding revolution.


  13. Eric,

    In that good and bad are that basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. Which we intellectualize as yes and no and mechanize as on and off.
    Consequently then, just as positive feedback propagates, thus determining what survives and this decides which is good. As negative feedback eliminates that for which the circuits are closed. So it is not simply that good is the beneficial, but that beneficial decides good.

    The winners write the history books, because they are the ones left to write the history books.

    When all is said and done, that which can be best accommodated to the environment is what survives. So it is not up to us to decide what is good, but the limits of the planet.


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