This is part two of a series on minimalist axiologies. Every part of this series builds on the previous parts, but can also be read independently.
In order to maximize our positive impact, we first need to clarify what would constitute a change in the right direction. To guide us, we need an axiology, i.e. a theory of independent value, also known as intrinsic value.
For example, many axiologies hold it independently valuable both to promote bliss and to avoid agony. Yet these do not always represent a coherent twin-principle similar to “Head North, Avoid South”. When multiple guiding principles point in different directions, we need to define acceptable tradeoff ratios (or “priority weights”) between them. This is hard to do in an intuitively agreeable way, which is arguably one of the main reasons why people often feel conflicted about accepting certain implications in the field of population axiology.
Minimalist axiologies refer to a class of axiologies whose central conception of independent value is of the kind that says “The less this, the better.” In other words, their fundamental standard of value is only about the avoidance of something, and not about the maximization of something else. This essay looks at minimalist axiologies that are impartial and welfarist (i.e. concerned with the welfare of all sentient beings), with a focus on their theoretical and practical implications. For example, these views reject the Very Repugnant Conclusion, which is implied by many other axiologies in population theory.
Minimalist axiologies are arguably neglected in population theory due to their (apparent) implication that no life could be axiologically positive. Yet we should remember that the standard theoretical assumption of “all else being equal” (i.e. of causal isolation) is practically always false, enabling lives to make a positive difference for other beings. By assuming that lives are at best subjectively perfect but never helpful, the field of population theory is basically excluding the possibility of positive lives on these views.
In other words, minimalist axiologies can support a relational notion of positive lives, which is ignored by standard population theory where lives are treated as “isolated value-containers” with no interaction. This “isolated view” of the value of lives is plausibly a major cause of axiological disagreement and obfuscation, provided that our moral intuitions are adapted to track not only the “contents” of individual lives, but also their overall positive and negative roles. A more complete view would recognize the fact that the roles of a life can, and probably often do, end up being far more significant than its “contents”. And so minimalist axiologies are compatible with saying that a life can be very positive in terms of its overall value.
1. What is axiology?
Axiology is the philosophical study of value. The field of axiology is specifically concerned with the question of what things, if any, have independent value, also known as intrinsic value. ‘Axiologies’ in the plural refer to specific views on this axiological question. Once we assume a specific axiology that ascribes independent value to certain entities or states, we may see the value of all other things as extrinsic, instrumental, or relational in terms of their effects on these entities or states.
This distinction applies at the level of our assumed axiology, and not necessarily at the level of our everyday perception: we may both formally deny that something has independent value, and also be right to practically feel that it does have value — without explicitly “unpacking” what this value depends on — such as when we treat some widely-held values as valid heuristics until they run into conflicts with each other. (More on this in the section on practical implications, and in a future post on multi-level minimalism.)
Commonly, we seek clarity about the nature of independent value by listening to what our supposedly value-tracking intuitions say about certain thought experiments. For example, we construct thought experiments where only a single thing is intended to be changing, “all else being equal”, and ask whether it feels true that this change is accompanied by a change in value. (More on this in the section on the “all else being equal” assumption.)
Based on such thought experiments of isolated value, we might feel that more blissful mind-moments mean more value, and that more agonized mind-moments mean more disvalue, and thereby come to follow two independent standards of value: “The more bliss, the better, all else being equal” (BliMax), and “The less agony, the better, all else being equal” (AgoMin).
Dilemmas famously arise when we want to follow both BliMax and AgoMin, as they are not always perfectly anticorrelated. That is, we often cannot both “maximize bliss” and “minimize agony”, because even as these two guiding principles may seem to be polar opposites of each other, they do not always constitute a coherent twin-principle similar to “Head North, Avoid South”. The field of population axiology has highlighted many ways in which BliMax and AgoMin pull us into mutually incompatible directions, as well as the lack of consensus on how to compare the supposed independent value of bliss with the supposed independent disvalue of agony. (More on this in the section on population ethics.)
2. What are minimalist axiologies?
The less this, the better
Minimalist axiologies may be a suitable name for the class of axiologies whose central conception of independent value is of the kind that says “The less this, the better.” In other words, their fundamental standard of value is about the avoidance of something, and not about the maximization of something else. To list a few examples, minimalist axiologies may be formulated in terms of avoiding cravings (tranquilism seen as a welfarist monism; certain Buddhist axiologies); disturbances (Epicureanism); pain or suffering (Schopenhauer; Richard Ryder); frustrated preferences (antifrustrationism); or unmet needs (some interpretations of care ethics).
