Theoretical Population Ethics Conference

OxforD 21-22 November 2015

Moral philosophers have long sought a population axiology: a ranking of states of affairs in terms of goodness, where the states of affairs in question differ not only in the quality of life that people enjoy but also in the number of people who will ever exist.

One early proposal was Total Utilitarianism: that the goodness of a state of affairs is represented by the total well-being of those who exist in that state of affairs. Historically, this view has been widely rejected because it implies the so-called "Repugnant Conclusion". This has led to a proliferation of alternative axiologies, but no consensus has emerged. Several impossibility results show that this is no accident: it can formally be proved, for various sets of intuitively desirable constraints, that no population axiology can simultaneously satisfy them all. On the face of it, this inspires a certain pessimism: perhaps the search for an adequate population axiology is bound to be fruitless.

This workshop focused in particular on two more optimistic responses to the situation:

  • Rehabilitating Total Utilitarianism: perhaps it is time to face the Repugnant Conclusion head-on, and consider the prospects of debunking, or otherwise responding to, its apparent counterintuitiveness.
  • Applying “person-affecting" considerations: while many find person-affecting intuitions compelling, much remains to be done in making them precise, and connecting them clearly to population axiology.

The workshop was supported by the British Academy, the John Fell Fund, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Mind Association.


Superiority in Value [abstract]
Gustaf Arrhenius (IFFS/Stockholm) and Wlodek Rabinowicz (LSE/Lund)

Perfectionism and the Repugnant Conclusion [abstract]
Simon Beard (Oxford)

Total Utilitarianism and Infinite Populations [abstract]
Amanda MacAskill (NYU)

Person-Affecting and Non-Identity [abstract]
Krister Bykvist (IFFS/Stockholm)

The Neutrality Intuition [abstract]
Melinda A. Roberts (TCNJ)

Person-Affecting Principles and the Relevance of Alternatives [abstract]
Jacob Ross (USC)

Moral Uncertainty About Population Ethics [abstract]
Hilary Greaves (Oxford) and Toby Ord (Oxford)

The Veil of Ignorance Revisited [abstract]
Teruji Thomas (Oxford)

The Limits and Badness of Our Nonexistence [abstract]
Theron Pummer (St Andrews)

Spectrum Constriction [abstract]
 Caspar Hare (MIT)

The Neutrality of Existence [abstract]
Ralf Bader (Oxford)

Why the Numbers Don't Count, but the Reasons Do [abstract]
Molly Gardner (Bowling Green)


Asymmetry in population axiology is equally repugnant [abstract]
Casey Bryce (Edinburgh) and Patrick Kaczmarek (Glasgow)

Pluralist population ethics and the survival of humanity [abstract]
Kalle Grill (Umeå)

The numbers always count [abstract]
John Halstead (Oxford)

Capturing the priority factor [abstract]
Anders Herlitz (Rutgers/Gothenburg)  David Horan (Oxford Brookes)

Shortfall Utilitarianism [abstract]
Robyn Kath (Sydney)

Variations in population size and equality: the paradox of deprivation reduction and inequality [abstract]
Julia Mosquera (Reading)

Non-teleological utilitarianism and population ethics [abstract]
Tatjana Višak (Mannheim/Saarland)


Superiority in value

Gustaf Arrhenius (IFFS/Stockholm)
Wlodek Rabinowicz (LSE/Stockholm)

Suppose A and B are two kinds of goods such that more of each is better than less. A good of kind A is strongly superior to a good of kind B if any amount of A is better than any amount of B. It is weakly superior if some amount of A is better than any amount of B. These notions of superiority have been put to use not least in population ethics, especially in connection with the Repugnant Conclusion. We discuss different ways in which relations of superiority can be relevant to aggregation of welfare, we give a precise statement of Strong and Weak Superiority and prove a number of general results concerning these two relations.

