I 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.