This essay looks at minimalist axiologies that are interpreted as monist, impartial, and welfarist — i.e. concerned with the welfare of all sentient beings — and is not meant to apply to axiologies that are pluralist, partial, or concerned with non-welfarist avoidance goals, such as minimizing human intervention in nature, or avoiding the loss of unique information. (Pluralism can still be introduced at the level of practical decision procedures. More on this in a future post on multi-level minimalism.)
In “sacred value tradeoffs” between multiple (seemingly) independent standards of value, minimalist axiologies avoid the problem of having to determine independent “priority weights” for different intrinsic values in order to resolve their mutual conflict — such as the conflict between creating bliss for many at the cost of agony for others. In other words, instead of using multiple standards of value, such as both BliMax and AgoMin, minimalist axiologies construe “positive value” in a purely relational way, i.e. with regard to their overall avoidance goal for all beings. This enables value comparisons to be made under a shared standard of value.
When we look at only one kind of change, all else being equal, it may seem intuitive that bliss is independently good and agony is independently bad. Yet many people may also feel internally conflicted about tradeoffs where value and disvalue would need to be compared with each other (so that we could say whether some tradeoff between them is “net positive” or not). To solve these dilemmas, minimalist axiologies would respect promotion intuitions to the degree that they are conducive to the overall avoidance goal, but draw a line before agreeing to create more (isolated) value for some at the cost of disvalue for others.
For example, suffering-focused minimalism would promote happiness in the place of suffering, but not at the cost of suffering, all else being equal (cf. Vinding, 2020b, Chapter 3). To illustrate, let us compare two different ways to weigh the pros and cons of the factory farming of sentient beings:
- To the extent that this process entails a lot of suffering, some might argue that this process is still “worthwhile” due to the happiness that it also entails or promotes in others — i.e. happiness at the cost of suffering.
- Conversely, suffering-focused minimalism would reject the implicit pluralism of justifying suffering with happiness. Instead, it would “compare suffering with suffering” by looking at relations like, “What is this happiness needed for?” or “Does this happiness help prevent worse suffering than what it costs?” — i.e. happiness in the place of suffering, or happiness as a way to prevent worse suffering.
In other words, minimalist axiologies sidestep the problem of having to find acceptable “tradeoff ratios” between different independent values. These views reject the “board game-like” logic of placing different amounts of positive value on different kinds of things, which can be replaced with a focus on the relational question of how the objects of our promotion intuitions could help with the overall avoidance goal.
A common misunderstanding of this “denial of positive value” relates to the mismatch between abstract population theory, where we are dealing with causally isolated lives subject to an assumption of “all else being equal”, and the real world, where lives can be relationally positive, even on minimalist axiologies, precisely because they can make a positive difference for the lives of others. (More on this in the section on the “all else being equal” assumption.)
Contents versus roles
Our practical intuitions about the value and worthwhileness of lives are arguably correct in saying that something crucial is lacking if we naively translate our abstract population theory directly into practice and think that “no life could be positive”. After all, as soon as we break the artificial boundaries of individual lives as “isolated value-containers” — which they are usually treated as in population ethics — we return to the practical world where lives virtually always have significant effects on other lives. Western culture may condition us to think of individuals as “independent, self-contained, autonomous entities”, and to pay insufficient attention to a more relational perspective. Yet for an analysis of the overall value of lives to reach any kind of practical relevance, we need to recognize that the concept of an “independent individual” is a blind spot to be filled by an account of the interactions between lives. (More on this in the section on practical implications.)
Specifically, our intuitions about value arguably evolved in a fundamentally interpersonal world where we intuitively account not only for the “contents” of individual lives, but also for their roles in other lives. Therefore, when we object to the idea that “no life could be positive, all else being equal”, this need not stem from the sentiment that “Surely lives have at least some isolated positive value”. We might just as plausibly be objecting to the highly unrealistic assumption of “all else being equal”, which effectively strips these lives of all their positive effects on anyone, and thereby leaves us only with what these lives subjectively “contain” in the absence of all their (often highly significant) positive roles.
As social animals, some of us may think that positive value is fundamentally not something that we “have”, “contain”, or “accumulate” in isolation. Instead, our intuitions may be animated by a relational view that sees positive value as something that we “do” for each other, and something that we cannot simply produce in causally isolated experience machines to make the world a better place. (More on this in the section on lives worth living.)