One result is that if the relation of being at-least-as-good-as is complete and satisfies Independence (a condition that excludes organic wholes), then if a good of kind A is strongly or weakly superior to a good of kind B and the latter can be reached from the former by a finite sequence of worsenings, the sequence must involve a sharp break: an element that is strongly superior to its immediate successor.

However, no such sharp breaks need to occur if Independence is given up, as it might well be. Nevertheless, even if a sequence of this kind were to lack sharp breaks and each consecutive worsening were very slight, such sequence would still have to contain an element that is weakly superior to its immediate successor (unless completeness is given up – a possibility that has recently been considered by Derek Parfit). This fact can be used to cast doubt on the existence of value superiorities or, alternatively, to cast doubt on the view that superior values must be radically different from inferior ones.

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Perfectionism and the repugnant conclusion

Simon Beard (Oxford)

Perfectionism provides neither a sufficient means of avoiding nor a full explanation of the repugnance of the Repugnant Conclusion. This is because even lives at very low welfare levels may contain significant quantities of the perfectionist goods, such as the best things in life. Perfectionism can explain or avoid the Repugnant Conclusion only in combination with other views. One such hybrid view combines perfectionism with an asymmetrical view about the value of bad things, such as suffering and frustration. This combination can both explain and avoid the Repugnant Conclusion. Derek Parfit has objected to asymmetrical views about the value of bad things on the grounds that they imply what he labels the 'Ridiculous Conclusion'. However, this objection tells equally against Parfit’s own perfectionism and begs the question against both views.

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Total Utilitarianism and infinite populations

Amanda MacAskill (NYU)

When populations are finite, total utilitarianism can tell us how good a world containing that population is (and - as a result - how good or bad actions that lead to that world are). In this paper I will argue that two plausible principles of aggregating utility cannot be jointly satisfied in worlds containing infinitely many people, and so total utilitarianism fails to tell us how good a world is if the population is infinite. This is problematic for subjective total utilitarianism and other views within population ethics, because agents should a non-zero credence that the world they are in is infinite. Finally, I will explore some possible ways of aggregating utility in infinite population worlds.

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Person-affecting and non-identity

Krister Bykvist (IFFS/Stockholm)

It is commonly thought that the person-affecting constraint rules out the verdict that one outcome is better or worse than another in those non-identity cases where the outcomes are equally good for those who exist in both. Here is an instructive (but rough) argument for this claim:

(a) A and B differ with respect to the identity of people, but are equally good for those who exist in both.

(b) If A is better (worse) than B, then A is better (worse) than B for someone. (Person-affecting constraint)

(c) If A is better (worse) for a person than B, then she would have been better (worse) off in A than in B (Better-for entails better-off).

(d) No one can be better off (worse off) existing than not existing. (Well-being entails being).

So, A is not better (worse) than B.

Recently, there have been attempts to resist this conclusion. Some (Roberts, Voorhoeve, Fleurbaey) reject Well-being entails being and claim that non-existence does not preclude being better off (or worse-off). Others (Arrhenius, Rabinowicz, and Holtug) instead reject Better-for entails better-off and claim that existence can be better for a person than non-existence even though the person would not be better off existing than not-existing. I shall argue that the arguments against Well-being entails being are not persuasive and that an axiological person-affecting constraint worth its salt should not deny Better-for entails better-off.

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The neutrality intuition

Melinda A. Roberts (TCNJ)

Suppose that agents are in a position to bring an additional well off person Jill into existence. But also suppose that their bringing Jill into existence will do some damage to at least some other people—specifically to other people who already do or will exist—to, say, George. In this case, I think that the choice not to bring Jill into existence is permissible and, moreover, that the world in which Jill never exists at all is not morally worse.

What John Broome calls the neutrality intuition supports the aforementioned thoughts. According to that intuition, adding a well off person to an outcome often, within limits, doesn’t make the world generally better.

