Spears & Budolfson, 'Repugnant conclusions'

by Pablo1 min read4th Apr 202115 comments

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Population EthicsGlobal priorities researchMoral Philosophy
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Dean Spears and Mark Budolfson have just published a paper with what appears to be a very important result. It's not yet on Sci-Hub and the academic login details a friend had shared with me expired, so I can't access it, though this seems to be a precursor to it. [Update: a user kindly sent me a copy of the paper, which you can download from here.] I haven't stayed abreast of recent developments in population ethics, so I'd be curious to hear what folks more knowledgeable in this area than I am have to say about it.

The population ethics literature has long focused on attempts to avoid the repugnant conclusion. We show that a large set of social orderings that are conventionally understood to escape the repugnant conclusion do not in fact avoid it in all instances. As we demonstrate, prior results depend on formal definitions of the repugnant conclusion that exclude some repugnant cases, for reasons inessential to any “repugnance” (or other meaningful normative properties) of the repugnant conclusion. In particular, the literature traditionally formalizes the repugnant conclusion to exclude cases that include an unaffected sub-population. We relax this normatively irrelevant exclusion, and others. Using several more inclusive formalizations of the repugnant conclusion, we then prove that any plausible social ordering implies some instance of the repugnant conclusion. This understanding—that it is impossible to avoid all instances of the repugnant conclusion—is broader than the traditional understanding in the literature that the repugnant conclusion can only be escaped at unappealing theoretical costs. Therefore, the repugnant conclusion provides no methodological guidance for theory or policy-making, because it does not discriminate among candidate social orderings. So escaping the repugnant conclusion should not be a core goal of the population ethics literature.

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Hi, I'm Dean, a coauthor on the paper.  I'm sorry you're having trouble getting the paper.  This link should get it for you without charge: https://rdcu.be/chNpG

The journal emailed me  "As part of the Springer Nature SharedIt initiative, you can now publicly share a full-text view-only version of your paper by using the link below... There are no restrictions on the number of people you may share this link with, how many times they can view the linked article or where you can post the link online. "

I'm happy to talk more about the paper!

I'm neither a philosopher nor familiar with the formal methods Spears & Budolfson use, but here is my understanding of the paper, which understanding may well be wrong.

Normally, the repugnant conclusion says that a very large population with only barely positive lives is better than a small population of really great lives. I don't think Spears & Budolfson deny the fact that, in this particular situation, average utilitarianism (to take one example) does say that the small population of really great lives is in fact better than the alternative. Instead, they rephrase the problem to say something like that, for any one population, you can always make those people really unhappy if you only add enough additional lives to counterbalance it. Even average utilitarianism aggregates, so a large number of slightly happy members will outweigh a small group of very unhappy members. In any case, so long as you can add an arbitrary number to a population, & so long as you aggregate utility, a very large number of small differences can outweigh a small number of large differences.

I take them to say that Parfit & others were looking not for forms of utilitarianism that avoided any repugnant conclusion, but for ones that avoided some specific repugnant conclusion for some specific hypothetical populations (such as those originally described by Parfit). But there are still, for all forms of utilitarianism – including those that solve Parfit's original problem – other repugnant conclusions for other hypothetical populations. And because the particular hypothetical populations that produce repugnant conclusions are different in different variants of utilitarianism, they cannot easily be compared & repugnant conclusions are therefore not a good measure.

They also argue that there are repugnant conclusions for non-aggregative forms of utilitarianism. As I interpret it, they argue that, for any suffering population, you can always distribute some fixed amount of utility by giving a tiny amount to each existing member & distributing the rest over a very large number of additional members, such that all original members are still suffering & all new members are, too. But at every step we only added utility & therefore made everyone better off, so even if we don't aggregate utility, the final population should still be preferable to the original population. (To be clear, as I understand it, they are still discussing only utilitarian systems & their discussion doesn't apply to for example Kantian or virtue ethics.)

So I think the suggestion is that one shouldn't look at repugnancy as a binary category, but instead some sort of continuum, though the precise measuring of it is yet to be worked out.

Hi!  Thanks for your careful read of our paper and thougthful summary.  I think this paragraph is especially good: "I take them to say that Parfit & others were looking not for forms of utilitarianism that avoided any repugnant conclusion, but for ones that avoided some specific repugnant conclusion for some specific hypothetical populations (such as those originally described by Parfit). But there are still, for all forms of utilitarianism – including those that solve Parfit's original problem – other repugnant conclusions for other hypothetical populations. And because the particular hypothetical populations that produce repugnant conclusions are different in different variants of utilitarianism, they cannot easily be compared & repugnant conclusions are therefore not a good measure."