To the extent that our value intuitions track not only the “contents” but also the social roles of individual lives, it may be difficult to determine the degree to which we think of positive value as an independent or relational phenomenon. Yet many counterintuitive conclusions in population ethics may be attributed to the assumption of positive value as an independent, and independently aggregable, phenomenon. That is, we may have good reasons to question the conception of positive value as a “plus-point” that could be summed up or stacked in isolation from the social roles of the lives that contain it, while still endorsing positive value in a strong, relational sense. (More on this in the section on population ethics.)
(The clarification of how minimalist axiologies can support a notion of “a life worth living” will be a recurring theme throughout the remaining sections.)
3. How do these views help us make sense of population ethics?
The field of population ethics is “the philosophical study of the ethical problems arising when our actions affect who is born and how many people are born in the future”. A subfield of population ethics is population axiology, which is about figuring out what makes one state of affairs better than another. This is a famously tricky question to answer without running into counterintuitive conclusions, provided that we make the assumption of independently positive lives (cf. Arrhenius, 2000a). Minimalist axiologies do not make this assumption, and they neatly avoid the conclusions that are pictured in the three diagrams in the next three subsections.
(Note: The conclusions are named “paradoxical” or “repugnant” after the intuitions of people who find them troubling. Generally, people differ a lot in which intuitions they are willing to “give up” in population ethics. Arguably, many would accept the Mere-Addition Paradox, some would accept the Repugnant Conclusion, and few would accept the Very Repugnant Conclusion.)
Before looking at the diagrams, let us already note two ways in which people might implicitly disagree about how to interpret them.
First, the diagrams contain populations that should arguably be imagined to consist only of lives that never interact with each other. (More on this in the section on the “all else being equal” assumption.)
Second, some of the diagrams contain a horizontal line that indicates a “zero level” of “neutral welfare”, which may be interpreted in different ways. For example, when diagrams illustrating the (Very) Repugnant Conclusion contain lives that are “barely worth living”, some may think that these lives involve “slightly more” happiness than suffering, while others may think that they “never suffer”. (More on this in footnote 16 in DiGiovanni, 2021.)
A different interpretation of the horizontal line is used in antifrustrationism by Christoph Fehige (1998), which equates welfare with the avoidance of preference dissatisfaction (or “frustration”). When Fehige’s own diagrams contain the horizontal line, it just means the point above which the person “has a weak preference for leading her life rather than no life” (Fehige, 1998, p. 534). On Fehige’s view, the lives with “very high welfare” are still much better off than the lives “barely worth living”. Yet if we assume that the lives above the horizontal line have all their preferences satisfied and “never suffer”, then minimalist axiologies would find no (subjective) problems in the Mere-Addition Paradox or the Repugnant Conclusion. Even so, they would still not strictly prefer larger populations, finding all populations of such problem-free lives rather equally perfect (in causal isolation).
However, it is arguably highly unrealistic to assume that the lives people usually refer to as “barely worth living” would be subjectively perfect or “never suffer”. Therefore, we will use Fehige’s view as an extended example of how minimalist axiologies would actively reject the following conclusions. (For a similar axiology centered on experiences rather than preferences, see tranquilism by Gloor, 2017.)
The Mere-Addition Paradox
Derek Parfit’s Mere-Addition Paradox is based on a comparison of four populations. Each bar is a distinct group of beings. The bar’s width indicates their numbers and the bar’s height indicates their level of welfare. We assume that every being in this diagram has “a life worth living”. (The populations in A+ and B− consist of two distinct groups that are “divided by water”; the population in B is simply the two groups of B− combined into one.)
The paradox results from the following comparisons that contradict some people’s intuitive preference for the high-average population of A over the lower-average population of B:
- Intuitively, “A+ is no worse than A,” since A+ simply contains more lives, all worth living.
- Next, “B− is better than A+,” since B− has both greater total welfare and greater average welfare.
- Finally, “B− is equal to B,” since B is simply the same groups, only combined.
- Now, “B is better than A,” based on steps 1–3.
This paradox is a problem for people who strongly feel that “A is better than B” but who are also sympathetic to total utilitarianism — perhaps due to wanting to avoid average utilitarianism for its implying the sadistic conclusion. Yet if we assume that subjective problems are experienced more by the lives in B than by the lives in A, then minimalist axiologies would prefer A over B without implying the sadistic conclusion.