On the assumption of a deep connection between act evaluation and outcome evaluation, the neutrality intuition can be viewed as simply fine tuning the basic consequentialist idea that agents ought to make things better for people by noting that that maximizing obligation does not extend to making things better for people by way of bringing them into existence.

Of course, the conventional consequentialist path is open to us as well. We thus could insist that the outcome in which Jill never exists is generally worse and that agents accordingly ought not to make choices that will bring that outcome about.

My worry is that in taking the conventional path we miss something interesting and important that the additional person cases in general are trying to tell us. But I also take seriously the concern that in taking anything other than the more conventional path we will make morality—at least a consequentialist approach to morality—impossible.

Broome’s way out of this dilemma is to reject the neutrality intuition. But interestingly Broome himself opens the door wide to a strategy for preserving the neutrality intuition—and more generally our existential and person-affecting values—within a quite conventional consequentialist framework. That framework includes the very principle the neutrality intuition seems most clearly at odds with—what I will call additivity.

In this paper, I take full advantage of that wide open door. My goal is to identify the bare minimum we must give up among the conventional principles should we decide that retaining the neutrality intuition is after all something we need to do. Additivity is on the table to be sure. But it is not clear to me that, in the end, anything that deep will have to go.

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Person-affecting principles and the relevance of alternatives

Jacob Ross (USC)

My talk will be concerned with two questions. First, what is the best way to formulate the person-affecting principle? And, second, how should we take account of this principle in our practical reasoning? In answering the first question, I will argue that existing formulations of the person-affecting principle have unacceptable implications, and I will propose an alternative that avoids them. And in answering the second question, I will argue that person-affecting principles are an instance of a more general class of principles on which pairwise comparisons play an essential role in evaluating alternatives, and I will propose a general decision-making rule for handling such principles.

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Moral uncertainty about population ethics

Hilary Greaves (Oxford)
Toby Ord (Oxford)

Given the deep disagreement surrounding population ethics, one should remain uncertain about which theory is best. However, this uncertainty need not leave one neutral about which acts are better or worse. We show that as the number of lives at stake grows, the Maximise Expected Moral Value (MEMV) approach to moral uncertainty systematically pushes one towards choosing the option preferred by the Totalist and Critical Level theories, even if one’s credence in those theories is low. This phenomenon occurs, inter alia, in cases that involve adding extra persons, reducing extinction risk and colonising space, in each of which the Totalist theory has a distinctive but not implausible position. The phenomenon also generates a version of the Repugnant Conclusion under moral uncertainty, again, even for agents whose credence in Totalism is low. We briefly discuss whether these conclusions should be embraced, or instead treated as a reductio of the MEMV approach to moral uncertainty.

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The veil of ignorance revisited

Teruji Thomas (Oxford)

The rough idea of the "veil of ignorance" is that, in choosing morally between two scenarios, one should choose as if uncertain who one is. I'll present an argument for an axiological veil-of-ignorance principle, and discuss some of the implications for population ethics and, in particular, the relationship between existence comparativism and aggregation. This is based on "Utilitarianism With and Without Expected Utility", joint work with David McCarthy and Kalle Mikkola.

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The limits and badness of our nonexistence

Theron Pummer (St Andrews)

Most believe that it is worse for a person to die than to continue to exist with a good life. At the same time, many believe that it is not worse for a merely possible person never to exist than to exist with a good life. I argue that this commonly-held pair of beliefs is harder to maintain if it is true that the sort of thing we essentially are, or the underlying features that make us the sort of thing we essentially are, can come in small degrees. If this is the case, then to maintain the pair of beliefs mentioned above we will have to embrace an implausible sort of evaluative hypersensitivity to slight metaphysical differences. I believe all the theoretical options here are intuitively unattractive, but perhaps the best is to allow that it can be worse for merely possible persons never to exist than to exist with good lives.

