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The Impossibility of a Satisfactory Population Prospect Axiology

Yes!  Nice paper!  Lexical views don't get as much attention in economics as in philosophy, but it's well worth tracking down and sealing off that apparent leak. And, as you point out, being sensible about risk puts a lot of discipline on our proposals for population ethics.

... so let's stop writing in a way that assumes that avoiding the RC is necessary to be "satisfactory." :)  Then a satisfactory population ethics is possible!

Avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not necessary for population ethics: new many-author collaboration.

Hi!  I thought I might jump in to make sure we're not conflating the Medium essay, which wasn't written by the whole group, the Social Choice and Welfare paper, which Mark Budolfson and I wrote, and the Utilitas paper, which reflects the whole group.   It is not the case that the Utilitas paper, as you write, "basically just calls for a greater/lesser amount of attention to be paid to some issue" (although that would not necessarily seem bad -- often there are collaborative statements about methodology in the research literature; see, for a valuable example Lancet Commissions).  Here is the main claim of the Utilitas paper, which takes a substantive position in population ethics:

1. What we agree on

We agree on the following:

1. The fact that an approach to population ethics (an axiology or a social ordering) entails the Repugnant Conclusion is not sufficient to conclude that the approach is inadequate. Equivalently, avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not a necessary condition for a minimally adequate candidate axiology, social ordering, or approach to population ethics.

To respond to the other thoughts:

  • Population ethics has, from the beginning, been an interdisciplinary field including economists (who are more likely to collaborate and sometimes address policy audiences),  philosophers (who are more likely to address scholarly audiences and tend to write single-authored papers), and others.  So there is already a long and valuable interdisciplinary tradition of collaborations in population ethics, especially where population interacts with public policy.  An important IPCC consensus document talks about it, for example.  The Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm achieves distinction in the field by promoting high-quality interdisciplinary collaborations in large part about population ethics, with an explicit goal of being policy-relevant (and with, I understand, public funding).  This sort of interdisciplinary, multi-author collaboration is especially common in climate research, but one sees it in many fields. Here is a similar example from my home field of sanitation in developing countries, where we were concerned that the scholarly and policy implications of a few prominent randomized experiments were being misunderstood.
  • Of course, there are incentives throughout scholarly publishing and careers.  Academic publishing is never a level playing field.  Some people have incentives to overstate their disagreement or invent a new idea so that they can start a career.  Some people have an incentive to defend old views so that they can maintain a career.  Attention, time, and resources are all scarce, so there is no easy solution to the challenge of experts needing to choose what they are going to pay more attention to.  
Spears & Budolfson, 'Repugnant conclusions'

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.

Spears & Budolfson, 'Repugnant conclusions'

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."

Spears & Budolfson, 'Repugnant conclusions'

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.

Spears & Budolfson, 'Repugnant conclusions'

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.  

Spears & Budolfson, 'Repugnant conclusions'

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:

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!