In Defense of Totalism

The repugnant conclusion (RC) is a commonly discussed problem in population ethics. If our ethical theory merely aggregates the total happiness of a population, then in some scenarios with many slightly-happy people would be preferred to scenarios with a few very-happy people. Why does this matter? Because making decisions about future populations is hugely important, and if we don’t have a good approach even in theory, what hope do we have of facing the messy realities of the situation?

Unfortunately, there is no possible theory which avoids the repugnant conclusion without having another, even worse property. This paper provides a nice summary of different population approaches and their flaws.

It turns out that every impossibility theorem relies on the axiom “population ethics must avoid the RC”, this suggests that this is at the heart of the issue. It makes me wonder: is the repugnant conclusion really so bad?

After thinking about it, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the RC. In fact, the “repugnance” goes away once we consider the problem in a different framing.

Let’s look at the choice between two possible worlds:

  1. A world of 1 million people, where each citizen has a happiness level of 0.1.
  2. A world of 1000 people, where each citizen has a happiness level of 1.

Of course, the standard repugnant conclusion arises when we prefer scenario 1 over scenario 2.

We can make this problem more exciting by asking if we should switch between 1 and 2. Put this way, the RC becomes “If we lived in world 2, we should grow the population in order to reach world 1”. Perhaps this still seems wrong to you, but lets look at the alternative, what I call the reversed RC: “If we lived in world 1, we should eliminate most of the population in order to get to world 2”. This should make you just as uncomfortable (if not more) than the repugnant conclusion itself! While the RC advocates for more births, the reversed RC advocates that we cull the population to achieve higher average happiness.

Notice also that in the supposedly “repugnant” scenario with a high population but low average happiness, every single person is still happy to be alive. Put this way, it doesn’t sound bad to me at all. This touches on the neutrality of happy lives. Should we be indifferent to the possibility of creating new, happy beings? I hope to write more on this topic, but it seems to me that creating happy beings is clearly a good thing. I think this piece makes the point well.

You may still dislike the idea of totalism, but consider some of the issues that alternative systems of ethics face. For example, the Sadistic Conclusion is a problem which plagues approaches that seek to maximize average happiness rather than total happiness. It is a situation where adding a few people with negative welfare is preferred to adding many people with positive welfare. This seems significantly worse than the repugnant conclusion itself.

In a pragmatic sense, totalism also seems preferable to other approaches since it directly chooses to maximize the total good rather than impose additional constraints. In a direct competition, totalism will always produce more happiness and outgrow the other approaches, leaving one to wonder if it might be instrumentally better to follow a totalist approach despite believing something else.

In all, I believe totalism presents a simple, reasonable approach to population ethics. Even if you find the repugnant conclusion strange, all other approaches to population ethics have similar or worse implications while being competitively disfavored. In fact, the supposed repugnance of such an approach seems to come from a misleading framing of the problem, but, upon closer inspection, the repugnant conclusion is not nearly as bad as it seems.

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