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Population Ethics with Negative Welfare


B.Contestabile       admin@socrethics.com       First version 2014   Last version 2018







Table of Contents


1.      Introduction

2.      Asymmetric Notions of a Life Worth Living

                  2.1  Extreme Asymmetry

                  2.2  Symmetry

                  2.3  Moderate Asymmetry

3.      Weighting Functions or Asymmetric Hedonistic Scales

4.      Theory and Practice






1.  Introduction



The Negative Addition Paradox

For populations with negative total welfare there is a mirror image of the Mere Addition Paradox:



         Intuition 1:

A+C is worse than A, as long as all lives in C are not worth living.

The suffering of the additional people C is added to the one of A.


         Intuition 2:

Let’s assume that state 2 and 3 contain the same number of people. Then

B is worse than A+C, as long as the accumulated suffering in B is higher than in A+C.


If B is worse than A+C, then it is also worse than A, a result which is called Negative Repugnant Conclusion [Broome 2004, 213].



Asymmetric axiologies

The term (positive) welfare is used here as a synonym for happiness, quality of life or life satisfaction.

Populations with negative total welfare can be caused

         by catastrophic scenarios

         by asymmetric axiologies, applied to “normal” scenarios.

There are basically two ways to implement asymmetric axiologies (see Hostility to Life and the Minimization of Suffering)


(1)   Asymmetric notions of a life worth living.


-       Prior Existence Utilitarianism

-       Buddhism

-       Antinatalism

-       Negative Preference Utilitarianism


(2)   Weighting functions or asymmetric hedonistic scales.


-       Prioritariansm

-       Modern Negative Utilitarianism




2.  Asymmetric Notions of a Life Worth Living



2.1      Extreme Asymmetry



Conventional and Reverse Repugnant Conclusion

There are two Repugnant Conclusions that have to do with the relation between the quality of life and (non-)existence. Intuitions about non-existence are driven by the interest to avoid suffering/frustration and the (conflicting) interest to survive [Contestabile 2010, 109-111].

1.      The intuition that suffering has a higher moral value than non-existence is e.g. defended in hospitals, where the prime interest is to avoid death. Since these hospitals do not know lives with negative welfare, death is given the value zero (see Quality-adjusted life year, Wikipedia). Consequently it is postulated that even the most horrible life is still worth living [Contestabile 2014, 299]. We call this the Conventional Repugnant Conclusion.

2.      The complete opposite can be found in perfectionist Buddhism [Contestabile 2010, 106-108] and negative preference utilitarianism [Contestabile 2014, 307-308] where even an almost perfect life is not worth living. This is called the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion [Stanford, chapter 2.4].



Positive and Negative Repugnant Conclusion

Furthermore there are two Repugnant Conclusions that have to do with the relation between quantity and quality.

1.      If the hospital axiology is applied to population ethics, then there are only populations with positive totals, so that the (Positive) Repugnant Conclusion applies (Fig.1, left hand side) [Contestabile 2010, 105].

2.      The mirror image of this axiology can be found – as mentioned above – in perfectionist Buddhism and negative preference utilitarianism, where the prime interest is to avoid frustrations. If there are only populations with negative totals, then the Negative Repugnant Conclusion applies (Fig.1, right hand side) [Broome 2004, 213-214].




2.2      Symmetry


According to utilitarian theory there is a level of welfare, at which the value of a life is neutral [Broome 2004, 142]. Above this level a life is worth living, below it is not worth living. A neutral life is given the value zero on the hedonistic scale [Broome 2004, 257]. Lives worth living get a positive sign, lives not worth living a negative sign:

         In the hospital axiology every life has a positive sign (Fig.1, left hand side)

         In negative preference utilitarianism every life has a negative sign (Fig.1, right hand side)

In classical utilitarianism happy lives have a positive sign and suffering lives a negative sign. As a consequence both kinds of repugnant conclusions apply (Fig2).





