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Time-average versus Individual-average Total Utilitarianism

by Davidmanheim1 min read26th Sep 20211 comment

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Population ethicsMoral philosophy
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tl;dr - Average utilitarianism seems to have weird implications if we're averaging over time, instead of just over people. Is this discussed anywhere?

If we consider whether we'd prefer a society of 1 million blissfully happy people versus 2 million merely very happy people, we're in the realm of typical population ethics. However, if we instead ask whether we'd like to have 10 generations of blissfully happy people, or 100 generations of merely very happy people, it seems like a different question - not because of discounting, but because we might want to aggregate over time even if we average over people alive at any given time, or might want to average over time even if we sum over people alive at any given time, since these seem like conceptually distinct questions.

I suspect there is an interesting set of questions here, and wanted to know if it has been discussed, or if there are specific reasons to differentiate between these cases, or not to do so. (There are obvious implications for the long term future, but I'd prefer to ask about the population ethics for now.)

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To the extent average utilitarianism is motivated by avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion, I suspect that most average utilitarians would be as disturbed by aggregating over time as they are by aggregating within a generation, since we can establish a Repugnant Conclusion over times pretty straightforwardly. That said, to the extent intuitions differ when we aggregate over times, I can see that this could pose a challenge to average utilitarians.

I can't recall any work on this argument off the top of my head, but I did recently come across a hint of a related argument directed against distributive egalitarianism. From https://globalprioritiesinstitute.org/economic-inequality-and-the-long-term-future-andreas-t-schmidt-university-of-groningen-and-daan-juijn-ce-delft/ : "An additional question is whether distributive egalitarianism should extend to inequalities across generations." Which links to a footnote: "One of us elsewhere argues that distributive egalitarianism is implausible, because its extension to intergenerational distributions is necessary yet implausible [redacted]." Not sure why the citation is redacted, but I think "one of us" refers to Andreas Schmidt. Of course, extending the analysis to future generations threatens average utilitarianism and distributive egalitarianism in different ways. But the fact that both are threatened by this type of argument suggests to me that a lot of moral theories ought to be stress-tested against "what about across generations?" arguments. I agree that there's an interesting set of questions here.