Is it repugnant?

Derek Parfit‘s ‘Repugnant Conclusion‘ is that for any world of extremely happy and fulfilled people, there is a better world which contains a much larger number of people whose lives are only just worth living. This is a hard to avoid consequence of ethical theories where more of whatever makes life worth living is better. It’s more complicated than that, but population ethicists have had a hard time finding a theory that avoids the repugnant conclusion without implying other crazy seeming things.

Parfit originally pointed out that people whose lives are barely worth living could be living lives of constant very low value, or their lives could have huge highs and lows. He asked us to focus on the first. I’m curious whether normal intuitions differ if we focus on a different form of ‘barely worth living’.

Consider an enormous and very rich civilization. Its members appreciate every detail of their lives very sensitively, and their lives are dramatic. They each regularly experience soaring elation, deep contentment and overpowering sensory pleasure. They are keenly ambitious, and almost always achieve their dreams. Everyone is successful and appreciated, and they are all extremely pleased about that. But these people are also subject to deep depressions, and are easily overcome by fear, rage or jealousy. Sometimes they lie awake at night anguished about their insignificance in the universe and their impending deaths. If they don’t achieve what they hoped they can become overwhelmed by guilt, insecurity, and hurt pride. They soon bounce back, but live is slight fear of those emotions. They also have excruciating migraine headaches when they work too hard. All up, the positives in each person’s action packed life just outweigh the negatives.

Now suppose there is a choice to have a small world of people who only appreciate the pleasures, or a much much larger world like that described above. Perhaps it turns out that the overly pleasured people are unable to be made productive for instance, so we can choose a short future with a large number of people enjoying idle bliss with our saved up resources, or an indefinitely long future with an incredibly much larger number of productive people each enjoying small net positives. How crazy does it seem to prefer the latter at some level of extreme size?


I give my interpretation of the results here.

15 responses to “Is it repugnant?

  1. I admit I don’t wholly understand the question…you seem to have 4 options…

    1. Small world with only pleasures
    2. Big world with extreme highs and lows
    3. Big short world with extreme pleasures
    4. Big long world with mild pleasures

    I assumed that the poll was asking about prefering (4) to the repugnant conclusion, but in that case, it doesn’t seem only to differ slightly by degree.

    • The repugnant conclusion: big enough world with very mild pleasures is better than small world with much bigger pleasures

      The repugnant conclusion II: big enough world with extreme highs and lows is better than smaller world with only extreme highs

      People find the first conclusion counterintuitive. Is the second conclusion more or less so to you?

      • I’d rank order them:

        1. Big world with extreme highs and lows
        2. Big world with mild pleasures
        3. Small world with extreme highs
        4. Small world with big but not extreme highs

        I am, however, not a moment-to-moment pleasure-principle utilitarian, so the trickier dilemma for me is between a small world with high variation or a big world with low variation.

  2. I cannot disentangle or identify far mode biases, near mode biases, signalling sophisticated/clever/metacontrarian virtues, introspection illusion generally, preferences for good/bad stories versus good/bad experiences for myself/others, and biases generally, (all while forcing my brain to ignore that shorter/longer futures mean greater/lesser chance for alien/simulator contact or similar outside the model factors), that is necessary to meaningfully analyze or evaluate such possible futures.

    • Have you tried asking what your unconsidered intuition about it is, then asking what your intuition about other similar questions is, then looking for patterns in them that can be put down to the factors you mentioned?

  3. You make a good point about lives that are (barely) worth living because their awful stretches are compensated by wonderful highlights. But I don’t think this point helps Parfit or other ethical “quantifiers.”

    Yes, it seems *more* repugnant for billions to live lives that are, in every interval, just barely good enough to stave off justified suicide. But Parfit’s account entails that a world with many such barely-satisfied people is better that one with fewer, flourishing people. The less repugnant scenario you described changes nothing about that.

    Maybe the point you’re making is this: “Look, the lives that worry Parfit are of equal repugnancy to lives of up-and-downs, and the latter aren’t so repugnant. Therefore, what worried Parfit is not really all that repugnant.

    But then I would deny the first premise, with considerable intuitive support. And that makes things even worse for Parfit. His account can’t say that this apparent difference of repugnance is based on an ethical difference.

  4. The idea of “choosing” between these worlds seem bizarre.
    Am I deciding where I want to emigrate? Therefore they all exist and the dilemma, and preference, is mine alone.
    Am I creating (or postulating) them in some God-like fashion? Then why is the selection so artificially restricted?
    Parfit’s conclusion may simply be a formal way to declare that if other people wish to live, the more such decisions the merrier and how they live is of no concern to us.

  5. The second scenario is similar to many people’s existing lives so they generally won’t find it repugnant. However, if you hate suffering then it is much more repugnant than the original. The dividing line for the choice is between the types of people who like life and the types of people who dislike it.

  6. At risk of not contributing at all to the conversation, I’d like to point out that our hypothetical civilization is populated with people who sound like they’re incredibly unpleasant.

    That’s all.

  7. I don’t think we have enough information. The critical piece of information missing is what the people think about the future.

    If you stick a mouse in a bowl of water and let it swim, it will give up and drown after a few minutes. If you rescue it and put it on dry land right after it gives up, however, it will swim for several hours the next time. It has hope for the future.

    Personally, I think a world populated by the second type of mouse is better, and people who have been through wild swings but still survived are like the second kind of mouse. People like Buddhists who idealize a muted and stable existence, are essentially nihilists, IMO.

  8. So you’re trying to pair off the expected utility of the outcome with the utility of the expected outcome. This brings in people’s biases/values wrt. risk aversion.

    You are also playing with the discontinuity between existence and non-existence of valued things. In this case the existence of great joy and great suffering, instead of only the mediocre stuff. For example, people also prefer 1 person existing to 0 person, much more than they prefer 2 person to 1.

    Personally I would say risk aversion is a bias. But variety as a value.

    What you should do is to pair off a large world of uniform mediocrity with a small world of uniform ecstasy, and a varied large world of on-average mediocrity with a varied small world of on-average ecstasy.

  9. NeedleFactory

    It is hard for me to accept many of the implicit premises
    lurking in Katja’s scenario, and also in Parfit’s repugnant
    conclusion, including:

    1: Our intuitions about happiness are reliable (contra
    Daniel GIlbert).

    2. Happiness (utility) can be compared between persons, or

    3. Different utilities for the same person (in posited
    situations) can be compared: e.g., what would it mean to be
    exactly twice as happy as you are now? Half as happy?

    I suspect both Parfit and Katja are led astray by assuming
    that utility is amenable to arithmetic analysis.

  10. Pingback: Mediocre masses are not what’s repugnant | Meteuphoric

  11. i voted for less crazy, but i think the experiment is flawed, in that the lives as described are so interesting that it’s very hard to believe that these lives are barely worth living.

  12. Hedonic Treader

    One difference between the two “repugnant conclusions” is that the “many people with mild pleasures” one is depicted as free from severe suffering, where your version includes existential angst etc.

    Given that experiences of affective consciousness are actually very local (ie. short-lived and personal), utilitarianism has always had a problem to justify aggregation, ie. the concept of someone’s strong pain being “out-weighed” by pleasure elsewhere/to someone else. Parfit’s repugnant conclusion avoids this problem.

    In fact, it seems to me that postulating a world in which the general tone of affective experience is at least neutral means postulating a much better world that our current one.


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