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Spectrum constriction

Caspar Hare (MIT)

Population axiology is rife with paradoxes -- collections of propositions concerning the relative value of populations that are mutually inconsistent but individually truthy. To resolve a paradox in a satisfactory way we must identify the false proposition, explain why it is false, and explain why it is truthy. I suggest that, for these paradoxes, the truthiness of the false proposition is an unfortunate side-effect of our practice of applying vague terms to continuous spectra, and to fragments of continuous spectra.

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The neutrality of existence

Ralf Bader (Oxford)

This paper argues that existence is axiologically neutral from the point of view of personal good. First, it is argued that existence and non-existence are non-comparable in terms of personal good because the personal betterness relation is a dyadic relation connecting lives, which implies that there is a missing relatum as well as a lack of good-makers when dealing with non-existence cases. It will also be shown that restricted versions of comparativism that attempt to show that existence can be better/worse even though non-existence would not have been worse/better mistakenly rely on a triadic construal of the personal betterness relation and, moreover, conflict with the axiological invariance of intrinsic personal good/betterness. Second, it is argued that non-comparative benefits/harms can be countenanced and that existence can be considered to be something that can be good/bad for x without undermining the neutrality of existence.

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Why the numbers don't count, but the reasons do

Molly Gardner (Bowling Green)

Suppose that five people are drowning on your left, and one person is drowning on your right. You have time to save either the five or the one, but you can’t save all six. John Taurek has famously argued that in such a case, the fact that there are more people on the left should not influence your decision about whom to save, since the aggregated loss of the greater number is not a greater loss to anyone. Persuaded by Taurek’s reasoning but not his conclusion, many non-consequentialists have struggled to find a justification for saving the five that does not appeal to aggregation.

In this paper, I argue that we can respect Taurek’s insight without giving up on aggregation. The solution is simply to aggregate reasons for acting rather than gains or losses to individuals. To motivate this solution, I first clarify the “Numbers Problem” and argue that it is a problem for everyone—not just non-consequentialists. I then explain what it means to aggregate reasons for acting rather than gains or losses to individuals. I argue that the aggregating-reasons approach vindicates Taurek’s fundamental insight and gets the intuitively right results in a wide variety of cases. Finally, I consider and respond to some objections.

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Asymmetry in population axiology is equally repugnant

Casey Bryce (Edinburgh)
Patrick Kaczmarek (Glasgow)

According to the Asymmetry view, although we have a moral obligation not to start bad lives, there is no corresponding obligation to start good lives. It is permissible to bring a person into existence so long as her life passes the threshold of being ’good enough.’ And the dominant consideration should be how the creation of new lives affects those already alive. Our poster illustrates a novel flaw which arises for asymmetry if we also accept the following (reasonable) claim: We are morally required to preserve good lives, at least once they’re well under way.

The view implies that all of our resources should be diverted away from most present-day harms, such as illness and global hunger, and instead put towards developing extreme life extension therapies. This is because the value (in expectation) of researching/treating malaria, for example, would mostly be seen in future generations. This isn’t the case with extreme life extension. However unlikely the success of curing ageing within the lifetimes of those now alive, the extreme value (if successful) could be purely captured by all those currently alive. Unsurprisingly, we find this radical shift in global priorities wildly counter-intuitive.

We anticipate the following objection: This is an instance of the pernicious problem of fanatacism (i.e., Pascal mugging), and the asymmetry view is not uniquely vulnerable in this respect. Our reaction is that the asymmetry view stands alone in how the problem arises, as well as in the severity of the problem. By taking future persons seriously, in contrast, we recognize the importance of abating harms other than ageing, significantly dulling the blow from fanatacism. Researching the eradication of malaria, for example, counts as a high impact intervention once we account for the positive value of its success for future people.

