The Nonsense-On-Stilts Conclusion, Part I

Is the famous repugnant conclusion actually repugnant? Or even a conclusion?

A few weeks ago Vox magazine made minor headlines because it refused to publish a (commissioned) piece by Stockholm University Professor of Practical Philosophy Torbjörn Tännsjö (you can read the backstory here). Luckily, Gawker bravely stepped in and published the piece for the benefit of humankind.

Tännsjö writes in defense of what in moral philosophy is known as “the repugnant conclusion,” the idea that we have a moral duty to have as many children as possible. One arrives at such conclusion on the basis of utilitarian arguments, so I re-dubbed it “the nonsense-on-stilts conclusion” in honor of the founding father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, who famously labelled another bizarre idea — that of natural rights — as “nonsense on stilts.”

Let us begin by following Tännsjö’s reasoning (you can find a more in-depth treatment of the topic at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, co-authored by Tännsjö himself; note that the original argument was due to Derek Parfit).

Tännsjö tells his readers that they have a moral obligation to have as many kids as possible. The argument, as he puts it, is simple: “Most people live lives that are, on net, happy. For them to never exist, then, would be to deny them that happiness. And because I think we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness in the world, that means that we all have an obligation to make the world as populated as can be.” The second part of the last sentence is the above mentioned repugnant conclusion.

One could, of course, quibble with the very first statement by Tännsjö, reasonably demanding at least a bit of empirical evidence for the sweeping generalization that “most” people live a happy life (besides, since the moral injunction is about the future, the relevant point is about future people’s happiness, not present one). But let’s accept that opening gambit for the sake of argument.

Tännsjö proceeds to address a well known objection to the repugnant conclusion: we only have moral obligations toward existing people, not toward those who don’t exist yet — an objection stemming from a position called “actualism.”

Tännsjö’s response to actualism is to imagine a hypothetical situation (as we shall see, utilitarians are big on thought experiments and intuitions): what would have happened if Adam and Eve had refused to have children and had instead focused on enjoying the fruits of their Paradise on Earth? (Well, not all the fruits, as is well known.) They would have denied happiness to billions of people! Which is immoral, says Tännsjö. Never mind that the original couple starting begetting children after they violated a direct order from God, and that we have it on the latter’s presumably unquestionable authority that their progeny is destined to be unhappy precisely because it will not partake of Paradise, but will have instead to labor hard (the men) and suffer during childbirth (the women) for the remainder of humanity’s history.

Tännsjö then moves to consider a bit of a less mythical example: suppose your choices are to have a child when you are 15 or 35 years of age. More likely than not, if you go with the first option the child will have a more difficult life than if you wait a bit. You will be less mature and less financially secure as a 15-yr old, which means that — other things being equal — you ought to postpone your action in order to provide the child with a better quality of life.

I hope you noticed a couple of problems with this move. (Spoiler alert: later on we will see much worse problems for the whole idea of a repugnant conclusion — we’re just getting started!) First off, we have seamlessly and without argument moved from a situation (Adam and Eve’s) where the moral obligation was toward countless, anonymous, and indefinitely remote generations of people to one in which you have personally decided to bring one particular individual into the world. I don’t think those are at all comparable. It is much easier to argue that we have moral obligations toward particular beings whose existence we are directly causally responsible for than for a generic class of individuals with whom we are loosely, if at all, causally linked. (Unlike Adam and Eve, basic population genetics theory tells us that each of us has a vanishingly small likelihood of having his line of descendants avoid extinction after a few generations.)

Second, Tännsjö has also, without warning or justification, moved from a quantitative argument to a qualitative one. After all, the logic leading to the repugnant conclusion would actually advise me to have as many children as possible, starting as soon as my biology allows it, their chances of going to college (because I will not be able to afford it) be damned. As long as — to quote Tännsjö — my children have “a life that’s only barely worth living” I am morally obliged to go ahead and behave like a rabbit.

Tännsjö grants that his conclusion about quality vs quantity of future generation’s lives “may seem ludicrous” but he quickly adds that our intuitions about this are wrong. Why, exactly?

He conjures (another!) thought experiment, inviting us to compare Small Happy World (few people, high quality of life) and Big Bad World (lots of people, life barely worth living). “Imagine that the end of Small Happy World is the end of humankind. Everyone’s as happy as can be, and then they all die. Meanwhile, in Big Bad World, the human race continues on for billions of years, at a level where life is worth living, but not spectacular.”

Well, maybe, if one puts it that way. But why, precisely, would Small Happy World end if people opted for a high quality of life? We are not told. How, exactly, would the inhabitants of Big Bad World make sure that their existence isn’t about to end catastrophically because of rapid exhaustion of resources? Again, we are not told. We just have to take it for granted that the high quality scenario is about to end in disaster, while somehow the people in the alternative scenario manage to go on for billions of years. If you know anything about actual human history (say, from reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) you will not so gingerly bet on the long-term chances of Big Bad World.

But there is more. Tännsjö even speculates that, for all we know, “it could be that the gap between a barely-worthwhile life and the happiest life possible is quite small.” Clearly the guy has never heard of Somalia.

This last point hints, of course, to one of the big elephants in the room of utilitarian discourse, a pachyderm that has plagued the whole approach since Bentham, and that John Stuart Mill already tried (unsuccessfully, I think) to remedy: how is one supposed to measure happiness anyway? There are a number of philosophical concepts of happiness on offer, and social scientists have their own versions too. But unless we settle on one of them, and — crucially — unless we can reasonably operationalize it (i.e., we can actually come up with reliable quantitative estimates) this is all fluffy talk.

Or one could go “meta,” so to speak, and ask why do we have a moral obligation toward increasing most people’s happiness to begin with? Where does this “fact” come from? A hedonist would say that the focus should be on pleasure, not happiness. A communitarian will argue that we ought to reduce inequality first and foremost. A virtue ethicist would say that it is all about cultivating personal character. And so on. If one adopts any of these positions the so-called repugnant conclusion is not repugnant at all, for the simple reason that it is not a conclusion that follows from one’s moral axioms.

So do not rush just yet to sign up for sperm banks, as Tännsjö casually (I’m tempted to say irresponsibly) advices his readers to do. Indeed, stay tuned for the second part of this essay, in which I will argue that the sort of reasoning that leads to the repugnant conclusion is nothing less than a clear telling sign of the corruption of the entire contemporary concept of moral philosophy. Rather than accepting the conclusion, we should reject the very way moral discourse is currently being carried out.