The demandingness of total welfarism

According to the moral theory of total welfarism (or utilitarianism), we should choose the option that maximizes the total welfare (or utility), where total welfare is the sum of expected welfare. The sum runs over all past, present and future individuals that existed, exist or will exist in the world history of chosen option. The welfare is a measure of how good a situation is for an individual. 

Probably the biggest objection to total welfarism, is its demandingness. The theory entails huge sacrifices: we have to give away our money and resources to the poorest people until we become as miserable as the poorest person and live lives at the subsistence level, we have to donate our kidneys and other organs for transplantation until an organ shortage in the hospitals is eliminated, we have to donate blood until we become anemic, we have to have more children than we would like until an extra child gets a zero or negative welfare, we have to prioritize helping the poorest children instead of our own children, we have to sacrifice everything in order to cause the existence of huge numbers of extra people in the far future even when those extra people will have lives barely worth living, we have to help all present and future animals and other sentient beings as much as we would help our closest friends and family members, we have to perform medical experiments on our bodies to find cures for other people, we have to save and invest almost all of our income for the benefit of future generations, we have to spend most of our time figuring out how to improve total welfare, and so forth. It is clear that no-one lives according to the demands of total welfarism. This moral theory is too counter-intuitive. Basically, all other proposed moral theories are attempts to avoid the demandingness of total welfarism.


A modified theory: rights-based discounted welfarism

Here I propose a modification of total welfarism that completely avoids the demandingness problem in a manner that causes the least amount of complaints. It starts with the introduction of a basic right: everyone has the right to discount the welfare of other people. Discounting someone’s welfare means that that person’s welfare is not fully counted in the sum of welfare. The discounted welfare is (in absolute terms) lower (closer to zero) than the real welfare of the person. Of course, in many cases, a person whose welfare is discounted by you, can reasonably object to that discounting. If your welfare is discounted, you are likely getting a lower welfare compared to the total welfarist situation that maximizes the sum of undiscounted welfare. As you do not want your welfare being discounted, we should not simply give everyone the right to discount the welfare of others. A restriction of this basic right is needed.

A restricted basic right is: everyone has the right to discount the welfare of people (including oneself) as long as those discounted people cannot reasonably object or complain against their welfare being discounted. But what counts as a reasonable objection or valid complaint? There are two ways in which a complaint becomes invalid, because the right to discount welfare always involves two individuals: the person who discounts someone’s welfare and the person whose welfare is being discounted. To check the validity of a complaint, we have to ask the question: what if either of these two individuals did not exist? Would the person whose welfare is discounted be better-off? 

Suppose there are two people, An (the agent) and Ben (the beneficiary), and two possible options called Sacrifice and Non-Sacrifice. In Sacrifice, An sacrifices part of her welfare for the benefit of Ben. If Sacrifice generates the highest total welfare, this option is chosen by total welfarism. To avoid this selection of Sacrifice, An discounts the welfare of Ben in option Sacrifice. The welfare of An plus the discounted welfare of Ben is lower in Sacrifice than in Non-Sacrifice. 


Deontological ethics

As a first case, consider a situation where An does not exist. If in this situation it is not possible to make Ben better-off than in option Non-Sacrifice, it means that the existence of An is necessary to improve the welfare of Ben. The welfare that Ben gains when switching from Non-Sacrifice to Sacrifice can only be achieved if An exists. For example, in the case of organ transplantation, where Ben needs an organ of An in order to survive, Ben would die if An did not exist. The presence of An is necessary for the welfare gain (the survival) of Ben. It is this welfare gain that can be validly discounted by An. If An would discount this welfare gain of Ben, Ben cannot reasonably complain against that discounting, because Ben could not have gained that welfare in the absence of An. 

When Ben could not be made better-off in the absence of An, the right of An to discount the welfare gain of Ben is valid, because Ben cannot validly complain against his welfare gain being discounted. This case captures almost all of deontological ethics. There are many deontological principles that do not follow from and conflict with total welfarism. Consider the ‘mere means’ principle which says that we should not use someone as merely a means to someone else’s ends. Someone is used as merely a means when that person has to make an unwanted sacrifice (get a lower welfare against one’s will) and the existence and presence of that person is necessary to achieve the ends. In our example, Ben would use An as merely a means in situation Sacrifice, when An has to be present and has to make the sacrifice against her will. Related to the mere means principle is the right to bodily autonomy: An has the right that her body is not used against her will as a means for the benefit of Ben. For example, Ben may not sacrifice An to use her organs or to use her in medical experiments against her will. That also means that An does not have a duty to help Ben by donating her organs. The mere means principle also entails the deontological principle that negative duties not to harm others get priority over positive duties to help others. ‘Do no harm’ is more important than ‘offer help’, because your existence is not necessary for you not to cause harm whereas you can only offer help if you exist. Resulting from this, doing harm is worse than allowing harm or not offering help. And when we offer help, we are allowed to be partial and prioritize those who are most dear to us, because if we have to help strangers when we prefer to help our friends or family instead, those strangers use us as merely a means.


