The Repugnant Conclusion

© 2016 by Richard J. Eisner


The Repugnant Conclusion is an argument in population ethics that purports to prove that total well-being (or happiness) trumps per capita (or average) well-being. One version goes this way. Take 3 scenarios: A, B, and C. Scenario A contains a population with very high per capita well-being. In scenario B we have the same group of people as in A, but we add a separate group with slightly lower, but still high, per capita well-being. B is better than A because we have merely added to the situation a good element: (additional) persons with good lives. Scenario C is a single group of people, exactly as many as the total in B; everyone in C has the same level of well-being as everyone else there, a higher level than the average in B, but lower than in A. C is better than B, as the per capita well-being is greater, and there is greater equality. Since B is better than A, and C is better than B; therefore, C (too) is better than A—the total well-being in C is greater than in A, but the per capita well-being is less. The process could be repeated until we get to a still bigger population Z, with lives barely worth living—but which, also, by the same logic (transitivity), is better than A. (And we’re morally obligated to bring about the better scenario.)

            In response, philosophers tried to come up with a moral theory, in the form of a nice, neat, elegant verbal-cum-mathematical formula, that both avoids the Repugnant Conclusion and works—gives the right answer—in every situation. The first formula they considered was the per capita well-being standard itself. But it’s found wanting. It avoids the Repugnant Conclusion: it blocks the move from scenario A to scenario B, above, on the ground that the per capita well-being in B is less than in A. But it doesn’t work in some situations. One, it would favor a society composed of a single very happy person over a society with many (albeit somewhat less ecstatic) people. Another problematic situation for the per capita well-being standard is this. Take a scenario containing one person suffering great agony. If you add more persons who are also unhappy, but not as miserable as the original man, the per capita well-being is raised (the average happiness is increased because the average unhappiness is decreased). So the per capita well-being standard favors it. Whereas, you have actually made the situation worse—the original man’s pain has not been relieved at all, and you have simply added a bad element (additional unhappy people).

            The real culprit, however, in the Repugnant Conclusion is our belief in intrinsic value. It is what makes us feel compelled to accept scenario B in the above thought experiment. If the added (good) lives are intrinsically good, we are adding intrinsic good to the situation, making it intrinsically better, which presumably we would be morally obligated to do. Indeed, if well-being (or happiness) is intrinsically valuable, then there is a simple mathematical formula for action—maximize it. And maximize total well-being, not per capita well-being. You may like 18 carat gold things better than 14 carat gold ones. But since gold is intrinsically valuable (economically), you’d be wise to pick the scenario with more (total) gold, regardless of its fineness.

            My establishing intrinsic value’s impossibility (I’ll show my argument for that someday, but not now) solves the Repugnant Conclusion. In the above thought experiment, I would not accept scenario B, because I find no compelling reason (the affecting of intrinsic value) to do so, and I sense that it might lead to lowering our per capita well-being.

            My renunciation of intrinsic value has, more broadly, caused me to reject moral formulas. I would feel strictly compelled to act, only if I thought I was making the situation intrinsically better or worse. So I feel no strict moral obligations. For me, moral obligation is replaced by mere motivation, or, at most, by loose or quasi moral obligation. I act, not because I feel I must, but rather merely because I want to; not according to any certain rules or principles or formulas, but ad hoc, as the situation at hand may seem to warrant. We can “cheat.” We can look past the putative applicable rules to the end results, and choose the results that seem to make sense. We can use the per capita well-being standard generally, but selectively, not slavishly. I can choose the society with many people rather than that with one person, even if the per capita well-being is less, because I want a society that reproduces, and produces a posterity, people who will remember us. I can choose (or at least express my preference) not to add unhappy persons, because to add them simply to reduce the average misery seems absurd. Even if the laws of feng shui dictate that my table and my vase be separated from each other and away from the window; if, for whatever reasons, I like the vase on the table, and by the window, that’s where I’ll put them.


© 2016 by Richard J. Eisner