Essentially, the solution of Fehige (1998) is to assume that the welfare of a life depends entirely on its level of preference dissatisfaction (or “frustration”). On this view, a population of perfectly (or almost perfectly) satisfied beings cannot, other things being equal, be improved by the “mere addition” of new, less satisfied beings. This is because the frustration of those new beings is an additional subjective problem in comparison to the non-problematic non-existence of their imaginary counterparts in the smaller population.
(We should remember that Fehige’s use of the term “preference frustration” is much broader than the everyday feeling that we call frustration; after all, basically all lives in the real world have at least some of their preferences frustrated, even if some may be free of the feelings of frustration.)
While this may be a theoretically tidy solution to the Mere-Addition Paradox, many critics have objected that it depends on a theory of welfare that they find to be counterintuitive, incomplete, or unconvincing. (These objections will be responded to in a future post.)
Overall, we would be wise to abstain from hastily dismissing minimalist axiologies as being absurd, because there are plenty of ways to interpret them in less absurd ways without losing their theoretical benefits. A lot of their intuitive absurdity might already result from the unrealistic thought experiments themselves, which imply that we are not actually comparing the value of lives of the kind that are familiar to us, but only of lives of a very peculiar and asocial kind, namely lives in complete causal isolation from each other. (More on this in the section on the “all else being equal” assumption.)
The Repugnant Conclusion
Next, by continuing the logic of “mere addition”, we arrive at the ‘Repugnant Conclusion’. Quote:
In Derek Parfit's original formulation[,] the Repugnant Conclusion is characterized as follows: “For any possible population of at least ten billion people, 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” (Parfit 1984). ... The Repugnant Conclusion is a problem for all moral theories which hold that welfare at least matters when all other things are equal. (Arrhenius, Ryberg, & Tännsjö, 2014.)
Minimalist axiologies avoid the Repugnant Conclusion, as they deny that lives “barely worth living” would constitute a vast heap of independent “plus-points” in the first place. For example, Fehige (1998) would assume that the lives with a “very high quality of life” would be quite free from subjective problems, which is better, all else being equal, than a much larger set of lives that still have a lot of their preferences dissatisfied.
As noted by another commenter on Fehige (1998):
Among its virtues, [antifrustrationism] rescues total utilitarianism from the repugnant conclusion. If utility is measured by the principle of harm avoidance instead of aggregated preference satisfaction, utilitarianism does not, as the accusation often goes, entail that it is better the more (acceptably) happy lives there are[, other things being equal]. (Karlsen, 2013, p. 160.)
Fehige’s theory of welfare is seemingly dismissed by Arrhenius, Ryberg, and Tännsjö (2014) on the grounds that it would, counterintuitively, deny the possibility of lives worth living. Quote:
However, a theory about welfare that denies the possibility of lives worth living is quite counter-intuitive [Ryberg, 1996]. It implies, for example, that a life of one year with complete preference satisfaction has the same welfare as a completely fulfilled life of a hundred years, and has higher welfare than a life of a hundred years with all preferences but one satisfied. Moreover, the last life is not worth living (Arrhenius 2000b).
Yet this objection seems to imply that a life could be worth living only for its own sake, i.e. for some kind of satisfaction that it independently “contains”, and to deny that a life could also be worth living for its positive roles. Again, we need to properly account for the fact that Fehige’s model is comparing lives only in causal isolation. (More on this in the section on the “all else being equal” assumption.)
As soon as we step outside of the thought experiment (of “all else being equal”) and start comparing these lives in our actual, interpersonal world, we may well think — even on Fehige’s terms — that a subjectively perfect life of one year would be much less valuable (overall, for all beings) than would be the subjectively almost perfect century. After all, many of our preferences and preferred actions have significant implications for the welfare of others. (More on this in the section on practical implications.)
However, it is not necessarily counterintuitive to prefer the perfect year — or even nonexistence — over the less-than-perfect century in complete causal isolation, where we can be no-one’s friend or partner, do no good work for anyone, and generally make no positive difference in any way. Regardless of how we felt during the year, or during the century, others would live as if we never had. In other words, we may question the overall worth of spending our life in the experience machine, provided that it does not help solve any problem. (More on this in the section on lives worth living.)
