The More Repugnant Conclusion

Last night at meetup we got into a moral philosophy debate over whether human utility in the universe should be judged based on it’s absolute quantity (calculation 1) or it’s average utility per existing human (calculation 2).

Calculation 1: Value to maximize = Sum(all human utility in universe)

Calculation 2: Value to maximize = Sum(all human utility in universe)/ number of humans

*Just to clarify for point of argument– killing a human would be considered bringing their utility to 0, but that human would still count in the denominator of calculation 2.   No one was endorsing killing all but the one happiest human. Humans who ‘could have’ existed, but were never born do not count in this calculation.

In calculation 1, the utilities of all humans would be judged as a sum, and therefore the existence of a large number people with low utility lives could be considered better than the existence of a small number of people with high utility lives. In calculation 2, total utility would be judged as an average, and therefore the preferable universe would be the one in which there were a small number of people living high utility lives. An argument in favor of using calculation 1 would be that most people would rather exist than not exist, and your odds of existing at all go down if there are less people and up if there are more. Therefore, if we consider the perspective of a disembodied thetan soul rolling a saving throw for demonic possession, you get to roll more dice in calculation 1 (possibly orders of magnitude more), even if the pay-off is likely to be less.

However there are those who prefer calculation 2 on the grounds that once you assume existence, one would rather it be the best existence possible. If your disembodied soul got to live at all, it would want to roll a 20. Also, there are moral philosophers who argue that if we use calculation 1 we end up acquiescing to something called ‘the repugnant conclusion.’ The repugnant conclusion states that since most lives are positive utility, we should try to increase population to the carrying capacity of the earth, universe, light-cone, or whatever the confines of our progeny may be in order to maximize expected utility. Sounds like a plan! Let’s get busssay… What? You no likey the humans?

So why is this conclusion so repugnant? Well, it might be that you’re imagining living in a cramped, over-croweded living space, fighting to share scant amounts of resources with people you don’t like, jostling you in the street as you pass by, cursing, barely allowing you to enjoy your gift of existence anyway.   No – that was just your visit last week to New-York City. ;p If this was your vision, then I believe you didn’t do the math. I think people come to the repugnant conclusion, because they have failed to do math on a very important account – that of negative utility. At some point adding more people is reducing the utility of the existing humans more than it is adding utility to new people.   Yes, the extent to which your existence annoys that of your fellow man might determine the worthiness of it’s continuance.

Take the totally hypothetical family the Robinson’s. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson want kids and are willing to make sacrifices to their material well-being to do so. They have Rob, who is glad to exist, and though there is less time and money to spend at the movies, happiness is increased all around. Then they have Lou.   Rob has some minor jealousy issues, but is overall happy to have a brother. Mrs. Robinson is already very tired, and is now stretched even more thin. Her net happiness is decreased somewhat, though she’ll never admit it. However, Lou is glad to exist, so net happiness still increased. Then the twins Dora and Nora came.   They have some manageable, but expensive medical issues. Mrs. Robinson, already run ragged, needs to leave her full time job. Money is tight. Mr. Robinson needs to pick up an additional part-time job, spending even less time with the family. Discretionary spending is all diverted to the babies medical care. Rob and Lou hate the arrival of the rivals, the loss of parental attention, and the sacrifice of their material comforts. Lou is a middle child and develops behavioral problems school and is taken to the principle for bullying some other children.   Still, Dora and Nora are glad they exist, so maybe it’s a wash, right? Then there was Jesse. Mrs. Robinson was at the bottle a lot. Jesse is none too bright, and Mrs. R has little patience and smacks him around a lot. She also can’t refrain from telling her progeny how much she’s sacrificed and how they have ruined her life. Then there was Nina, I mean, things were already so tight, how could they get worse? Might as well keep packing them in…

Anyway, I could go on, but I don’t have to. At some point it is obvious to your average philosophy-naïve schmoe that the Robinsons should stop having more children, if not for their own sanity, then for the sake of their already existing children. Each new child might find their existence has positive utility, however it is detracting from the utility of the others. How much? Did having Dora and Nora cut Rob and Lou’s utility in half? Could it have pushed poor exhausted Mr.s Robinson near zero or even into the negatives? Hard to say. You can push up the number children or scarcity of resources to whatever extreme you need to.  There should be some equilibrium where utility is maximized and after which more children detracts. Now some moral philosophers would argue that the jump in utility from having no existence to having any existence is so great that all the suffering of the other family members pails in comparison. This seems intuitively incorrect to me.   This is the kind of conclusion one would come to if they were seeing things in binary: Existence = 1, nonexistence =0. But I can’t really blame people for reaching this conclusion if they have been fed their whole lives on the milk of the theory that all men are equal and all lives are of equal importance.

I think if we are to make sense of our obvious preferences, we need to acknowledge that not all lives are equal.   Hell, there might be orders of magnitude difference in the utility that one person gets from life than another. Experience varies wildly. How much more would you value a day meeting your favoirite celebrity/scientist/mentor vs a day spent shoveling shit in a ditch in the scorching sun?  Now that you’ve considered that thought experiment, lets examine how deep this rabbit hole goes.

Are there people in society whose existence detracts utility from others far more than they gain themselves? (Well duh) What, if anything, do we do about it?

If individual experience and utility varies wildly, are there cultures that lead to far more utility for their members than others? (Come, on, be honest, yes.)

Would these cultures be justified in proselytizing their memes? What about imposing? Imperializing? Using force to do so? Buying up as much land/resources as possible to further their own utility maximal subculture over those much lower utility alternatives? Remember – its fine to hedge and say there are other reasons why doing these things is ‘wrong’ or would lead to less utility through some round about way if you want…

I’ve heard my (generally healthy) 70 year-old father in law state that he’d give all that’s coming to him for one day at age 30. How would you value a day at age 80 vs a day at age 20? If life at 20 is indeed so much better, should we be diverting spending from nursing homes to improve the lives of the young? Or does that mean it should go the other way…?
Do we owe more to existing humans than possible future humans? If in the future transhumans have huge amounts more utility than regular humans and they find that their resources are much more efficiently spent creating new transhumans, are they still responsible for uplifting the rest of us?

Have you discovered that you might have some opinions you are not allowed to utter?

Now roll your dice.