Our poster also explores a related problem, in light of our current ability to cryopreserve those persons which present-day medicine cannot save. The ’alive population’ will dwindle, the ’cryopreserved population’ will expand at an initially explosive then rapidly declining (but always positive) rate, and only a precious few ’possible persons’ will be allowed to come into existence. Following this schedule, the future of humanity looks quite bleak: a world being steadily filled with cryo-chambers and only ”essential staff” being brought into existence as history unfolds (that is, until the point where everyone can finally be re- awakened). Notice that the creation of ”essential staff” needs only to meet a minimal threshold for it to be morally permissible to bring them into existence. We find this repugnant for two reasons: (a) our descendants will have their autonomy stripped from them (i.e., giving them no choice but to continue our research and act as our care-takers); (b) their lives will be barely worth living as the moral priority, according to the asymmetry picture, will be to spend our finite resources on life-extension/enhancement, not the happiness of ”essential staff.”

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Pluralist population ethics and the survival of humanity

Kalle Grill (Umeå)

It is widely believed that the continued existence of humanity has special value, over and above the value of individual lives. It would be particularly tragic, many feel, if humanity as such came to an end. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that the survival of humanity is such a neglected topic in population ethics. When survival is emphasized, such as in the existential risk debate, it is typically assumed that its only value lies in the enabling of more individual lives. This neglect persists despite the fact that the basic tools for investigating the value of survival are well known: Early in Weighing Lives, John Broome emphasizes that his basic assumptions allow for the axiological relevance of wellbeing distributions over time and that this in turn leaves it open that the survival of humanity may have positive value (p. 43-44).

Broome himself, in the remainder of Weighing Lives, simply assumes that the distribution of wellbeing over time has no significance on the population level (while he argues that it has significance for individual lives). This stands in sharp contrast to his own take on the same issue in his later Climate Matters, where he claims that the extinction of humanity would mean the loss of "important things that belong to humanity as a whole", such as "the rich cultures of humanity, and other achievements of our civilization." Broome is quite clear that these losses are distinct from the possible loss in terms of individual lives that might otherwise have been lived. (p. 180)

It seems that consideration of important real life issues invites a richer axiology than theory has so far provided. Thomas Hurka's variable value view is an attempt to incorporate the disvalue of extinction into a formal population axiology. Hurka's view has the advantage that it ties the value of a population to its distribution over time: The value of a life with a set level of wellbeing varies with the size of the population at the time. However, Hurka's view implies that the total value of a population, over all time, is an aggregate of the value of population time slices. Such time slices are difficult to individuate and evaluate.

The more popular view is that the total value of a population is an aggregate of the value of the lives in the population. If such a view is coupled with a variable value view, however, it is not clear how the value of a particular life is to vary with population size, since population size varies over a person's life, and since it is not clear that the value of a person's life can be tied to times at all.

The solution, I propose, is to keep the plausible focus on lives rather than times as far as the value of wellbeing is concerned, but to recognize that the value of survival or longevity for populations is a value independent of the value of wellbeing. Hence, we must accept a pluralist population ethics.

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The numbers always count

John Halstead (Oxford)

In this poster, I will argue that certain versions of the Repugnant Conclusion (RC) are not repugnant and that there is no plausible way to account for this fact other than to accept all RCs. My argument works on the assumption that the RC is ultimately a product of aggregativity, not impersonality. This point is often neglected in the literature. Many philosophers conflate Total Utilitarianism’s (TU) aggregativity with its impersonality. However, there can be personalist aggregative theories (which imply present generation RCs) and impersonalist non-aggregative theories (which do not imply any RCs).