The Very Repugnant Conclusion
The Repugnant Conclusion was termed repugnant due to the intuition that a legion of lives “barely worth living” cannot be better than a smaller population of lives with very high welfare. Some say that in this case, the intuition is wrong and that we should simply bite the bullet and follow the utilitarian math (of additive aggregationism). However, presumably fewer people would accept the ‘Very Repugnant Conclusion’ (VRC), in which the “better” world contains a lot of subjectively hellish lives, supposedly “compensated for” by a vast number of lives “barely worth living”. Quote:
There seems to be more trouble ahead for total [symmetric] utilitarians. Once they assign some positive value, however small, to the creation of each person who has a weak preference for leading her life rather than no life, then how can they stop short of saying that some large number of such lives can compensate for the creation of lots of dreadful lives, lives in pain and torture that nobody would want to live? (Fehige, 1998, pp. 534–535.)
In more formal terms, quote:
Let W1 be a world filled with very happy people leading meaningful lives [A]. Then, according to total [symmetric] utilitarianism, there is a world W2 which is better than W1, where there is a population of suffering people [N] much larger than the total population of W1, and everyone else has lives barely worth living [Z] - but the population is very huge. (Source.)
One way to avoid the VRC is to follow Fehige’s suggestion and interpret utility as “a measure of avoided preference frustration”. On this view, utilitarianism “asks us to minimize the amount of preference frustration”, which leads us to prefer W1 over W2 (Fehige, 1998, pp. 535–536). As noted by Fehige (1998, p. 518), “Maximizers of preference satisfaction should instead call themselves minimizers of preference frustration.”
Every minimalist axiology would prefer W1 over W2 due to being structurally similar to Fehige’s view — that is, none of them would say that the supposed “plus-points” of W2 could somehow independently “counterbalance” the agony of the others, regardless of the number of the lives “barely worth living”.
In contrast, the VRC is a problem for a lot of “symmetric” axiologies besides classical hedonism. Quote:
Consider an axiology that maintains that any magnitude of suffering can be morally outweighed by a sufficiently great magnitude of preference satisfaction, virtue, novelty, beauty, knowledge, honor, justice, purity, etc., or some combination thereof. It is not apparent that substituting any of these values for happiness in the VRC makes it any more palatable[.] (DiGiovanni, 2021.)
At the moment, the VRC is not even mentioned on Utilitarianism.net, which only states that “[the] most prominent objection to the total view is the repugnant conclusion”, nor in The Precipice, which similarly only claims that “[the] main critique of the Total [symmetric] View is that it leads to something called the repugnant conclusion” (Ord, 2020, Appendix B: Population Ethics and Existential Risk). Yet for anyone who is bothered by the repugnant conclusion, a much stronger reason to reject symmetric total views would be that they support the VRC.
Solving problems: A way to make sense of population ethics?
In general, one can avoid the VRC (and the two other conclusions above) by maintaining that ethics is about solving problems. On this view, any choice between two populations (all else being equal) will depend on preventing the overall greater amount of subjectively problematic states, such as extreme suffering. Regardless of the precise definition of what constitutes a subjectively problematic state, all minimalist views (as explored here) are also “problem-focused views”. In other words, they reject the metaphor that ethical problems could be “counterbalanced” instead of prevented. Quote:
[Only] the existence of such problematic states imply genuine victims, while failures to create supposed positive goods (whose absence leaves nobody troubled) do not imply any real victims — such “failures” are mere victimless “crimes”. ... According to this view, we cannot meaningfully “cancel out” or “undo” a problematic state found somewhere by creating some other state elsewhere. (Vinding, 2020a.)
Generally, the metaphor of “ethical counterbalancing” may rest on a terminological confusion. As argued in Vinding (2020b, pp. 155–156) — based on Knutsson (2021, section 3) — when we speak of a “negative” experience, we may automatically assume that it could be counterbalanced by its symmetrically “positive” counterpart. Yet we would not say that a problematic experience could be counterbalanced by its “corresponding” unproblematic counterpart. Quote:
Consider, by analogy, the states of being below and above water respectively. One can certainly say that being below water is the opposite of being above water. In particular, one can say that, in one sense, being 50 meters below water is the opposite of being 50 meters above water. But this does not mean, quite obviously, that a symmetry exists between these respective states in terms of their value and moral significance. Indeed, there is a sense in which it matters much more to have one’s head just above the water surface than it does to get it higher up still. (Vinding, 2020b, p. 156.)
Similarly, intuitions that reject the VRC may be framed in terms of subjectively unproblematic versus subjectively problematic experiences. For example, we could reject the VRC based on the following principle:
All else being equal, any world that contains only unproblematic experiences is no worse than a second world that contains problematic experiences, regardless of what else the second world contains.
