New Articles on Utilitarianism.net: Population Ethics and Theories of Well-Being

by Darius_M3 min read20th Aug 20218 comments

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UtilitarianismPopulation ethicsWellbeingEffective altruism education
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Utilitarianism.net is an introductory online textbook on utilitarianism, co-created by William MacAskill, Richard Yetter-Chappell, James Aung, and me. It was launched in March 2020 and is still under active development.

We recently published two major articles that may be of interest to many EAs:

  1. An Introduction to Population Ethics
  2. An Introduction to Theories of Well-Being

We believe that each article is the best available introductory online resource on the respective topic. The population ethics article is particularly valuable in our view due to (i) the topic's general importance and (ii) the lack of other good introductory online resources on the topic. 

We encourage including both articles (and other utilitarianism.net articles) as teaching resources in relevant contexts, such as university courses and EA fellowships.

The following are reproductions of the introduction sections of the two new articles.

Population Ethics

Utilitarians agree that if the number of people that were ever to exist is held constant, we should promote the sum total of well-being in that fixed population. But in reality, the population is not fixed. We have the option of bringing more people into existence, such as by having children. If these additional people would have good lives, is that a way of making the world better? This question falls in the domain of population ethics, which deals with the moral problems that arise when our actions affect who and how many people are born and at what quality of life.

Population ethics is not just an academic exercise. It is relevant to many important practical questions, such as how many children we ought to have, if any; how much we should invest in climate change mitigation; and how much we should worry about near-term risks of human extinction.

This article will survey five major approaches to population ethics:

  1. The total view that evaluates populations according to the total amount of well-being that they contain.
  2. The average view that instead focuses on the average well-being level in the population.
  3. Variable value theories that take both factors into account, approximating the total view for smaller populations and the average view for larger populations.
  4. Critical level (and critical range) theories that tweak the total view to only count positive well-being above a critical baseline level (or range).
  5. Person-affecting views that deny we have (non-instrumental) reason to add happy lives to the world.

To read the rest of the article, visit: www.utilitarianism.net/population-ethics 

Theories of Well-Being

A core element of utilitarianism is welfarism—the view that only the welfare (also called well-being) of individuals determines how good a particular state of the world is. While consequentialists claim that what is right is to promote the amount of good in the world, welfarists specifically equate the good to be promoted with well-being.

The term well-being is used in philosophy to describe everything that is in itself good for a person—so-called intrinsic or basic welfare goods—as opposed to things that are only instrumentally good. For example, happiness is intrinsically good for you; it directly increases your well-being. In contrast, money can buy many useful things and is thus instrumentally good for you, but does not directly, in itself, contribute to your well-being. (We can similarly speak of things that are intrinsically bad for you, like misery, as "welfare bads".)

However, there is widespread disagreement about what constitutes well-being. What things are in themselves good for a person? The diverging answers to this question give rise to a variety of theories of well-being, each of which regards different things as the components of well-being. The three main theories of well-being are hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories. The differences between these theories are of primarily theoretical interest; they overlap sufficiently in practice that the practical implications of utilitarianism are unlikely to depend upon which of these turns out to be the correct view.

To read the rest of the article, visit: www.utilitarianism.net/theories-of-wellbeing 

Other articles on utilitarianism.net

  1. Introduction to Utilitarianism
  2. Acting on Utilitarianism
  3. Elements and Types of Utilitarianism
  4. Utilitarianism and Practical Ethics
  5. Objections to Utilitarianism and Responses (Rights, Demandingness, Equality)
  6. Utilitarian Thinkers (Mozi, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Richard M. Hare, Peter Singer)
  7. Resources and Further Reading
  8. Utilitarian Books
  9. Utilitarian Glossary

We are immensely grateful to the many people who have reviewed articles or have otherwise contributed to the creation of utilitarianism.net.

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8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:49 AM
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To bang a drum: while I appreciate the effort to communicate utilitarianism to a wider world, the bit on population ethics seemed, for my tastes, too much of an opinionated 'Trojan horse' to lead the reader to the author's (or authors') practical priorities. As I've moaned elsewhere on this Forum, I like Introductions to be introductions, not plugs.

+1, the dismissive tone of the following passage especially left a bad taste in my mouth:

After all, when thinking about what makes some possible universe good, the most obvious answer is that it contains a predominance of awesome, flourishing lives. How could that not be better than a barren rock? Any view that denies this verdict is arguably too nihilistic and divorced from humane values to be worth taking seriously.

It should be pretty clear to someone who has studied alternatives to total symmetric utilitarianism - not all of which are averagist or person-affecting views! - that some of these alternatives are thoroughly motivated by "humane," rather than "nihilistic," intuitions.

I see where you're coming from, but if this is true:

For all these reasons, utilitarians are largely united in rejecting person-affecting views, even as they continue to debate which impersonal theory provides the best way forward.

then part of me thinks that the population ethics section did in fact need to pay adequate attention to the potential drawbacks of person-affecting views and make it clear why utilitarians tend to think impersonal theories are preferable, which was always going to come across somewhat biased.

Ultimately whilst the section is an intro to population ethics, it is part of a site that is supposed to be an intro to utilitarianism, so the section has to be written within that context.

Regarding the well-being section, you say:

The differences between these theories are of primarily theoretical interest; they overlap sufficiently in practice that the practical implications of utilitarianism are unlikely to depend upon which of these turns out to be the correct view.

But you don't substantiate or explain this. As a helpful suggestion, you could add a line later on pointing out that, if the different theories will agree, in practice, on which things make life go well vs badly, they are likely to agree about what sort of practical actions are good vs bad. However, different theories of well-being may well disagree on what the priorities are amongst actions, and one would need to get further into the details to investigate this. 

Nice to see this coming along! How many visitors has utilitarianism.net been getting?

Website traffic was initially low (i.e. 21k pageviews by 9k unique visitors from March to December 2020) but has since been gaining steam (i.e. 40k pageviews by 20k unique visitors in 2021 to date) as the website's search performance has improved. We expect traffic to continue growing significantly as we add more content, gather more backlinks and rise up the search  rank. For comparison, the Wikipedia article on utilitarianism has received ~ 480k pageviews in 2021 to date, which suggests substantial room for growth for utilitarianism.net.

Pageviews would also go up a lot if (as suggested in the post) articles from the website were included in intro fellowships/other educational programs. I'll discuss adding these articles/others on the site to our intro syllabi. 

One potential concern with adding articles from utilitarianism.net is that many (new-to-EA) people (from experience running many fellowships) have  negative views towards utilitarianism (e.g. find it off-putting, think people use it to justify selfish/horrible/misguided actions, think it's too demanding (e.g. implications of the drowning child argument), think it's naive, etc etc. I think utilitarianism is often not brought up very charitably in philosophy/other classes (again, based on my impressions running fellowships). 

So I worry about introducing ideas through the lens of utilitarianism. So one potential solution is to include these readings in fellowship syllabi after talking about utilitarianism more broadly (for what it's worth, in our fellowship we try to present utilitarianism as we/EAs tend interpret it and address misconceptions, but we can also do so much), or to bring them up in in-depth fellowships/non-intro programs where what I've brought up might be less of a concern.