Against neutrality about creating happy lives

by Joe_Carlsmith16 min read15th Mar 202136 comments

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(Cross-posted from Hands and Cities)

(Warning: spoilers for the movie American Beauty.)

“Once for each, just once. Once and no more.
And for us too, once. Never again. And yet
it seems that this—to have once existed,
even if only once, to have been a part
of this earth—can never be taken back.

And so we keep going, trying to achieve it,
trying to hold it in our simple hands,
our already crowded eyes, our dumbfounded hearts.”

   – Rilke, Ninth Elegy

Various philosophers have tried hard to validate the so-called “intuition of neutrality,” according to which the fact that someone would live a wonderful life, if created, is not itself reason to create them (see e.g. Frick (2014) for efforts in this vicinity). The oft-quoted slogan from Jan Narveson is: “We are in favor of making people happy, but neutral about making happy people” (p. 80).

I don’t have the neutrality intuition. To the contrary, I think that creating someone who will live a wonderful life is to do, for them, something incredibly significant and worthwhile. Exactly how to weigh this against other considerations in different contexts is an additional and substantially more complex question. But I feel very far from neutral about it, and I’d hope that others, in considering whether to create me, wouldn’t feel neutral, either. This post tries to point at why.

I. Preciousness

“Earth, loved one,
I will. Believe me, you don’t need any more
of your springtimes to win me: one
is already more than my blood can take.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been yours
completely.”

   – Rilke, Ninth Elegy

My central objection to the neutrality intuition stems from a kind of love I feel towards life and the world. When I think about everything that I have seen and been and done in my life — about friends, family, partners, dogs, cities, cliffs, dances, silences, oceans, temples, reeds in the snow, flags in the wind, music twisting into the sky, a curb I used to sit on with my friends after school — the chance to have been alive in this way, amidst such beauty and strangeness and wonder, seems to me incredibly precious. If I learned that I was about to die, it is to this preciousness that my mind would turn.

Here I think of the final scene (warning: spoilers, violence) of American Beauty, narrated by a character who has just been shot:

“I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street… Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst…”

Or this passage, in All Quiet on the Western Front, in which a soldier in World War I describes how desirable life, for all its flaws, has come to seem, in the midst of the war, and the ever-present threat of death:

“The red poppies in the meadows round our billets, the smooth beetles on the blades of grass, the warm evenings in the cool, dim rooms, the black mysterious trees of the twilight, the stars and the flowing waters, dreams and long sleep – O Life, life, life!”

To me, the idea that life is, or can be, “good” doesn’t seem to cover it. “Good” feels too thin and controlled; too compared. The thing I’m talking about feels related to recognizing goodness, but in a way that moves past appraisal or assessment, towards something more like devotion, loyalty, reverence, awe. It doesn’t feel like I’m asking, of life, “what’s in it for me?” and getting some answer I judge sufficient. It’s more like I have a chance to witness, and to be a part of, something vast and profound and far beyond myself; something fundamental; something worth fighting for. And this chance, in itself, feels deeply significant.

Occasionally, I encounter people who believe, or whose philosophical views imply, that my own life is net bad for me: that is, that I (and for that matter, everyone else) would be better off dead, and that someone who causes or allows my painless death would be doing me a favor (even if they have other reasons to refrain). Generally, I think of myself as capable of at least some sympathy for a wide range of philosophical positions. This view, though, prompts in me a rare and visceral level of wholesale rejection. I feel inclined, not to “disagree” with them, but rather to inform them that they are wrong, the way I feel inclined to inform a solipsist that they aren’t the only conscious being (even if I don’t, really, expect to convince). If the question I face, in my present circumstances, is whether to keep living, or to die, I choose life, very very hard — and not just to help others, or in the hopes of future improvements.

Obviously, this isn’t to say that all lives are like this. We all know the pain that life makes possible. Indeed, one of the central difficulties for capturing the intuition of neutrality is simultaneously capturing (a) the fact that we aren’t neutral about creating miserable lives, without also (b) implying that the bad parts of the net-good lives we create, and/or the risk of creating lives that are net bad overall, give us strong reason to avoid creating new life altogether (e.g., if you care about the bads in new lives, or the risks of bads, but not the goods, creating new life is all downside).

Indeed, there is some question, for me, about whether there are correlations between enthusiasm for the intuition of neutrality and a certain type of existential ambivalence, at least about our current condition (I don’t have much evidence for this, but the idea was made salient to me by a few recent discussions). There is, I think, a way of relating to contemporary life, even when lived in very materially comfortable circumstances, that doesn’t really want it to be over, but which isn’t exactly over the moon about it either. Here I think of an old bit from Dennis Leary, to the effect that happiness comes in very small doses (a cigarette, a cookie, an orgasm), consumed in short breaks from sleep and workplace drudgery. Life, we might think, can be fun at times, but it’s also, often, a bit of a drag, a bit boring, a bit disappointing, a bit … dead. And the painful parts are extremely terrible.

But we should be careful, I think, about painting personal existential patinas over the lives and loves and passions of others. Life can be hard and boring and dead, yes — and worse. And sometimes, perhaps, that’s all it is, or mostly all. Perhaps even that would be well worth it. But sometimes, and to different degrees, there is more, and deadness is a fog that obscures joy and love and energy and communion that far surpass cookies and orgasms in felt significance (which isn’t to poo-poo cookies and orgasms, either). Indeed, complaining that life is too dead seems a concealed compliment towards what life can be — akin to complaining that light is mediocre because it’s too dark. And many people, even in extremely difficult circumstances, seem decidedly un-ambivalent in their love for life, and their desire to keep living.

II. Gratitude

“Here is the time for what you can say,
this is its country. Speak and acknowledge.”

   – Rilke, Ninth Elegy

Talking about life as a “gift,” or as something that you should be “grateful” for, can feel a bit fuzzy. If you were created by a machine that picked possible people randomly out of a hat, does it make sense to be “grateful” to have been picked? Not, at least, in some of the normal social connotations of the term.

Indeed, even if your parents intentionally had children, in many cases they did not intentionally have you. They wanted a child in general, and you were the one that happened to result. You might be glad that they chose to have children, but being grateful to them for having you in particular feels, in many cases, like it risks muddiness (though being grateful to them for everything they did for you after you were conceived makes a lot more sense; and perhaps it makes sense to be grateful to them for choosing to have kids at all, in the same way I might be something-like-grateful to a quirky philanthropist who decided to give a million dollars to someone selected at random, and who happened to select me).

We can bypass some of these issues, though, by imagining someone who is, in fact, intentionally considering whether to create you. I imagine, for example, someone — let’s say, a man named Wilbur — who has access to a “person-creating machine,” which allows its user the option to create new people from scratch, and before doing so, to examine in detail the life that would result. Let’s say that Wilbur has temporary access to a machine that creates me in particular, and he is considering whether to spend a few somewhat unpleasant hours doing so (using the machine requires adjusting various instruments, filling out some paper-work, etc), or to spend his afternoon going on a lovely walk to a nice cafe — in which case I’ll never have a chance to live.

