The Ethics of Human Rights (26): The Repugnant Conclusion and Human Rights

The Repugnant Conclusion is a moral dilemma for utilitarian and consequentialist moral theories. The dilemma was first presented by Derek Parfit in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons. The “repugnancy” in question refers to the consequence of a thought experiment. Imagine a society with a large amount of total utility resulting from a very large number of people all living at near-zero levels of utility. In other words, these people have no more than a marginally worthwhile life – Parfit calls it a life of muzak and potatoes but we can of course define “marginally worthwhile” differently if we want. And yet, because they are so numerous, the total utility of this society is very large.

Utilitarian and consequentialist theories must rank this society higher than other more desirable societies with higher average utility but lower total utility resulting from lower population levels. They must because they state that the best society is the one in which there is the greatest total quantity of utility, and utility is defined as whatever makes life worth living. The muzak and potato people have a life worth living – just barely – and if they are numerous enough they will constitute the best society because the sum of their individual utilities will be higher than any other total utility in any other society.

There is always a muzak and potatoes society that has a higher total quantity of utility or welfare than any other possible society: just add more marginally worthwhile lives and you produce a society that outperforms any other in terms of total welfare. That such a society should be preferable is repugnant. The people in that society have lives only barely worth living and yet it’s a superior society compared to one with fewer people all living a better life. The emphasis on “total” welfare or “total” utility means that any loss in the quality of the lives in a population can be compensated by a sufficiently large gain in the quantity of the population. (Note that the lives added are marginally worthwhile. These lives are worth living. We’re not adding lives of continuous pain for example. That would diminish total utility and that isn’t the purpose of this thought experiment.)

The question here isn’t whether such a society is practically possible or likely, but whether we should indeed prefer it, as utilitarianism posits (implicitly). It doesn’t seem intuitively correct to prefer a society of people living a life that’s barely worthwhile over other highly attractive alternatives, just because the former has a very large population.

To some extent, the thought experiment is convincing because we do believe that every human being is valuable (has some value), however low this value may be (remember we’re not talking about lives that aren’t worth living because of continuous pain for instance). Therefore we do tend to believe that addition of new lives does increase total utility (“we” meaning even the non-utilitarians among us, and that probably includes myself). It would be equally repugnant to try to avoid the repugnant conclusion by claiming that after a certain number of additions the lives added don’t bring any more value.

Given the unacceptability of not counting the lives after a certain number of additions, there’s another possible way of avoiding the repugnant conclusion, namely invoking non-utility values such as justice, dignity, desert etc. But according to Tyler Cowen, non-utility values can always be overwhelmed by total utility:

It might be the case, for instance, that the less populated society has significantly greater amounts of justice, aesthetic beauty, or dignity. If this is true, the Repugnant Conclusion alternative simply needs to make up for this deficiency by having more people to increase its utility total. (source)

Any moral theory must weigh conflicting ends, such as utility and justice. There’s no escape. You don’t have a moral theory if you can’t do that. The non-utility value(s) must receive some “value” or importance. And the same for utility – even non-utilitarians can’t say that utility has no value whatsoever because then you would say that a marginally worthwhile life of muzak and potatoes has no value (and that’s intuitively wrong because then you would be allowed to end such a life). Hence you need to compare the total value of the less populated society with high non-utility values to the total value of the more populated society with very low average utility. Just add more people to the latter and it will always be a better society. And this will always be repugnant.

However, I do think non-utility values show us a way out of the repugnant conclusion. The first thing we can say is that without emphasis on non-utility values there won’t be a way out. If utility is all that counts, if in other words you’re a pure utilitarian then you are a value absolutist, just like a libertarian, a socialist, a hedonist etc. One value, in this case utility, trumps all others. Necessarily you’ll end up accepting the repugnant conclusion.

If, on the other hand, you accept value pluralism, then you reject hierarchical or lexically ordered value system in which one value trumps all others. And then you probably also don’t believe that large losses in one value can be balanced by equally large gains in another value, as happens in the repugnant conclusion. That seems to me to be the error in the Cowen quote above: the muzak and potatoes society can simply compensate for the deficiencies on non-utility values by adding more marginally worthwhile lives. I believe – contra Cowen – that invoking non-utility values can help us to avoid the repugnant conclusion, but not if these non-utility values are simply accorded a certain value (possibly a very high value) and then compared to the value of utility. If we only do that, utility can always overwhelm the other values by just adding more persons, and gains in utility can always compensate losses in other values.

My point here is that there are certain other values for which no losses can be accepted or tolerated, not even with near-infinity gains in utility. That is why these other values – such as freedom, dignity, equality and justice – are protected by human rights, and human rights are unconditional and untradeable. No matter how many people with barely worthwhile lives we add to a society, this will not compensate for violations of human rights. Nothing ever will. You can call that value absolutism if you want, but it’s the absolutism of plurality.

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