A sufficient criterion for “problematic experiences” (in the VRC) could be to consider whether the worlds contain unconsentable suffering. Presumably, all beings in the happy world of W1 would consent to living their lives (qualifying their lives as subjectively unproblematic on this criterion), whereas many of the beings in W2 would not consent to living their lives (qualifying their lives as subjectively problematic). Thus, the previous principle — coupled with this criterion — would reject the VRC on the grounds of consent.
On the water analogy, such a “problem-focus” would imply that we prioritize helping sentient beings avoid the depths of extreme suffering, but not that we attempt to “outweigh” the depths of some with the heights of others, unless this actually seems to be helpful for counteracting the overall amount of expected problems in the world. (More on this in the section on practical implications, and in a future post on multi-level minimalism.)
4. What are we comparing when we make the assumption of “all else being equal”?
The ceteris paribus assumption is often translated into English as something like “all else being equal”, “all else unchanged”, or “other things held constant”. Generally, this assumption means that we exclude any changes other than those explicitly mentioned. And so when we make this assumption in population theory, the idea is to compare any two hypothetical populations only with respect to their explicit differences — such as the level and distribution of welfare among these populations — and to rule out the influence of any other factors.
Yet we should be careful to appreciate the full implications of comparing populations in this way. After all, we may all too automatically simply agree to this as standard practice, and forget to give a second thought to what we are thereby implicitly agreeing to give up. Quite often, we only see it in the form of a parenthetical remark (ceteris paribus), and sometimes we are simply silently expected to play by its rules where it is the unvoiced and unquestioned background assumption. But in the high-stakes game of population theory, this seemingly innocuous assumption may decisively influence our view on what kinds of lives, if any, are worth living, and what they are worth living for. (More on this in the section on lives worth living.)
To illustrate, let us consider a scenario where the ceteris paribus assumption would actually be true: namely, we are comparing only “isolated value-containers” or “isolated Matrix-lives” that never interact with each other (not even by acausal “influence”). If this sounds radical, then we may not always realize how radical the ceteris paribus assumption in fact is. After all, it represents only an “isolated view” of lives worth living, as it focuses only on their own “contents” (in terms of subjective welfare), and completely excludes their overall effects on the welfare of others.
Now, our practical intuitions about the overall value of lives — such as of all the lives “barely worth living” in the (Very) Repugnant Conclusion — may implicitly be tracking not only the “contents” of these lives (i.e. their own level of welfare), but also their overall effects on the welfare of others. And in practice, it may indeed seem like a repugnantly bad idea to trade away a high-welfare population for a legion of lives “barely worth living”, as the latter would seem to not have enough well-being as a resource to adequately take care of each other in the long term. (More on this in the section on practical implications.) A practical intuition in the opposite direction is also possible, namely that a larger population could create more goods, insights, and resources that everyone could benefit from, and thus have a brighter future in the long run.
Yet to give any weight to such instrumental effects, even implicitly, would already violate the ceteris paribus assumption, which was meant to rule out all interactions from affecting the comparison. And so we should be very careful to properly respect the boundaries of this assumption, such as by explicitly imagining that we are comparing only “isolated Matrix-lives”. After all, our intuitions are arguably adapted for an interpersonal world with a time dimension: two features of life that are difficult for us to put aside when entering thought experiments about the overall value of individual lives. To the extent that our practical intuition may, by default, be evaluating the hypothetical lives roughly like it would in the real world, we need to make an extra effort to really constrain it from introducing any other factors whose influence was supposed to be ruled out.
Perhaps a lot of axiological disagreement could be resolved by simply being more clear about the mismatch between our practical intuitions and abstract population theory. In any case, we need to recognize how the (properly respected) ceteris paribus assumption — i.e. the isolated view — is radically exclusive of many of the things that our practical intuitions are implicitly tracking.
5. What do these views imply in practice?
Naive versus sophisticated minimalism
The section on population ethics showed how minimalist axiologies avoid what (for other views) are often called tricky problems in population theory. Yet one may still worry that these views would have counterintuitive implications in practice. However, we should be aware that many of these supposedly counterintuitive or radical implications could result not only from an isolated view — which excludes the positive roles of individual lives — but also from a naive consequentialism, which ignores the positive roles of various norms of everyday morality, such as those of autonomy, cooperation, and non-violence. (More on this in a future post on multi-level minimalism.)