I imagine Wilbur using the machine to look into my life. I imagine him seeing me playing music with my band in high school; rolling in piles of leaves in the Wisconsin fall; sitting on the shore of a silent lake with a friend; reading, learning, laughing, crying, singing; and seeing all the bad things too: pains, mistakes, fears, irritations, boredoms, disappointments. I imagine him seeing vividly what my life and my relationships and my projects mean to me; the preciousness, in my eyes, of the gift he has a chance to give.

And let’s say that Wilbur, seeing all this, chooses to forego a pleasant walk for himself, and to create, instead, my entire life. Now, I think, seems like pretty clear time for gratitude. If I knew that this was how I got created, and I could find Wilbur, I would thank him with uncommon solemnity, the way I would thank someone who saved my life. I would look hard for real things I could do in return. Heck: I would just pay him, directly, for what he did, if he’d accept the money.

Some people don’t think that gratitude of this kind makes sense. Being created, we might say, can’t have been “better for” me, because if I hadn’t been created, I wouldn’t exist, and there would be no one that Wilbur’s choice was “worse for.” And if being created wasn’t better for me, the thought goes, then I shouldn’t be grateful to Wilbur for creating me.

Maybe the issues here are complicated, but at a high level: I don’t buy it. It seems to me very natural to see Wilbur as having done, for me, something incredibly significant — to have given me, on purpose, something that I value deeply. One option, for capturing this, is to say that something can be good for me, without being “better” for me (see e.g. McMahan (2009)). Another option is just to say that being created is better for me than not being created, even if I only exist — at least concretely — in one of the cases. Overall, I don’t feel especially invested in the metaphysics/semantics of “good for” and “better for” in this sort of case. I don’t have a worked out account of these issues, but neither do I see them as especially forceful reason not to be glad that I’m alive, or grateful to someone who caused me to be so.

III. Reciprocity

“And yet who do we plan
to give it to?”
 

   – Rilke, Ninth Elegy

And now I imagine the reverse. Now it is I who have a chance to (a) create some other man — call him Michael — who would have a wonderful life, or (b) to take a pleasant afternoon walk. I stand in front of the machine, and look into the life that could be. I see a child facedown in the grass, feeling the wet dirt against his face. I see a teenager sitting on top of a water-tower. I see a man walking, dream-like, through a city alive with lights and people, on the way to see a woman he loves. I see a fight with that same woman, a sense of betrayal, months of regret. I see him holding a child in his arms, marveling, dumbfounded. I see a garden, an office, pride in some work well done, a retirement party filled with colleagues and friends. I see him on his deathbed, surrounded by children now grown, his hands gnarled with age, cancer blooming in his stomach, weeping with gratitude for everything he has had, and seen, and been given. I see a man who loves life deeply; who wants to live.

I, at least, don’t feel neutral, here, or indifferent. Indeed, the choice of whether or not create Michael seems like a clearly weighty one — made so by the richness and complexity and specificity of this man’s possible 80-so years on earth. Just as Wilbur would be doing, for me, something deeply significant, so, too, would I be doing something deeply significant for Michael. I remember, here, how I would feel, if I learned what Wilbur had done for me. I remember everything that my own life means to me. This man’s life would mean the same to him.

Sometimes, when people talk about this sort of choice, they talk about what would make the world better as a whole — as opposed to what would be of benefit to particular individuals. That’s not where my focus is. I’m not thinking of Michael as a “container” that could be used for inserting extra “goodness” into the world. I’m specifically looking at him as a human being, and at what he cares about. I feel like I have a chance to invite Michael to the greatest party, the only party, the most vast and terrifying and beautiful party, in the history of everything: the only party where there is music, and wet grass, and a woman he’ll fall in the love with — a party he would want to come to, a party he’ll be profoundly grateful to have been to, even if only briefly, even if it was sometimes hard.

I don’t have kids. But if I did, I imagine that showing them this party would be one of the joys. Saying to them: “Here, look, this is the world. These are trees, these are stars, this is what we have learned so far, this is what we don’t know, this is where it all might be going. You’re a part of this now. Welcome.”

Centrally, then, faced with the machine, it feels like I have a chance to do something deeply good for Michael — not just “for the universe.” And I also feel some “golden rule” energy around it. I would want others to give me a chance to live. In suitably similar circumstances, I should give unto others the same.

IV. Applications and abstract arguments

“Between the hammerblows
our heart survives—just as the tongue, even
between the teeth, still manages to praise.”
 

   – Rilke, Ninth Elegy

The main thing I want to oppose, here, is the idea that neutrality about creating wonderful lives has some sort of direct, intuitive appeal. For me, at least, it’s quite the opposite: other things equal, when I consider the question of whether to create someone who will love being alive, doing so seems to me not just worthwhile, but deeply significant. So from this data alone, I feel disinclined to specifically craft my ethical view to try to ground some sort of indifference about choices of this kind.

That said, direct intuitions about neutrality aren’t the only data available, and other things certainly aren’t always equal. Indeed, I think the best intuitive arguments in favor of something like neutrality stem from comparing the pull we feel to create additional wonderful lives with the pull we feel towards acting on behalf of people who already exist (though I think a better lesson there is just that the latter is intuitively stronger — something that those who reject neutrality can say as well). And positing strong reasons to create additional people raises all sorts of additional questions in practical ethics — related, for example, to the ethics of pro-creation, population growth, human extinction, and so on.

I’m not trying to address such intuitions, or to resolve such questions, here. Indeed, I have refrained, overall, from framing the preceding discussion in specifically moral terms — implying, for example, that I am obligated to create Michael, instead of going on my walk. I think I have reasons to create Michael that have to do with the significance of living for Michael; but that’s not yet to say, for example, that I owe it to Michael to create him, or that I am wronging Michael if I don’t.

I’ll note, though, that there are also more abstract arguments against the intuition of neutrality that seem to me extremely strong. Many of these arguments center on the fact that we aren’t neutral, conditional on new lives being created, about their quality — even if the identities of the people involved are contingent on our choice. For example, it’s very hard to be (a) indifferent between no new person, and a moderately happy person; (b) indifferent between no new person, and a very happy person; but (c) not indifferent between a new moderately happy person, and a new very happy person — so attempting to be all of these things at once leads to trouble from the perspective of various very plausible constraints on rationality (see Broome (2006)).  And there are also arguments based on the fact, mentioned above, that we’re not neutral about creating miserable lives (basically, neutrality about net-positive lives leads quickly to extreme types of anti-natalism, especially once we bring in considerations about risk). I recommend Chapter 4 of Nick Beckstead’s thesis for more detailed discussion of related issues. Abstract arguments of this kind, I think, put a lot of pressure on those who have the intuition of neutrality to give it up. But I don’t have it.

In general, population ethics is famously hard. I’m not, here, trying to make it all that much easier. But I don’t think we should treat “creating wonderful lives is neutral” as a constraint that makes it harder, either.

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I enjoyed reading this, but you don't seem to seriously engage with the point you're supposed to be arguing against, so much as instead focusing on poetically tugging your readers' intuitions in a particular direction. I think this has its place but I thought I should provide the (dry) philosophical counterpoint nevertheless.