In order to bracket a person-affecting response, I will develop a present generation RC which involves a decision about whether to provide a benefit to analogues of A and Z. To make the case for the non-repugnance of the RC, I will assume that the benefit we can provide to each population is an easily epistemically comparable unit: a single happy day of life. All plausible moral theories accept that there is some number of people x for which we ought to give them an additional happy day of life rather than give a single agent, Dave, a happy day of life. And yet, many people deny the RC, which is that we ought to give Nx people a day of life rather than give N days of life to Dave, where N can be arbitrarily large. Thus, the intuitions underlying RC denial are partially aggregative and partially non-aggregative. This is deeply problematic. Firstly, the view implies intransitive orderings. Secondly, as a result of this intransitivity, the view violates the independence of irrelevant alternatives, which leads to deeply implausible implications. Thirdly, the best justification for benefiting the first x people rather than giving Dave one day of life is full-blooded aggregation: doing so maximises intrinsic value. But full-blooded aggregation entails the RC. Indeed, this RC does not seem counterintuitive. The reason for this is that we can sympathetically inhabit the happy days of life of 10,000 people just as well we can sympathetically inhabit 10,000 happy days of Dave’s life. If welfare is what fundamentally matters, then it does not matter who has it.

Other rivals to TU offer no respite for the RC denier. Perfectionism is not a solution to this RC. Since the benefit given to each group is qualitatively identical, the best things in life are not lost if we benefit Nx people. Perfectionists must either accept this RC and explain why they deny other versions of it, or let go of perfectionism. Critical Level Utilitarianism (CLU) fares no better. CLU makes the value of a benefit depend on a person’s welfare over a certain time period (their whole lifetime or some shorter period). Thus, faced with a choice between giving fabulously well-off Dave an additional happy day of life and giving any number of very badly-off people each an additional happy day of life, we ought to benefit Dave. This is bizarre: it is anti-welfarist, anti-prioritarian and anti-egalitarian.

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Capturing the priority factor

Anders Herlitz (Rutgers/Gothenburg)
David Horan (Oxford Brookes)

In this paper we introduce an indicator that measures the extent to which individual welfare shortfalls with individuated weights are remedied in order to further the understanding of priority weights. An individual shortfall is defined as the distance between the welfare level of an individual and a desired, higher welfare level (uniform or individuated) and the indicator provide a score between 0 and 1 that represent how well total shortfalls have been remedied. The indicator thus enables comparisons of alternative outcomes in terms of how well they remedy welfare shortfalls. The indicator provides us with a new way to think about problems in population ethics and in particular egalitarian, prioritarian and sufficientarian concerns often defended in population ethics. We illustrate the merits of the indicator with two examples: 1) it enables more complex approaches to prioritizations; 2) it reveals that common ideas of priority weights are indeterminate.

Issues in population ethics are typically addressed in terms of maximization; e.g. total utility, equality, maxmimax, maximin. Yet, much of the problems in population ethics relate to the existence of individual shortfalls; e.g. shouldn’t we prioritize, give extra weight to, welfare gains of those who are worse off in absolute or relative terms, or for those who fail to reach a certain threshold? The indicator presented in this paper provides us with a numerical representation of how well priority concerns that are based on shortfalls are met and allows us to separate priority concerns from the maximizations that they are supposed to qualify. This facilitates studies on the relation between priority concerns and other ethical concerns, such as total utility maximization. It also reveals some internal problems with views that promote shortfall remedies.

The indicator is general and can be adjusted in order to capture various different views. It allows for individuated shortfall weights, as well as for individuated desired levels. This enables, for example, the introduction of shortfall weights that correspond to the likelihood that the shortfall or indeed the individual will exist, or that weights decrease with time. Likewise, it enables us to think of shortfall sizes as dependent on factors beyond different welfare levels. Perhaps a lower desired level should be used for a population whose actions seriously limit the potential for some future population.

Finally, we illustrate that when one acknowledges that every individual can be identified in terms of three welfare levels, a current level (CL), an attainable level (AL), and an ideal level (IL), it is revealed that there are four distinct, plausible ways to think about being bad off, and consequently four distinct ways to think about prioritizing the worse off. An individual can be bad off in terms of the distance between CL and AL, in terms of the distance between CL and IL, in terms of the distance between AL and IL, and in terms of the distance between CL and AL + IL. These four different grounds for establishing priority weights are mutually conflicting, and proponents of priority weights must address this problem.