Pablo could you, or perhaps some other kind forum reader, provide a brief explanation of what they actually do? The abstract more-or-less says 'we solve a problem', but it's unclear exactly how they solve the problem - I have no intuitive purchase on what "more inclusive formalizations" means - so don't know whether it's a good use of time to read the paper.

The main result extends the RC formalization to versions that include an unaffected part of the population (such as dead past people) and shows that all Aggregative social welfare functions that satisfy basic axioms that are uncontroversial in the population economics literature imply this.  That includes, for example, average utilitarianism, number-dampened utilitarianism, average and total prioritarianism and egalitarianism, and many approaches commonly understood to escape the RC, including all same-number separable approaches.  Of course, what makes it the length of a paper is talking about why this makes sense in the literature!  We also have an extended result that covers an even larger set of social welfare functions.

The paper is available to download for free on the Springer website, at least for me and I'm not logged in or in a university network.

I haven't read yet. I'm curious because it sounds surprising that negative utilitarianism doesn't avoid a repugnant conclusion in some form.


Edit: I was somehow logged in.  I guess you can PM me for a copy. I'll read it tomorrow.

Hi!  Because this version of the paper is in the economics literature, we don't explicitly interact with negative utilitarianism (we have a companion working paper in progress for the philosophy literature and might draw it out there more).   There seem to be different concepts of negative utilitarianism in the literature.  Versions that only care about negative-utility lives ($\sum{u_i : u_i < 0} u_i $)  would not not satisfy Pareto or Aggregation and therefore would not be covered under the main result, Theorem 1 (although I might personally say that makes them odd to call utilitarianism).  But these would be covered under the broader result, Proposition 1.  

Thank you for your comment!

The version of negative utilitarianism I have in mind is not one that ignores net-positive lives, but one that denies their existence in principle, so the  live in .

It's easier to see in a preference framework: for a fixed set of preferences, maximising preference satisfaction is exactly the same as minimising preference frustration. But as soon as we can change the set of preferences, those two approaches are radically different. Those forms of NU are about minimising the amount of frustrated preferences, which can only be positive in principle. Or, equivalently, about maximising the opposite of that, which is always negative. This satisfies aggregation and Pareto axioms.

Ah, ok.  Well, if then we still have TU on that set, it would satisfy all of the axioms including Aggregation, so Theorem 1 would apply, but I suppose you have some sort of asterisk that the A and Z populations (large perfectly-equal populations in which everyone has a positive (if slightly) life) are part of an impossible subset of the imaginable set of populations.

But of course the A and Z populations are already impossible, because we already have present and past lives that aren't perfectly equal and aren't all worth living.  So-- even setting aside possible boundedness on the number of lives--the RC has always fundamentally been about comparing undeniably impossible  populations.  That, of course, is yet another reason why we might downgrade the importance of the RC in our decisions about what to believe and do.

But of course the A and Z populations are already impossible, because we already have present and past lives that aren't perfectly equal and aren't all worth living.  So-- even setting aside possible boundedness on the number of lives--the RC has always fundamentally been about comparing undeniably impossible  populations

I don't find this a compelling response to Guillaume's objection. There seems to be a philosophically relevant difference between physical impossibility of the populations, and metaphysical impossibility of the axiological objects. We study population ethics because we expect our decisions about the trajectory of the long-term future to approximate the decisions involved in these thought experiments. So the point is that NU would not prescribe actions with the general structure of "choose a future with arbitrarily many torturous lives and a sufficiently large number of slightly more happy than suffering lives [regardless of whether we call these positive utility lives], over a future with arbitrarily many perfectly happy lives," but these other axiologies would. (ETA: As Michael noted, there are other intuitively unpalatable actions that NU would prescribe too. But the whole message of this paper is that we need to distinguish between degrees of repugnance to make progress, and for some, the VRC is more repugnant than the conclusions of NU.)

I haven't read the newly published paper, but assuming the results are the same as in the precursor (about the extended very repugnant conclusion), this thread on NU and my other comment here may be of interest.

Thanks!

I was going to answer the same as here: the form of the "very repugnant" conclusion applying to NU seems much less repugnant.

It seems like I was not able to access it (without paying) if you are referring to https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00355-021-01321-2 

[+][comment deleted]12d 1

I discuss the precursor paper in this comment, and with respect to negative axiologies like negative utilitarianism with antimonyanthony in this thread.