The essence of your post is to advocate for comparativism, the view existence can be better for someone than non-existence. However, comparativism has problematic metaphysical commitments. I'm drawing heavily on unpublished work by Raph Bader here.

The obvious (only?) way to understand the 'personal betterness relation' – being “better for” – is a two-place relation that has lives (or 'time slices') as its 'relata' (the things being related). Hence, something can only be better for someone if they exist in both outcomes we're comparing.

The last paragraph was quite jargony. Sorry. Here's a more intuitive way of bringing out the same problem. Suppose I say "Joe is to the left of". You might look at me blankly and say "okay. Joe is to the left of ... what, exactly?" You would then point out, quite correctly, that it doesn't make sense to say "Joe is to the left of" in the abstract. For the relationship of 'being to the left of' to obtain for an object, there have to be two things, they need to have a location, and we need to establish positionality such that one is on the left of the other thing. We run into the same problem if we say "world one (where Joe exists) is better for Joe than world two (where he doesn't)". The 'better for Joe' relation doesn't hold unless Joe exists in both places. To be clear, I have no issue with saying "world one is impersonally better than world two" on the grounds the former contains more happiness. It just seems confused to say it's 'better for Joe'.

A more intuitive, but less analogous way to press this sort of complaint is if I say "blue is taller than green". Clearly, blue and green can't stand in the relationship of being taller than each other - neither has the property of height. It's not just that they are equally tall as each other: that would require them to have a property of height and for them to have the same quantity of it. Rather, neither have the property of height, hence we are not able to compare them with respect to their height. Note, having a height of zero is not the same as not having the property of having a height, much as there is a difference between not having a bank account and having a bank account with nothing in it.

The challenge for the comparativist is to explain which properties ground the personal betterness relationship. For a life to have evaluative properties - to be good/bad for the person - it has to have some non-evaluative properties, e.g. how happy/sad the person is. But, a non-existent life does not have any non-evaluative properties to get the evaluative ones off the ground. There's no way to compare existence to non-existence for someone; it is an attempt to compare something with nothing. Hence it is not the case existence is better, worse, or equally good as existence for someone; rather, existence and non-existence are incomparable in value for someone.

As Bader (very dryly) puts it: "Comparativism is thus not viable since there cannot be a betterness relation without relata, nor can there be goodness without good-making features" This is a quote from this paper (https://homeweb.unifr.ch/BaderR/Pub/Person-affecting (R. Bader).pdf) where he mentions, but doesn't develop, the points I made above.

Hi Michael — 

I meant, in the post, for the following paragraphs to address the general issue you mention: 

Some people don’t think that gratitude of this kind makes sense. Being created, we might say, can’t have been “better for” me, because if I hadn’t been created, I wouldn’t exist, and there would be no one that Wilbur’s choice was “worse for.” And if being created wasn’t better for me, the thought goes, then I shouldn’t be grateful to Wilbur for creating me.

Maybe the issues here are complicated, but at a high level: I don’t buy it. It seems to me very natural to see Wilbur as having done, for me, something incredibly significant — to have given me, on purpose, something that I value deeply. One option, for capturing this, is to say that something can be good for me, without being “better” for me (see e.g. McMahan (2009)). Another option is just to say that being created is better for me than not being created, even if I only exist — at least concretely — in one of the cases. Overall, I don’t feel especially invested in the metaphysics/semantics of “good for” and “better for” in this sort of case. I don’t have a worked out account of these issues, but neither do I see them as especially forceful reason not to be glad that I’m alive, or grateful to someone who caused me to be so.

That is, I don’t take myself to be advocating directly for comparativism here (though a few bits of the language in the post, in particular the reference to “better off dead,” do suggest that). As the quoted paragraphs note, comparativism is one option; another is to say that creating me is good for me, even if it’s not better for me (a la McMahan). 

FWIW, though, I do currently feel intuitively open/sympathetic to comparativism, partly because it seems plausible that we can say truly things like “Joe would prefer to be live rather than not to live,” even if Joe doesn’t and never will exist; and clear that we can truly say "Joe prefers to live" in worlds  where he does exist; and I tend to think about treating people well as centrally about being responsive to what they care about/would care about. But I haven’t tried to dig in on this stuff, partly because I see things like being glad I’m alive, and grateful to someone who caused me to be so, as on more generally solid ground than things like “betterness for Joe is a relation that requires two concrete Joe lives as relata" (see e.g. the Menagerie argument in Hilary's powerpoint, p. 13, for the type of thing that makes me think that metaphysical premises like that aren't a "super solid ground" type area). 

At a higher level, though: the point I’m arguing against is specifically that the neutrality intuition is directly intuitive. I don’t see it that way, and the point of “poetically tugging at people’s intuitions” was precisely to try to illustrate and make vivid the intuitive situation as I see it. But as I note at the end —  e.g., “direct intuitions about neutrality aren’t the only data available” — it’s a further question whether there is more to be said for neutrality overall (indeed, I think there is — though metaphysical issues like the ones you mention aren’t very central for me here). That said, I tend to see much of person-affecting ethics as driven at least in substantial part by appeal direct intuition, so I do think it would change the overall dialectical landscape a bit if people come in going “intuitively, we have strong reasons to create happy lives. But there are some metaphysical/semantic questions about how to make sense of this…” 

Hello Joe!

I enjoyed the McMahan/Parfit move of saying things are 'good for' without being 'better for'. I think it's clever, but I don't buy it. It seems like an linguistic sleight of hand and I don't really understand how it works.

I agree we have preferences over existing, but, well, so what? The fact I do or would have a preference does not automatically reveal what the axiological facts are. It's hard to know, even if we grant this, how it extends to not yet existing people. A present non-existing possible person doesn't have any preference, including whether to exist. We might suppose that, if they could have preferences in their non-existent state, they would have a preference to exist, but this just seems arcane. What sort of hypothetical non-existent entity are we channeling here?

There's much the same to be said about being glad. I think I'm glad to be alive. But, again, so what? Who said my psychological attitudes generate or reveal axiological facts? Note, we can ask "I am glad, but am I justified in being glad?" and then we have to have the debates about comparativism etc. we've been having.

I understand that someone might think this point about understanding the betterness relation is somehow linguistic obscurantism, but it's not supposed to be. I think I understand how the 'better for' relationship works and, because of this, I don't see how comparativism works. If you say "existence is better for me than non-existence", I think I am entitled to ask "okay, and what do you mean by 'better for'?"

Re your last point, I'm not sure I understand your objective: you are trying to say something is intuitive when others say it isn't? But aren't our intuitions, well, intuitive, and it's just a psychological matter of fact whether we have them or not? I assume the neutrality intuition is intuitive for some and not others. It's a further question whether, on reflection, that intuition is plausible and that's the issue I was aiming to engage with.

But aren't our intuitions, well, intuitive, and it's just a psychological matter of fact whether we have them or not?