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Shortfall Utilitarianism

Robyn Kath (Sydney)

I will present Shortfall Utilitarianism (SU), and illustrate some of its advantages over other versions of utilitarianism. One of the reasons I think SU is indeed a version of utilitarianism is that it is an extension of Classical Fixed Population Utilitarianism (CFPU) — the theory that in any fixed population decision one ought to bring about the outcome with the highest total wellbeing. SU reaches intuitively appealing conclusions in a variety of decisions in which other extensions of CFPU fail to do so.

According to Total Utilitarianism it is sometimes the case that one ought to create a large population of barely happy people rather than a smaller population of very happy people. SU does not reach conclusions of this ‘repugnant’ kind. According to Harm Utilitarianism (a ‘person-affecting’ theory) it is permissible to create a moderately happy person rather than a different, very happy person. SU does not make such unintuitive judgements in non-identity cases. Finally, SU vindicates the conjunction of these two intuitively appealing claims: that it is impermissible to create a wretched person rather than not; and that it is permissible not to create a happy person rather than create her. Other versions of utilitarianism that conflict with one or both of these claims include: Total Utilitarianism, Average Utilitarianism, Critical Level Utilitarianism, and Variable Value Utilitarianism.

So, SU avoids repugnant conclusions, overcomes the non-identity problem, and vindicates the Asymmetry. It has all of these desirable features because it takes into account multiple kinds of worseness (whereas each of the other theories mentioned takes into account only one); and, of course, because of the details of those kinds of worseness. Personal identity matters, according to SU, but SU is not a person-affecting theory in the common sense. Here is a rough characterisation of the three ways in which one outcome can be worse than another:

  • A is intersectionally worse than B iff the A-and-B people fare worse on A than they do on B.
  • A is complementarily worse than B iff the A-not-B people fare worse on A than the B-not-A people do on B.
  • A is wretchedly worse than B iff there are more A-not-B people than B-not-A people, and the A-not-B people fare particularly badly on A

According to SU these three kinds of worseness should be minimised, as follows. Each available outcome in a decision has a shortfall in that decision, which is the total amount by which that outcome is worse, in any of the morally relevant ways, than any single other available outcome. In any decision one ought to bring about the available outcome with the lowest shortfall. If one brings about the available outcome with the lowest shortfall, then of the people who exist and their wellbeings can it least be said, that they are worse than something that could have been brought about instead. This, according to SU, makes it the right outcome to choose.

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Variations in population size and equality: the paradox of deprivation reduction and inequality

Julia Mosquera (Reading)

It is an intuitive and common sense belief that reducing deprivations such as poverty leads to more equality. This is indisputably true for the elimination of deprivations. Equality favors the total elimination of poverty. In fact, all else equal, eliminating poverty is the ideal with respect to equality. Since eliminating poverty is favored by equality, it is natural to think that where we cannot eliminate it, reducing it would be a good second best, from the point of view of equality.

The graphic below represents a reduction in the incidence of poverty. B results from the drastic reduction of the incidence of poverty in A. Although both A and B have the same total number of individuals, poverty is unequally distributed in them. A has a great number of non-impoverished individuals who are presumably better-off, all things considered, than a doubly-small number of impoverished individuals. In B, on the other hand, the incidence of poverty is reduced to the point that it is almost inexistent or approaching zero—only a very small number of individuals are affected by poverty in B.

While A’s and B’s groups of individuals are at the same level, the size of B’s better-off group is now much bigger than the group of the worse-off. The pattern of inequality between A and B has therefore been changed. (Larry Temkin, Inequality, 1993, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 192.)

Which world is preferable? For utilitarians, all that matters is the total amount of well-being, here represented graphically as the combined volumes of the two boxes in A versus the combined volumes of the two boxes in B. Since utilitarian accounts of the good do not ascribe moral relevance to the way the good is distributed among individuals, utility cannot make a case against B. And B is better than A according to Prioritarianism since nobody in B is worse off than the worse off person in A, and there are more individuals in B who are better-off.