Moreover, a naive consequentialism is often not based on a nuanced understanding of expected value thinking, and instead falls victim to a kind of “narrative misconception” of consequentialism, in which a view would support any means necessary to bring about its axiologically ideal “end state”. One could argue that the idea of a utilitronium shockwave amounts to such a misconception relative to the practical implications of classical utilitarianism. In the case of minimalist axiologies, this misconception looks like the claim that we must, at any cost, “seek a future where problems are eventually reduced to zero”, which is very different from minimizing problems over all time in expectation. After all, only the latter kind of thinking (i.e. expected value thinking) is properly sensitive to risks of making things worse, whereas the first, misconceived view is closer to a cost-insensitive “all in” gamble for manifesting an ideal outcome at some particular point in time.
For example, naive minimalism might disregard the norms of everyday morality as soon as there would (apparently) be even the slightest chance of bringing about its hypothetically ideal “end state”, even if this would violate the preferences of others. By contrast, sophisticated minimalism would be concerned with the “total outcome” — which spans all of time — and be highly sensitive to the risk of making things worse overall. For instance, any violent strategy for “preventing problems” would very likely backfire in various ways, such as by undermining one’s credibility as a potential ally for large-scale cooperation, ruining the reputation of one’s (supposedly altruistic) cause, and eroding the (positive) norm of respecting individual autonomy. Because the backfire risks depend on complex interactions that happen over considerable spans of time, they are likely to be underemphasized by simple thought experiments that collapse hypothetical populations into two-dimensional images. (More on the “narrative misconception” of consequentialism in the next post.)
Compatibility with everyday intuitions
What, then, do these views imply in practice, assuming a sophisticated minimalism over all time? The second half of Suffering-Focused Ethics (Vinding, 2020b, pp. 141–277) is an accessible and extensive treatment of basically the same question, particularly for views that prioritize minimizing extreme suffering. In large part, the practical implications for minimalist views are probably the same as those for suffering-focused views. Yet minimalist views differ from at least some suffering-focused views in one respect, which is that minimalist axiologies explicitly deny the concept of “independently aggregable positive value”, i.e. anything that could be “stacked” in causal isolation to make the world a better place in the axiological sense.
For that reason, minimalist views may feel like being somehow opposed to the things that we cherish as being intrinsically valuable. Yet minimalist views need not imply anything radical about the “quantity” of positive value that we intuitively attribute to many things at the level of our everyday psychology. After all, the kinds of things that we may deem “intrinsically valuable” at an intuitive level are often precisely the kinds of things that rarely need any extrinsic justification in everyday life, such as sound physical and mental health, close relationships, and intellectual curiosity. If required, we could often “unpack” the value of these things in terms of their long-term and indirect effects, namely their usefulness for preventing more problems than they cause. But when our (intuitively) positive pursuits have many beneficial effects across a variety of contexts, we are often practically wise to avoid spending the unnecessary effort to separately “unpack” their value in relational terms.
By only focusing on our positive feelings in the immediate moment, we may actually even underestimate the overall usefulness of things like maintaining a rich social life, learning new skills, and coming up with new insights. After all, if the overall goal is to minimize problems, then we are faced with the dauntingly complex meta-problem of identifying interventions that can reasonably be expected to prevent more problems than they cause — and by any measure, this meta-problem will require us to combine a vast amount of knowledge and supportive values. Minimalist views do not imply that we hyper-specialize in this meta-problem in a way that would dismiss all apparent “intrinsic values” as superfluous, but rather that we adhere to a diverse range of these values so as to advance a mature and comprehensive approach to alleviating problems.
Preventing instead of outweighing hell
Of course, it would be a suspicious convergence if everything that people may think of as being intrinsically valuable would also be relationally aligned with the minimization of overall problems. Yet the everyday implications of minimalist views are not necessarily very different from those of other consequentialist views, because all of them share the personal ideal of living an effective and strategic life aligned with some overall optimization goal, which implies some common constraints and recommendations for everyday conduct. Where the views differ (the most) may be in their long-term implications. Rather than primarily ensuring that we spread out into space, minimalist views would arguably imply that we prioritize avoiding worst-case scenarios (cf. Gloor, 2018; DiGiovanni, 2021), because prioritizing large-scale space colonization may well increase the amount of subjective problems over the long term (in expectation).