But intuitions can change with time. People can consciously change other people's intuitions with time via communication. People can use communication that looks very little like reasoning or logic to do this. For instance, watching a movie can change your intuitions - even if the movie itself has no words and even if you use no words to reason in your head what you learnt from the movie. A forum post can belong to this category of communication. (It's a different question whether this particular forum should accept them, or judge their quality bar etc)

I upvoted this comment Michael as I also prefer rigorously engaging with these topics as opposed to "poetically tugging on readers' intuitions" (although Joe I did enjoy reading this post and upvoted it so please don't take this as a snarky comment!).

Michael - do you have any thoughts on Hilary Greaves' work with John Cusbert on defending existence comparativism? She discusses it on the 80,000 Hours podcast and you can see some slides here. I don't know if a full draft of the paper is available yet.

Also, do you have any thoughts on the argument that neutrality leads to breaking transitivity (which I present here) implying that we should probably only have neutrality for a single zero-level of wellbeing - which might lead to adopting total utilitarianism?

Hello Jack,

Yes, I've heard Hilary's 80k podcast where she mentions her paper. It's not available on her website. If it's the same theme as in the slides you linked, then it I don't think it responds to the claims above. Bader supposes 'better for' is a dyadic (two-place) relation between the two lives. Hilary is responding to arguments that suppose 'better for' is a triadic (three-place) relation: between two worlds and the person. I don't think I understand why one would want to formulate it the latter way. I'll take a look at Hilary's paper when it's available.

Re your last point: I'm not 100% what you're claiming in the other post because I found the diagrams hard to follow. You're stating a standard version of the non-identity problem, right? I don't think person-affecting views do face intransitivity, but that's a promissory note that, if I'm honest, I don't expect to get around to writing up until maybe 2022 at the earliest.

If it's the same theme as in the slides you linked, then it I don't think it responds to the claims above. Bader supposes 'better for' is a dyadic (two-place) relation between the two lives. Hilary is responding to arguments that suppose 'better for' is a triadic (three-place) relation: between two worlds and the person. I don't think I understand why one would want to formulate it the latter way. I'll take a look at Hilary's paper when it's available.

OK fair enough!

Re your last point: I'm not 100% what you're claiming in the other post because I found the diagrams hard to follow. You're stating a standard version of the non-identity problem, right? I don't think person-affecting views do face intransitivity, but that's a promissory note that, if I'm honest, I don't expect to get around to writing up until maybe 2022 at the earliest.

No it's not the non-identity problem. Disappointed my diagrams didn't work haha. Let me copy what Greaves says about this in section 5.2 of this paper:

5.2 The ‘Principle of equal existence’

If adding an extra person makes a state of affairs neither better nor worse, perhaps it results in a state of affairs that is equally as good as the original state of affairs. That is, one might try to capture the intuition of neutrality via the following principle:

The Principle of Equal Existence: Let A be any state of affairs. Let B be a state of affairs that is just like A, except that an additional person exists who does not exist in A. (In particular, all the people who exist in A also exist in B, and have the same well-being level in B as in A.) Then A and B are equally good.

As Broome (1994, 2004, pp.146-9) points out, however, this principle is all but self-contradictory. This is because there is more than one way of adding an extra person to A — one might add an extra person with well-being level 5, say (leading to state of affairs B1), or (instead) add the same extra person with well-being level 100 (leading to state of affairs B2) — and these ways are not all equally as good as one another. In our example, B2 is clearly better than B1; but the Principle of Equal Existence would require that B1 and A are equally good, and that A and B2 are equally good, in which case (by transitivity of ‘equally as good as’) B1 and B2 would have to be equally as good as one another. The Principle of Equal Existence therefore cannot be correct.

Right. Yeah, I don't share Hilary's intuitions and I wouldn't analyse the situation in this way. It's a somewhat subtle move, but I think about comparing pairs of outcomes by comparing how much better/worse they are for each person who exists in both, then adding up the individual differences (i.e. focusing on 'personal value'; to count 'impersonal value' you just aggregate the welfare in each outcome and then compare those totals). I'm inclined to say A, B1, and B2 are equally as good - they are equally good for the necessary people (those who exist in all outcomes under consideration).

FWIW, I think discussants should agree that the personal value of A, B1, and B2 are the same (there are some extra complexities related to harm-minimisation views I won't get into here). And I think discussants should also agree that the impersonal value of the outcomes is B2 > B1 > A. There is however reasonable scope for disagreement about the final value (aka 'ultimate value', 'value simpliciter', etc) of B2 vs B1 vs A, but that disagreement rests on whether one accepts the significance of impersonal and/or personal value. Neither I, nor anyone else in this post (I think) has advanced any arguments about the significance of personal vs impersonal value. That's a separate debate. We've been talking about comparativism vs non-comparativism.

I think about comparing pairs of outcomes by comparing how much better/worse they are for each person who exists in both, then adding up the individual differences

If you do this (I think) the problem remains? B1 and B2 have the same people but one of the people is better off in B2.

Therefore focusing on personal value, and adopting neutrality, we have:

  • A is as good as B1
  • A is as good as B2
  • By transitivity, B1 is as good as B2 (but this is clearly wrong from both a personal and impersonal point of view)

We've been talking about comparativism vs non-comparativism.

I think the non-comparitivist has to adopt some sort of principle of neutrality (right?), and Greaves' (well originally Broome's) example shows why neutrality violates some important constraint. Therefore this example should undermine non-comparativism. Joe actually mentions this argument briefly in his post (search for "Broome").

Ah, okay. I missed that the people in B1 and B2 were supposed to be the same - it's a so-called 'three-choice' case; 'two-choice' cases are where the only two options are the person doesn't exist or exist with a certain welfare level. I'm inclined to think three-choice cases, even though they are relied on lots in the literature, as also metaphysically problematic for reasons that I've not seen pointed out in the literature so far. I've sketched my answer below, but this is also a promissory note, sorry, even though it's ended up being rather long.

Roughly, the gist of my concern is this. A standard person-affecting route is to say the only persons who matter are those who exist necessarily (i.e. under all circumstances under consideration). This is based on the ideas discussed above that we just can't compare existence to non-existence for someone. To generate the three-choice case, what's needed is some action that (1) occurs to a future, necessarily-existing person and (2) benefits that person, whilst retaining that they are a future, necessary person, (3) leaves us with three outcomes to choose between. I don't see how (1) - (3) are jointly possible. Let's walk through that.

Why do we need (1)? Well, if they aren't a future person, but they are, instead, a necessarily existing present person, then we're in a choice between B1 and B2, not a choice between A, B1, and B2. Recall A is the outcome where the person doesn't exist. So we're down to two choices, not three.

Why do we need (2)? The type of 3-choice case that most often comes up in the literature - when people flesh out the details, rather than just stipulating that the case is possible - is where we are talking about providing medical treatment to cure an as-yet-unborn child of some genetic condition. Usually claim is "look, obviously you should provide the treatment and that will benefit that child without changing its identity." A usual observation made in these debates is that your genetics are a necessary condition for your identity: if you had had different genetics, you wouldn't have existed - consider non-identical twins being different people. Let's consider the two options: the intervention causes a different person to exist or it doesn't.