Population ethics

As a second case, consider a situation where Ben does not exist. Of course, if he does not exist, his welfare cannot be discounted because it is already zero. And Ben cannot complain against his welfare being discounted when he does not exist. This does not yet mean that our second case is trivial. The case becomes interesting when Ben does not exist in either Sacrifice or Non-Sacrifice. If Ben exists in only one of those two possible options, then the choice of An to sacrifice herself determines the existence of Ben. An can choose to bring Ben into existence, which means that before An decides to bring Ben into existence, Ben is a possible person. A possible person is a person who does not exist in all possible futures that one can choose. 

Here we enter population ethics: how should we treat the welfare of possible or future people? Which situation is the best when different situations contain different existing people? Which option should we choose when our choice determines the existence of some people? 

Suppose An causes the existence of Ben, in the sense that she chooses the situation where Ben exists. And suppose in that situation, Ben gets a negative welfare in the sense that Ben values his life as being not worth living. Ben, when he is alive, would rather prefer not having been born. An prefers that situation, however, and to select that situation, she can discount the negative welfare of Ben. Ben does not want that and has a valid reason to complain. Hence, the negative welfare of possible or future people cannot be discounted. 

Now suppose Ben does not exist in the option Non-Sacrifice, but he exists and lives a life with a positive welfare in Sacrifice. An does not want to sacrifice herself to bring Ben into existence. So An can decide to discount the welfare of Ben in Sacrifice. That means option Non-Sacrifice is selected. Can Ben complain against his welfare being discounted? No, because in Sacrifice, Ben achieves the highest welfare, which is positive. There is no other available option where Ben would be better-off. His life is worth living, so he has no reason to complain against the selection of Sacrifice. And in the option Non-Sacrifice, Ben cannot complain because he does not exist. Hence, the positive welfare of possible or future people can be fully discounted.

In population ethics, this conclusion is known as the asymmetric person-affecting view. The person-affecting view says that a situation can only be better (or worse) than another situation, if it is better (or worse) for at least some person who exists in both situations. This basically means that the welfare of a possible person, who does not exist in both situations, does not count. The asymmetry adds a restriction to this person-affecting view. It says that it is always bad to bring into existence a person with a negative welfare (all else equal), but it is not always good to bring into existence a person with a positive welfare (all else equal). We have a reason not to bring into existence people with a negative welfare but do not have a reason to bring into existence people with a positive welfare. We have a duty not to bring into existence unhappy people, but no duty to bring into existence happy people. This basically means that the welfare of a possible person does not count when that welfare is positive, and does count when the welfare is negative. 

With the asymmetric person-affecting view, some demandingness issues of total welfarism are avoided. For example, we do not have to give birth to more children than we would like and we do not have to sacrifice everything in order to cause the existence of huge numbers of extra people in the far future even when those extra people have lives barely worth living, with a positive but very small welfare.

This theory of discounted welfarism, with its asymmetric person-affecting view, has important implications for our consideration of future generations. Consider an existential catastrophe that kills everyone. Such a disaster is bad for the persons who experience the catastrophe, but according to the person-affecting view, it is not bad for the quadrillions of non-existing future people who could have had extremely satisfying lives if the catastrophe did not occur. In the theory of discounted welfarism, such an existential catastrophe is bad, but it is less bad than in the theory of total welfarism, because the latter theory includes the huge welfare loss of the non-existing future happy people.

There is a subtlety with this idea to discount the welfare of possible people. Once an option is chosen in which a possible person comes into existence, that person is no longer a possible person but becomes a real existing person. From that moment on, that person’s welfare can no longer be discounted. Once An causes the existence of Ben, An can no longer discount Ben’s welfare. It is possible that once Ben exists, An faces another choice that influences Ben’s welfare. Perhaps there is a new option available, in which Ben gains welfare at the cost of the welfare of An. This new option might have the highest total welfare (the sum of the welfare of An and Ben), so An should choose this new option. But what if the welfare of An in this new option is lower than her welfare in the situation where Ben did not exist? If An knows in advance that bringing Ben into existence results in the selection of a new optimal option in which An has a lower welfare, it would be rational for An not to bring Ben into existence in the first place. To do so, An will discount the welfare gain of Ben in that new option as well, and she will discount her own welfare gains resulting from bringing Ben into existence. Doing so, An can avoid the option to create Ben that would eventually result in the irrational selection of a suboptimal outcome for herself.