But does B represent an improvement regarding equality? Both A and B are non-ideal situations with respect to equality. But the remaining impoverished individuals in B are now comparatively worse-off than the vast majority of the population. Thus, the worse-off people in B are now considerably worse than almost every other member of this world. So, although very few people have now a complaint regarding inequality, the inequality in B seems especially offensive.

This paper argues that although eliminating the incidence of deprivations such as poverty is the ideal with respect to equality, the mere reduction in their incidence can actually exacerbate inequality, and therefore there is an egalitarian reason against the mere reduction in the incidence of deprivations. This conclusion is possible due to an account of inequality that is sensitive to the way the relations of inequality of a population are distributed among individuals, as opposed to an account that measures inequality by solely aggregating relations of inequality.

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Non-teleological utilitarianism and population ethics

Tatjana Višak (Mannheim/Saarland)
Recently, Johann Frick (unpublished manuscript) developed a novel and very original theory of population ethics. Frick describes the state of the debate in population ethics as follows:

Presentism, actualism and necessitarianism are all attempts to leave the totalist paradigm, and to find a more plausible basis for population ethics. The reason they fail, I believe, is that they all focus on the wrong aspect of totalism, while letting its crucial assumption unchallenged. […] the crucial assumption behind totalism is about the kind of welfare-related reasons that we have. According to the totalist, potential well-being matters in exactly one way: it provides us with an unconditional (or categorical) reason to bring it about (be it by benefitting an existing person, or by creating a new person with a life worth living). […] Presentism, actualism, necessitarianism, and other views of this kind leave this crucial assumption largely unchallenged. […] They only depart from totalism by circumscribing the class of persons whose well-being matters.

In contrast to these theories in populations ethics, none of which proved to be satisfactory, Frick’s focus is not on “whose well-being matters, but on how well-being matters, i.e. on the kinds of welfare-related reasons that we have”. Frick distinguishes two kinds of welfare related reasons, state-regarding reasons and bearer-dependent reasons and argues that whatever moral reasons we have to confer well-being on people are bearer-dependent. Thus, Frick proposes an “alternative way of conceiving the reason-giving force of well-being.” Frick’s resulting theory entails the deontic Asymmetry, i.e. the plausible idea that the positive welfare that additional individuals would have is not a reason for bringing them into existence, while the potential negative welfare that additional individual would have is a reason against bringing them into existence. Furthermore, Frick’s theory solves the Non-Identity Problem and yields the plausible verdict in the non-identity cases. Thus, for instance, in Parfit’s famous case of the 14-year-old girl, Frick’s theory requires the girl to wait and have a very well off child later, rather than a (numerically different) moderately well off child now.

I find Frick’s theory more promising than all other theories of population ethics that I am aware of, including my own previous efforts (Visak 2011, Visak 2016), but, unfortunately, Frick presents his theory in opposition to utilitarianism. This, as I will argue in this paper, is unnecessary. Upon closer inspection, Frick’s theory of population ethics is compatible with a version of utilitarianism that is independently plausible. It is compatible, that is, with non-teleological utilitarianism.

This paper aims at doing a service both to Frick by increasing the scope of potential enthusiasts for his theory and to those with utilitarian inclinations by showing them how to embrace Frick’s promising theory of population ethics. Section 2 introduces non-teleological utilitarianism and points out its plausibility. Section 3 presents what I take to be the core of Frick’s theory of population ethics. Section 4 engages with Frick’s explicit and implicit opposition to utilitarianism and argues that, in spite of Frick’s claims to the contrary, his theory is compatible with utilitarianism. Indeed, Frick’s innovative ideas can be a crucial part of a plausible utilitarian theory of population ethics. Section 5 proposes a way of dealing with different number cases, a challenge that Frick’s theory doesn’t address so far. Section 6 wraps up.

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