Suppose the former is true: the genetic intervention leads person, C, rather than person B to be created. Okay, so now the choice-set is really <A, B1, C1> not <A, B1, B2>. This is the familiar non-identity problem case.

Suppose the latter is true: the genetic intervention doesn't change identity. Recall the person must, crucially, be a future, necessary person. But how can you change anyone's genetics prior to their existence whilst maintaining that the original person will necessarily exist(! ). This, I'm afraid, is metaphysically problematic or, to put it in ordinary British English, bonkers.

The three-case enthusiast might try again by suggesting something like the following: they are considering whether to invest money for their future nephew to give to him when he turns 21. Now, we can imagine a case where you doing this sort of thing is identity changing: you tell your sibling and their spouse, who haven't yet had the child, you're going to do this. It causes them to conceive later and create a different child. Fine, but here we're back to <A, B1, C1> as we're talking about stopping one child existing, creating a different one instead, and benefitting that second one.

But suppose, for some reason, it's not identity changing. Maybe the child is already in utero, or it's a fertilised egg in a sperm bank and your sibling and their spouse are 100% going to have it, whatever you do, or something. Recall, future person needs to exist necessarily for the three-option case to arise. Well, if there is no possibility of the child not existing, there is no outcome A anymore - at least, not as far are you are concerned; you now face a choice-set of <B1, B2> and can say normal things about why you should choose B2: it's better for that particular child whose identity remains unchanged.

All told, I doubt the choice-set <A, B1, B2> is (metaphysically?) possible. This is important because its existence is taken as a strong objection to person-affecting views. I don't think the existence of choice sets like <A, B1, C1> - which is the ordinary non-identity problem - are nearly so problematic.

All told, I doubt the choice-set <A, B1, B2> is (metaphysically?) possible. This is important because its existence is taken as a strong objection to person-affecting views. I don't think the existence of choice sets like <A, B1, C1> - which is the ordinary non-identity problem - are nearly so problematic.

I think I agree with MichaelStJules here. I don't think that the "practical" possibility of a choice set like <A, B1, B2> is in fact important. The important thing I think is that we can conceive of such a choice set - it's not difficult to consider a scenario where I don't exist, a scenario where I exist with happiness +5, and a scenario where I exist with happiness +10. Broome's example is essentially a thought experiment, and thought experiments can be weird and unrealistic whilst still being very powerful (that's what makes them so fun!).

A standard person-affecting route is to say the only persons who matter are those who exist necessarily (i.e. under all circumstances under consideration)

I find this bizarre. So if you have a choice between (A) not having a baby or (B) having a baby and then immediately torturing it to death we can ignore the "torture to death" aspect when making this decision because the child isn't "existing necessarily"? Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but I find any such person-affecting view very easy to dismiss.

As I said to MichaelStJules, I'm inclined to say the possibility of three-choice cases rests on a confusion for the reasons I already gave. The A, B1, B2 case should at least be structured differently into a sequence of two choices (1) create/don't create, (2) benefit/don't benefit. (1) is incomparable in value for someone, (2) is not. Should you create a child? Well, on necessitarianism, that depends solely on the effects this has on other, necessary people (and thus not the child). Okay, once you've had/are going to have a child, should you torture it. Um, what do you think? If this is puzzling, recall we are trying to think in terms of personal value ('good for'). I don't think we can say anything is good/bad for an entity that doesn't exist necessarily (i.e. in all contexts at hand).

FWIW, I find people do tend to very easily dismiss the view, but usually without really understanding how it works! It's a bit like when people say "oh, utilitarianism allows murder? Clearly false. What's the next topic?"

FWIW, I find people do tend to very easily dismiss the view, but usually without really understanding how it works!

I would just point out that Greaves and Broome probably  understand how person-affecting views work and seem to find this <A, B1, B2> argument highly problematic. I used to hold a person-affecting view (genuinely I did) and when I came across this argument I found my faith in it severely tested. I haven't really been convinced by your defence (partly because I still find necessitarianism a bit bonkers - more on this below), but I may need to think about it more.

Should you create a child? Well, on necessitarianism, that depends solely on the effects this has on other, necessary people (and thus not the child). Okay, once you've had/are going to have a child, should you torture it. Um, what do you think?

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding necessitarianism but it doesn't seem hard to find bizarre implications of it (my first one was sloppy). What about the choice between:

A) Not having a child

B) Having a child you know/have very strong reasons to expect will live a dreadful life for reasons other than what you will do to the child when it is born (a fairly realistic scenario in my opinion e.g. terrible genetic defect)

Necessitarianism would seem to imply the two are equally permissible and I'm pretty comfortable in saying that they are not.

Ah, well maybe we should just defer to Broome and Greaves and not engage in the object-level discussions at all! That would certainly save time... FWIW, it's pretty common in philosophy to say "Person X conceptualises problem P in such and such a way. What they miss out is such and such."

All views in pop ethics have bonkers results, something that is widely agreed by population ethicists. Your latest example is about the procreative asymmetry (creating happy lives neutral, creating unhappy lives bad). Quite of lot of people with person-affecting intuitions think there is a procreative asymmetry, so would agree with you, but it's proved quite hard to defend. Ralph Bader, here, has a rather interesting and novel defence of it: https://homeweb.unifr.ch/BaderR/Pub/Asymmetry (R. Bader).pdf. Another strategy is to say you have no reason not to create the miserable child, but you have reason to end it's life once it starts existing; this doesn't help with scenarios where you can't end the life.

You may just write me off as a monster, but I quite like symmetries and I'm minded to accept a symmetrical person-affecting view (at least, I quite a bunch of credence in it). The line of thought is that existence and non-existence are not comparable. The challenge in defending an asymmetric person-affecting view is arguing why it's not good for someone to be creatied with a happy life, but why it is bad for them to have an unhappy life.

Ah, well maybe we should just defer to Broome and Greaves and not engage in the object-level discussions at all!

Hah perhaps I deserved this. I was just trying to indicate that there are people who both 'understand the theory' and hold that the <A, B1, B2> argument is important which was a response to your "I find people do tend to very easily dismiss the view, but usually without really understanding how it works!" comment. I concede though that you weren't saying that of everyone.

All views in pop ethics have bonkers results, something that is widely agreed by population ethicists.

Yes I understand that it's a matter of accepting the least bonkers result. Personally I find the idea that it might be neutral to bring miserable lives into this world is up there with some of the more bonkers results.

You may just write me off as a monster, but I quite like symmetries and I'm minded to accept a symmetrical person-affecting view

I don't write you off as a monster! We all have different intuitions about what is repugnant. It is useful to have (I think) reached a better understanding of both of our views.