As a concrete example of the latter issue, consider happy animal farming. Is it permissible to bring into existence farm animals that are overall happy, but are prematurely killed for their meat? The human consumer who enjoys eating meat gains welfare, and the farm animal has a positive (but perhaps small) welfare. But once the farm animal is brought into existence, it is also possible not to kill that animal, but to take care of that animal for example at an animal sanctuary. Now the human can no longer enjoy eating the meat of that animal, but instead has to give up time and resources to help the animal at the cost of her own welfare. In the animal sanctuary option, the human may have a lower welfare than in the situation where the animal was never brought into existence. To avoid the conclusion that the human should breed many animals and sacrifice time and resources to take care of those animals on an animal sanctuary, the human can discount the welfare gains from the animal and also her own welfare gain from eating meat. As a result, the human can select the option where the farm animals don’t exist. Neither the human nor the non-existing farm animals can complain against this choice. Hence, with this discounted welfarism theory, animal farming is not permissible. And unhappy animal farming is definitely not permissible, because the farm animal has a negative welfare and is used as merely a means to someone else’s ends. 


A bounded basic right to discount welfare

Without the basic right to discount welfare, we have total welfarism that is too extreme in the sense of being too demanding. However, if the basic right to discount the welfare of people is absolute or infinite in strength, we have no duties at all to help others and we can completely neglect the positive welfare of possible or future people. This may be too extreme in the other direction. The pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction of non-demandingness. 

In an intermediate position, everyone has a bounded right to discount the welfare gains of others if the discounting cannot be reasonably objected. The right is finite in strength. There is an upper-bound on the amount of permissible discounting. That means we do have positive duties to help others if it is at a sufficiently large benefit for the beneficiaries and a sufficiently small cost of our own welfare. We do have to be altruistic (and impartial) to some degree. And we do have non-zero duties to guarantee the existence of (larger populations of) happy future generations.

With this cap on the basic right to discount the positive welfare of possible people, the asymmetric person-affecting population ethical theory turns into a neutral-range welfarist theory. According to neutral-range welfarism, we have to choose the option that maximizes the sum of everyone’s welfare, excluding the welfare of possible people that lies in a neutral range between zero and some positive threshold level (and subtracting this threshold level from the welfare of possible people who have a welfare above this threshold, and avoiding options to create people that eventually result in the irrational selection of suboptimal outcomes for the decision maker). 

The theory of discounted welfarism has a free parameter, the maximum amount of discounting, that measures the maximum strength of the basic right to discount welfare. When the parameter is zero, we end up with total welfarism (no discounting is permissible), and when it is infinite, we end up with unbounded discounted welfarism with its asymmetric person-affecting population ethics. For a non-zero but finite parameter, we get neutral-range welfarism in population ethics. 

So how strong is this basic right? We can make it simple, by maximizing the autonomy of moral agents. For individual choices, moral agents or decision-makers are free to choose for themselves how high they set the bar (e.g. how high they set the threshold level in neutral-range welfarism). They can even choose different upper-bounds in different contexts or situations. And when it comes to collective choices, a democratic consensus procedure could be applied to determine the strength of the basic right.



According to discounted welfarism, we should choose the option that maximizes the sum of everyone’s discounted welfare. Everyone has a bounded or limited right to discount the welfare or the welfare gains of people if the welfare discounted people cannot reasonably object or validly complain against their welfare being discounted. A complaint of a welfare discounted person is valid only if that person exists and the welfare gain of that person could be achieved if the people who discount that person’s welfare did not exist. For individual choices, people can freely choose for themselves an upper-bound on the amount of discounting. For collective choices, this upper-bound can be decided democratically. 


Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:42 AM

Hey Stijn, loved your post! Would you be interested in writing a second version of this without the use of philosophical terms (jargon) so that a common layperson would be able to easily read and understand these ideas? (I'd like to be able to share these ideas, but I wouldn't be able to with the current terminology. I understand it is written for an audience who has a background in moral philosophy and ethics, but I want to share these ideas with people who don't have that prior knowledge.)


Hi David,

sure, I've published an easier version, with more concrete examples and without jargon at my website:

I called the theory mild welfarism, hopefully that is not too much jargon? ;-)