2.3      Moderate Asymmetry


Attempts have been made to mitigate the repugnant conclusions:

         The so-called critical level utilitarianism [Blackorby, 2004] [Contestabile 2010, 110] maintains that it is unethical to create new lives that fall below a critical level of welfare. Lives below this critical level are given a negative sign. In this case the Repugnant Conclusion is mitigated, but the Negative Repugnant Conclusion aggravated (Fig.3, left hand side).

         If, conversely, an axiology tolerates a certain level of suffering by giving it a positive sign, then the Negative Repugnant Conclusion is mitigated, but the Repugnant Conclusion aggravated (Fig.3, right hand side).

The classical utilitarian setting in Fig.2 avoids the aggravated forms of the repugnant conclusions and represents a kind of compromise or equilibrium [Broome 2004, 213-214, 264]




3.  Weighting Functions or Asymmetric Hedonistic Scales


According to the classical utilitarian view the hedonistic scale is linear and symmetric (Fig.4, left hand side). If the scale is symmetric, then – according to surveys on life satisfaction – the suffering of the minority (shaded square) can be compensated by happiness of the majority (white square) and the resulting total is positive [Inglehart, 269].  In classical utilitarianism negative totals could only occur in catastrophic scenarios. In order to express the intuition that “the actual suffering in the world cannot be compensated by happiness” one has to

         multiply the symmetric scale by an asymmetric weighting function, as practiced in prioritarianism or

         use asymmetric scales, as practiced in negative utilitarianism.

 (Fig.4, right hand side)


What is the impact of asymmetric scales on population ethics?

1.      If populations with negative totals are compared, then it does not matter

-       if the negative total is the result of a prioritarian or negative utilitarian axiology or

-       if the negative total reflects a catastrophic scenario within classical utilitarianism.


2.      If the same asymmetry is applied to all populations under consideration, then it has no influence on comparisons:

The core idea of the Priority View is that gains in welfare matter more, the worse off people are, and losses in welfare matter less, the better off people are. Prioritarianism defines an axiology for societies with the same number of people [Arrhenius, 110]




The asymmetry has an influence, however, if non-empty populations are compared with an empty population [Contestabile 2016].

In our example

       the symmetric scale (Fig.4 left hand side) makes the population better than an empty population,

       the asymmetric scale (Fig.4 right hand side) makes it worse than an empty population.




4.  Theory and Practice


In analogy to the actual indices for life satisfaction, indices for suffering could be constructed on the basis of negative averages, see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice.


In theory average utilitarianism is counter-intuitive, because

       a single person with a certain welfare (e.g. 6 points on a 10 point scale) is morally better than

       a huge population with a minimally lesser average welfare (e.g. 5.9 points)

In the comparison of nations this case does not apply, because there are no single-person nations.  


Similarly negative average utilitarianism is counter-intuitive, because

         a single person with a certain level of suffering (e.g. -6 points on a -10 point scale) is morally worse than

         a huge population with a minimally lesser (average) level of suffering (e.g. -5.9 points)

Again, in the comparison of nations this case does not apply.


There is another finding to be considered here. We do not know with certainty, if total welfare is positive or negative, see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View. Given this uncertainty, it makes sense to disregard the population size and focus on the average level of welfare.






1.      Arrhenius, Gustav (2000), Future Generations, A Challenge for Moral Theory, FD-Diss., Uppsala University, Dept. of Philosophy, Uppsala: University Printers

2.      Blackorby Charles, Bossert Walter, Donaldson David (2004), Critical Level Population Principles and the Repugnant Conclusion, in The Repugnant Conclusion, Essays on Population Ethics, Kluwer Academic Publishers

3.      Broome John (2004), Weighing Lives, Oxford University Press, New York

4.      Contestabile Bruno (2010), On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.11, No.1, 103-113, Routledge, London

5.      Contestabile, Bruno (2014), Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.15, No.2, 298–311, Routledge, London

6.      Inglehart, Ronald, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson, and Christian Welzel (2008), Development, Freedom and Rising Happiness, Psychological Science 3 (4): 264–285, Sage Publications, New York