My view goes something like:

  • I am not willing to concede that it might be neutral to bring terrible lives into this world which means I reject necessitarianism and therefore feel the force of the <A, B1, B2> argument (as I also hold transitivity to be an important axiom). I'm not sure if I'm convinced by your argument that necessitarianism gets you out the quandary (maybe it does, I would have to think about it more) but ultimately it doesn't matter to me as I reject necessitarianism anyway.
  • I note that MichaelStJules says that you can hold onto transitivity at the expense of IIA, but I don't think this does a whole lot for me. I am also concerned by the non-identity problem. Ultimately I'm not really convinced by arguably the least objectionable person-affecting view out there (you can see my top-level comment on this post), and this all leads me to having more credence in total utilitarianism than person-affecting views (which certainly wasn't always the case).
  • The 'bonkers result' with total utilitarianism is the repugnant conclusion which I don't find to be repugnant as I think "lives barely worth living" are actually pretty decent - they are worth living after all! But then there's the "very repugnant conclusion" which still somewhat bothers me. (EDIT: I am also interested by the claim in this paper that the repugnant conclusion afflicts all population axiologies, including person-affecting views, although I haven't actually read through the paper yet to understand it completely).
  • So overall I'm still somewhat morally uncertain about population axiology, but probably have highest credence in total utilitarianism. In any case it is interesting to note that it has been argued that even minimal credence in total utilitarianism can justify  acting as a total utilitarian, if one resolves moral uncertainty by maximising expected moral value.
  • So all in all I'm content to act as a total utilitarian, at least for now.

It was actually fairly useful to write that out.

I am also interested by the claim in this paper that the repugnant conclusion afflicts all population axiologies, including person-affecting views, although I haven't actually read through the paper yet to understand it completely

I'd just check the definition of the Extended very repugnant conclusion (XVRC) on p. 19. Roughly, tiny changes in welfare (e.g. pin pricks, dust specks) to an appropriate base population can make up for the addition of any number of arbitrarily bad lives and the foregoing of any number of arbitrarily good lives.  The base population depends on the magnitude of the change in welfare, and the bad and good lives.

The claim of the paper is that basically all theories so far have led to the XVRC.

It's possible to come up with theories that don't. Take Meacham's approach, and instead of using the sum of harms, use the maximum individual harm (and the counterpart relations should be defined to minimize the max harm in the world).

Or do something like this for pairwise comparisons only, and then extend using some kind of voting method, like beatpath, as discussed in Thomas's paper on the asymmetry.

This is similar to the view the animal rights ethicist Tom Regan described here:

Given that these conditions are fulfilled, the choice concerning who should be saved must be decided by what I term the harm principle. Space prevents me from explaining that principle fully here (see The Case, chapters 3 and 8, for my considered views). Suffice it to say that no one has a right to have his lesser harm count for more than the greater harm of another. Thus, if death would be a lesser harm for the dog than it would be for any of the human survivors—(and this is an assumption Singer does not dispute)—then the dog’s right not to be harmed would not be violated if he were cast overboard. In these perilous circumstances, assuming that no one’s right to be treated with respect has been part of their creation, the dog’s individual right not to be harmed must be weighed equitably against the same right of each of the individual human survivors.

To weigh these rights in this fashion is not to violate anyone’s right to be treated with respect; just the opposite is true, which is why numbers make no difference in such a case. Given, that is, that what we must do is weigh the harm faced by any one individual against the harm faced by each other individual, on an individual, not a group or collective basis, it then makes no difference how many individuals will each suffer a lesser, or who will each suffer a greater, harm. It would not be wrong to cast a million dogs overboard to save the four human survivors, assuming the lifeboat case were otherwise the same. But neither would it be wrong to cast a million humans overboard to save a canine survivor, if the harm death would be for the humans was, in each case, less than the harm death would be for the dog.

These approaches all sacrifice the independence of irrelevant alternatives or transitivity.

 

Another way to "avoid" it is to recognize gaps in welfare, so that the smallest change in welfare (in one direction from a given level) allowed is intuitively large. For example, maybe there's a lexical threshold for sufficiently intense suffering, and a gap in welfare just before it. Suffering may be bearable to different degrees, but some kinds may just be completely unbearable, and the threshold could be where it becomes completely unbearable; see some discussion of thresholds here. Then people people past the threshold is extremely bad, no matter where they start, whether that's right next to the threshold, or from non-existence.

Or, maybe there's no gap, but just barely pushing people past that threshold is extremely bad anyway, and roughly as bad as bringing people into existence already past that threshold. I think a gap in welfare is functionally the same, but explains this better.

I am also interested by the claim in this paper that the repugnant conclusion afflicts all population axiologies, including person-affecting views

Not negative utilitarian axiology. The proof relies on the assumption that the utility variable u can be positive.

What if "utility" is meant to refer to the objective aspects of the beings' experience etc. that axiologies would judge as good or bad—rather than to moral goodness or badness themselves? Then I think there are two problems:

  • 1) Supposing it's a fair move to aggregate all these aspects into one scalar, the theorem assumes the function f  must be strictly increasing. Under this interpretation the NU function would be f(u) = min(u, 0).
  • 2) I deny that such aggregation even is a reasonable move. Restricting to hedonic welfare for simplicity, it would be more appropriate for f to be a function of two variables, happiness and suffering. Collapsing this into a scalar input, I think, obscures some massive moral differences between different formulations of the Repugnant Conclusion, for example. Interestingly, though, if we formulate the VRC as in that paper by treating all positive values of u as "only happiness, no suffering" and all negative values as "only suffering, no happiness" (thereby making my objection on this point irrelevant) the theorem still goes through for all those axiologies. But not for NU.

Edit: The paper seems to acknowledge point #2, though not the implications for NU:

One way to see that a ε increase could be very repugnant is to recall Portmore’s (1999) suggestion that ε lives in the restricted RC could be “roller coaster” lives, in which there is much that is wonderful, but also much terribly suffering, such that the good ever-so-slightly outweighs the bad. Here, one admitted possibility is that an ε-change could substantially increase the terrible suffering in a life, and also increase good components; such a ε-change is not the only possible ε-change, but it would have the consequence of increasing the total amount of suffering. ... Moreover, if ε-changes are of the “roller coaster” form, they could increase deep suffering considerably beyond even the arbitrarily many [u < 0] lives, and in fact could require everyone in the chosen population to experience terrible suffering.

Plenty of theories avoid the RC and VRC, but this paper extends the VRC on p. 19. Basically, you can make up for the addition of an arbitrary number of arbitrarily bad lives instead of an arbitrary number of arbitrarily good lives with arbitrarily small changes to welfare to a base population, which depends on the previous factors.

For NU (including lexical threshold NU), this can mean adding an arbitrarily huge number of new people to hell to barely reduce the suffering for each person in a sufficiently large population already in hell. (And also not getting the very positive lives, but NU treats them as 0 welfare anyway.)

Also, related to your edit, epsilon changes could flip a huge number of good or neutral lives in a base population to marginally bad lives.

For NU (including lexical threshold NU), this can mean adding an arbitrarily huge number of new people to hell to barely reduce the suffering for each person in a sufficiently large population already in hell. (And also not getting the very positive lives, but NU treats them as 0 welfare anyway.)

This may be counterintuitive to an extent, but to me it doesn't reach "very repugnant" territory. Misery is still reduced here; an epsilon change of the "reducing extreme suffering" sort, evenly if barely so, doesn't seem morally frivolous like the creation of an epsilon-happy life or, worse, creation of an epsilon roller coaster life. But I'll have to think about this more. It's a good point, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

I wrote some more about this here in reply to Jack.