On non-minimalist utilitarian grounds, Bostrom (2003) argues that the main priority of human civilization should be to enable astronomical amounts of independently positive lives to exist in the far future. Yet minimalist axiologies imply that the non-existence of those lives is not a problem for their own sake; after all, in terms of subjective problems, non-existent beings do not need to be saved from non-existence. In particular, non-existent lives do not subjectively need to exist in the way that some other beings need to avoid subjective hell. (A different question is whether the existence of future generations may help to overall prevent subjectively problematic experiences across all beings. More on this in a future post.)
Tradeoffs like the Very Repugnant Conclusion (VRC) are not only theoretical, because arguments like that of Bostrom (2003) imply that the stakes may be astronomically high in practice. When non-minimalist axiologies find the VRC a worthwhile tradeoff, they would presumably also have similar implications on an arbitrarily large scale. Therefore, we need to have an inclusive discussion about the extent to which the subjective problems (e.g. extreme suffering) of some can be “counterbalanced” by the “greater (intrinsic) good” for others, because this has direct implications for what kind of large-scale space colonization could be called “net positive”.
Self-contained versus relational flourishing
When psychologists speak of flourishing, it can have many different meanings. As a value-laden concept, it is often bundled together with things like optimal growth and functioning, social contribution, and having a purpose in life. Yet when we load the concept of flourishing with axiological value, as is done by the authors of Utilitarianism.net and The Precipice (Ord, 2020), we should ask whether this value is intrinsic or relational in the axiological sense.
On minimalist views, flourishing would not be a “self-contained” state of isolated value. Yet minimalist views do support a notion of flourishing as personal alignment with something beyond ourselves. Minimalist flourishing would mean that we are skillfully serving the unmet needs of all sentient beings, aligning our well-being with the overall prevention of ill-being.
In practice, a minimalist sense of “optimal growth and functioning” would probably look more like strategic self-investment and healthful living rather than self-sacrifice (similar to other impartial consequentialist views). After all, we first need to patiently grow our strengths, skills, and relationships before we can sustainably and effectively apply ourselves to help others. And because life is long, it makes sense to keep growing these capacities, meeting our needs in harmony with the needs of others, and actively seek the best ways in which we can play positive roles for all sentient beings.
6. Without the concept of intrinsic positive value, how can life be worth living?
A more complete view
What we see in standard population theory are only the isolated “welfare bars” of what each individual life independently “contains”. In practice, we also have hidden “relational roles bars”.
On any impartial and welfarist view, our own “aggregate welfare” is often a much smaller part of our life’s overall value compared to our effects on the welfare of others. And if we think of our own ideal life, or perhaps the life of our favorite historical or public figure, we are often practically right to focus on the roles of this life for others, and not only, or even mostly, on how it feels from the inside. After all, the value of the roles is (ultimately) measured in the same unit of value as the welfare, and in that sense the roles can be much bigger than what any single life independently “contains”.
In other words, we may, in the bigger picture, “compare effort with effort”, and find that a sufficient reason to spend effort is to save effort, reduce inner conflict, and lighten the load for all sentient beings in the long term.
Indeed, if we assume that basically all of our daily struggles are much easier to bear compared to instances of the most intense pains (Gómez-Emilsson, 2019), then we may already find some lightness and relief in being relatively problem-free at the personal level. And we may further realize that we can play very worthwhile roles by focusing our spare efforts on helping to relieve such extreme burdens on the whole. Conversely, if we assume that our burdens are worthwhile for some “positive essence”, then we again face interpersonal tradeoffs like the VRC, as well as the question of whether we would allow arbitrarily large harms for the “greater good” of creating astronomical amounts of this essence.
Finally, we might question the practical relevance of thinking that a life could be worth living only for some kind of “self-contained” satisfaction. After all, our practical intuitions and dilemmas are always related to tradeoffs in the interpersonal world. Without the concept of intrinsic positive value, a life can be worth living for its positive roles.
What additional questions do you have about these views?
The next posts will address more specific questions, such as whether minimalist views would imply that we should seek to “minimize populations” (meanwhile: see Vinding, 2020b, pp. 141–148), and whether a vast amount of small pains could imply “a preference for hell over heaven” (meanwhile: see Vinding, 2021).
What additional questions or feedback arise in relation to minimalist axiologies? Please let me know in the comments or via this anonymous form.
This essay was funded by the Center for Reducing Suffering.
Special thanks to Magnus Vinding for help with editing, and to Aaron Gertler for commenting on an early draft. Valuable comments were also provided by Simon Knutsson, Tobias Baumann, and Winston Oswald-Drummond. Commenting does not imply endorsement of any of my claims.
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