Glad we made some progress!

FWIW, there's a sense in which total utilitarianism is my 2nd favourite view: I like its symmetry and I think it has the right approach to aggregation. In so far as I am totalist, I don't find the repugnant conclusion repugant. I just have issues with comparativism and impersonal value.

It's not obvious to me totalism does 'swamp' if one appeals to moral uncertainty, but that's another promissory note.

Anyway, a useful discussion.

Definitely a useful discussion and I look forward to seeing you write more on all of this!

Ralph Bader, here, has a rather interesting and novel defence of it: https://homeweb.unifr.ch/BaderR/Pub/Asymmetry (R. Bader).pdf. Another strategy is to say you have no reason not to create the miserable child, but you have reason to end it's life once it starts existing; this doesn't help with scenarios where you can't end the life.

Ya, this is interesting. Bader's approach basically is premised on the fact that you'd want to end the life of a miserable child, and you'd want to do it as soon as possible, and ensuring this as soon as possible (in theory, not in practice) basically looks like not bringing them into existence in the first place. You could do this with the amount of badness in general, too, e.g. intensity of experiences, as I described in point 2 here until the end of the comment for suffering specifically.

The second approach you mention seems like it would lead to dynamic inconsistency or a kind of money pump, which seems similar to Bader's point (from this comment):

if people decide to have a child they know will be forever miserable because they don't count the harm ahead of time, once the child is born (or the decision to have the child is made), the parent(s) may decide to euthanize (abort, etc.) them for the child's sake. And then, they could do this [have a child expected to be miserable and then euthanize/abort them] again and again and again, knowing they'll change their minds at each point, because at each point, although they might recognize the harm, they don't count it until after the decision is made.

The reason they might do this is because they recognize some benefit to having the child at all, and do not anticipate the need to euthanize/abort them until after the child "counts". Euthanizing/aborting the child could be costly and outweigh the initial benefits of having the child in the first place, so it seems best to not have the child in the first place. You might respond that not having the child is therefore in the parents' interests, given expectations about how they will act in the future and this has nothing to do with the child's interests, so can be handled with a symmetric person-affecting view. However, this is only true because they're predicting they will take the child's interests into account. So, they already are taking the child's interests into account when deciding whether or not to have them at all, just indirectly.

And I can see some person-affecting views approaching mere/benign addition and the repugnant conclusion similarly. You bring the extra people with marginally good lives into existence to get A+, since it's no worse than A (or better, by benign addition instead of mere addition), but then you're compelled to redistribute welfare after the fact, and this puts you in an outcome you'd find significantly worse than had you not brought the extra people into existence in the first place. You should predict that you will want to redistribute welfare after the fact when deciding whether or not to bring the extra people into existence at all.

Yup. I suspect Bader's approach is ultimately ad hoc (I saw him present it at a conf and haven't been through the paper closely) but I do like it.

On the second bit, I think that's right with the A, A+ bit: the person-affector can see that letting them new people arrive and then redistributing to everyone is worse for the original people. So if you think that's what will happen, you should avoid it. Much the same thing to say about the child.

The line of thought is that existence and non-existence are not comparable. The challenge in defending an asymmetric person-affecting view is arguing why it's not good for someone to be creatied with a happy life, but why it is bad for them to have an unhappy life.

Maybe the first is good in a sense, but the goodness and badness should be thought of as moral reasons directed from outcomes in which they exist to (the same or other) outcomes, or something like world-dependent rankings. Existence and non-existence are comparable for an individual, but only in outcomes in which the individual actually exists (or comes to exist). You might imagine this like a process of deliberation, starting from one outcome/choice, and then following the moral reasons to others whenever compelled to do so. You would check what happens starting from each choice/outcome. To illustrate the procreation asymmetry, which is pretty simple:

  1. There's no arrow starting from Nonexistence, and the person who doesn't exist wouldn't rank any outcomes (or have outcomes ranked for them) precisely because they don't/won't exist. So Nonexistence is permissible despite the presence of Positive existence as an option, since from Nonexistence, nothing is strictly better; there's no reason from this outcome to choose otherwise.
  2. From Negative existence, Nonexistence and Positive existence look better, since the individual would rank Nonexistence better for themself, or this is done for them.
  3. From Positive existence, Positive existence is ranked higher than Nonexistence and Negative existence and not worse than any option, so it is permissible. It is not obligatory because of 1.

1 and 2 together are the procreation asymmetry.

I discuss this more here.

I think there are conceivable situations where you can't easily just ask whether or not you should create the child first without looking at each option with the child, because how exactly you create them might matter for their welfare or the welfare of others, e.g. you can imagine choosing between a risky procedure and a safe procedure (for the child's welfare, not whether or not they will be born) for implantation for an already fertilized egg or in vitro fertilization with an already chosen sperm and egg pair. Maybe the risky one is cheaper, which would be one kind of benefit for the parents.

To run through an example, how would you handle the benign addition argument for the repugnant conclusion (assuming world A's population is in both world A+ and world Z, and the populations in world A+ and world Z are identical)? You could imagine the above example of in vitro fertilization being structurally similar, just an extra population of size 1 instead of 99, and smaller differences in welfare.

Figure 1 for the benign addition argument from Huemer, In defense of repugnance

You can pick a pairwise comparison to rule out any option on a person-affecting view, since it looks like A < A +, A+ < Z, and Z < A. Maybe all three options should be permissible?

Or maybe something like Dasgupta's approach? It has 2 steps:

  1. Select the best available option for each possible population. This doesn't require any stance on extra people or identity.
    1. For one kind of wide person-affecting view, do this instead for each possible population size, rather than each population.
  2. Choose between the best options from step 1. There are multiple ways to do this, and there may be multiple permissible options due to incomparability.
    1. Give only weight to necessary people, who are common to all options, or all of the best options from 1. This seems closest to necessitarianism and what you're suggesting.
    2. Give more weight to necessary people than extra people. I think this is Dasgupta's original approach.
    3. Give only weight to necessary people and badly off people (equal or unequal weight). This captures the procreation asymmetry.
    4. For a more natural kind of wide person-affecting view, only the identities of the necessary people should matter, whereas the identities of the extra people do not.

Applying this to the benign addition argument, if worlds A+ and Z have the same populations, then A+ would be ruled out in step 1, A would be chosen, and we'd avoid the repugnant conclusion. If the extra people (compared to A) are completely different between A+ and Z, and identity matters (not using any wide modifications), then no option is ruled out at step 1, and the necessitarian approach (2.1.) would lead to A+.

For Dasgupta's approach, see:

 

There are also presumably different ways to handle uncertainty. While many of your decisions may affect who will exist in the future, the probabilities that a given individual who hasn't been conceived will exist in each outcome might still be positive in each option, and you can still compare the welfare of these probabilistic people, e.g.:

  1. A exists with probability 2%.
  2. A exists with probability 1%, but is expected to be better off than in 1, conditionally on existing in each. (Or expected to be worse off.)

We might also add that 1 would actually resolve with A existing if and only if 2 would actually resolve with A not existing.

What about cases involving abortion or death generally (before or after an individual becomes conscious), or genetic selection (two options with the same selected individual, but better or worse off for reasons unrelated to identity, like saving for education, or the mother's diet)?

Also, this seems to be a response like "this isn't a problem in practice", but whether or not it's a problem in practice, being a problem in theory is still a reason against (if we actually acknowledge it as a problem). Still, you can sacrifice the independence of irrelevant alternatives instead of transitivity and make your decisions choice-set-dependent.

Re your cases, those about abortion and death you might want to treat differently from those about creating lives. But then you might not. The cases like saving for education I've already discussed.

I might be inclined to say something stronger, such as the 3-choice sets are not metaphysically possible, potentially with a caveat like 'at least from the perspective of the choosing agent'. I think the same thing about accusation person-affecting views and intransivity.

Not taking a side here, but couldn't you get around this by framing your values as 'maximizing sum of global utility'? This way there is no need to make a comparison between Joe and [absence of Joe]; I can simply say that Joe's existence has caused my objective function to increase.

Not sure I follow. Are you assuming anti-realism about metaethics or something? Even so, if your assessment of outcomes depends, at least in part, on how good/bad those outcomes are for people, the problem remains.

[Apologies for length, but I think these points are worth sharing in full.]

As someone who is highly sympathetic to the procreation asymmetry, I have to say, I still found this post quite moving. I’ve had, and continue to have, joys profound enough to know the sense of awe you’re gesturing at. If there were no costs, I’d want those joys to be shared by new beings too.

Unfortunately, assuming that we’re talking about practically relevant cases where creating a "happy" life also entails suffering of the created person and other beings, there are costs in expectation. (I assume no one has moral objections to creating utterly flawless lives, so the former is the sense in which I read "neutrality." See also this comment. Please let me know if I've misunderstood.) And I find those costs qualitatively more serious than the benefits. Let me see if I can convey where I’m coming from.

I found it surprising that you wrote:

I have refrained, overall, from framing the preceding discussion in specifically moral terms — implying, for example, that I am obligated to create Michael, instead of going on my walk. I think I have reasons to create Michael that have to do with the significance of living for Michael; but that’s not yet to say, for example, that I owe it to Michael to create him, or that I am wronging Michael if I don’t.

Because to me this is exactly the heart of the asymmetry. It’s uncontroversial that creating a person with a bad life inflicts on them a serious moral wrong. Those of us who endorse the asymmetry don’t see such a moral wrong involved in not creating a happy life. (If one is a welfarist consequentialist, a fortiori this calls into question the idea that the uncreated happy person is "wronged" in any prudential sense.)

To flesh that out a bit: You acknowledged, in sketching out Michael’s hypothetical life, these pains:

 I see a fight with that same woman, a sense of betrayal, months of regret. … I see him on his deathbed … cancer blooming in his stomach

When I imagine the prospect of creating Michael, these moments weigh pretty gravely. I feel the pang of knowing just how utterly crushing a conflict with the most important person in one’s life can be; the pit in the gut, the fear, shock, and desperation. I haven’t had cancer, but I at least know the fear of death, and can only imagine it gets more haunting when one actually expects to die soon. By all reports, cancer is clearly a fate I couldn’t possibly wish on anyone, and suffering it slowly in a hospital sounds nothing short of harrowing.

I simply can't comprehend creating those moments in good conscience, short of preventing greater pain broadly construed. It seems cruel to do so. By contrast, although Michael-while-happy would feel grateful to exist, it doesn’t seem cruel to me at all to not invite his nonexistent self to the "party," in your words. As you acknowledge, the objection is that "if [he] hadn’t been created, [he] wouldn’t exist, and there would be no one that [my] choice was ‘worse for.’" I don’t see a strong enough reason to think the Michael-while-happy experiences override the Michael-while-miserable experiences, given the difference in moral gravity. It seems cold comfort to tell the moments of Michael that beg for relief, "I’m sorry for the pain I gave you, but it's worth it for the party to come."

I feel inclined, not to "disagree" with them, but rather to inform them that they are wrong

Likewise I feel inclined to inform the Michael-creators that they are wrong, in implicitly claiming that the majority vote of Michael-while-happy can override the pleas of Michael-while-miserable. Make no mistake, I abhor scope neglect. But this is not a question of ignoring numbers, any more than someone who would not torture a person for any number of beautiful lifeless planets created in a corner of the universe where no one could ever observe them. It's about prioritizing needs over wants, the tragic over the precious.

Lastly, you mention the golden rule as part of your case. I personally would not want to be forced by anyone - including my past self, who often acts in a state of myopia and doesn't remember how awful the worst moments are - to suffer terribly because they judged it was worth it for the goods in life.

I do of course have some moral uncertainty on this. There are some counterintuitive implications to the view I sketched here. But I wouldn't say this is an unnecessary addition to the hardness of population ethics.

I found it surprising that you wrote: …

Because to me this is exactly the heart of the asymmetry. It’s uncontroversial that creating a person with a bad life inflicts on them a serious moral wrong. Those of us who endorse the asymmetry don’t see such a moral wrong involved in not creating a happy life.

+1. I think many who have asymmetric sympathies might say that there is a strong aesthetic pull to bringing about a life like Michael’s, but that there is an overriding moral responsibility not to create intense suffering.

It’s uncontroversial that creating a person with a bad life inflicts on them a serious moral wrong. 

This seems possibly true to me, but not obviously the case, and definitely not uncontroversial. I would guess many people who lived unfortunate lives would nonetheless disagree that their parents inflicted a moral wrong upon them by conceiving them. Similarly, I don't think I have ever heard anyone suggest that children who suffer at the hands of abusers or terrorists were first wronged, not by their tormentor, but by their parents. Even in bleak circumstances, so long as the parents didn't intend to make things bad for the children, I think most people would refrain from such a judgement. 

Maybe this is just an ex post vs. ex ante distinction? If children with unfortunate lives think they just got unlucky and think their lives would have been positive in expectancy, they might not think that their parents did anything morally wrong. But they might feel differently if the parents knew their children would have a very serious genetic medical condition.

(But this is wild speculation, I have not checked for any empirical data on this.)

I guess it was unclear that here I was assuming that the creator knows with certainty all the evaluative contents of the life they're creating. (As in the Wilbur and Michael thought experiments.) I would be surprised if anyone disagreed that creating a life you know won't be worth living, assuming no other effects, is wrong. But I'd agree that the claim about lives not worth living in expectation isn't uncontroversial, though I endorse it.

[edit: Denise beat me to the punch :)]

For example, it’s very hard to be (a) indifferent between no new person, and a moderately happy person; (b) indifferent between no new person, and a very happy person; but (c) not indifferent between a new moderately happy person, and a new very happy person — so attempting to be all of these things at once leads to trouble from the perspective of various very plausible constraints on rationality (see Broome (2006)).

I agree this is a serious challenge to neutrality. I spell it out clearly in this post (with diagrams!).