On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in

Population Ethics


B.Contestabile        admin@socrethics.com        First version 2007   Last version 2016








Starting point

Starting point of this paper is the following citation concerning the state of contemporary population ethics:

“Most discussion in population ethics has concentrated on how to evaluate populations in regard to their goodness, that is, how to order populations by the relations “is better than” and “is as good as”. This field has been riddled with paradoxes which purport to show that our considered beliefs are inconsistent in cases where the number of people and their welfare varies.” (Gustav Arrhenius)





René Magritte Golconda



Type of problem

The best known and most discussed example shattering our intuitions is Parfit’s

Mere Addition Paradox. This paper explores the potential of the Buddhist Truths to answer the following questions:

         What is at the source of the Mere Addition Paradox?

         Why are paradoxes unavoidable in population ethics?



The Mere Addition Paradox

The seemingly uncontroversial classical utilitarian axiology allows expanding a population at the cost of life’s quality, a finding which is called Repugnant Conclusion




The Repugnant Conclusion can be avoided by assuming that additional lives do not improve the state of affairs:

         However, the higher the quality of the additional lives is thought to be, the more this assumption becomes counter-intuitive, a consequence which is called Reversed Repugnant Conclusion

         The Reversed Repugnant Conclusion loses its counter-intuitivity, if non-existence is seen as a perfect state (instead of a neutral state). According to the Buddhist Truths perfection can only be reached by eliminating desires and finally dissolving the ego. The closeness of perfection and non-existence (of the ego) is the key to escape the Reversed Repugnant Conclusion.



Intuition and Interest

The comparison of classical utilitarian and Buddhist intuitions demonstrates the close tie between intuitions and interests. The perplexing Buddhist intuition about non-existence contrasts sharply with the vital interest to procreate. Following a brief description of the basic (conflicting) interests and corresponding intuitions:

         The vital interest to expand life – which may originate in the biological utility function – favors the intuition that the size of the population is more important than the quality of life.

         The Buddhist truths – which discourage from expanding desires – favor the intuition that the size of the population is less important than the quality of life.

Only a minority supports a blind biological expansionism and only a minority adopts the Buddhist notion of non-existence. As a consequence, if one of the two interests is radically devaluated at the cost of the other, the combination becomes counter-intuitive for the majority:

         Many people would not mind to slightly decrease the average quality of life in favour of a larger population (with a higher total amount of welfare). But when this devaluation results in lives with minimal quality, it becomes counter-intuitive for the majority (Repugnant Conclusion)

         Similarly many people would not mind to slightly decrease the size of a population (and the total amount of welfare) in favour of a higher average quality of life. But when this devaluation results in a “near zero” population, it becomes counter-intuitive for the majority (Reversed Repugnant Conclusion)

Obviously, at some point, the repetition of a plausible procedure yields a counter-intuitive result. The accumulation of tolerable differences results in an intolerable difference, an experience which is perceived as a paradox.



The impossibility theorem

Gustav Arrhenius – after having systematically investigated the most important axiologies and intuitions – came to the conclusion that there is no normative theory which coheres with “our” moral beliefs. This result is immediately plausible on the basis of the following consideration:

         Population ethics using a two-parameter model (welfare and population size) can be characterized by a conflict of interest.

         Conflicting interests shape conflicting intuitions.

         Conflicting intuitions make it impossible to find a coherent normative theory.

In order to find a coherent theory one would have to find a universal interest and a corresponding universal intuition. The obvious candidate to meet this request is sympathy. But since there is no universal consensus on the desirable degree of sympathy, the normative force of such an approach is limited.

Breaking out of the two-parameter model and accepting the incommensurability of certain qualities threatens the normative claim of population ethics.



Concluding remark

The conflict between quantity and quality in population ethics can be described without referring to Buddhism, of course. The perfectionist Buddhist axiology is of special interest because it removes counter-intuitive conclusions of positive utilitarianism (and vice-versa). It is accordingly suited to illustrate the tie between intuitions and interests.






Full Text


The full text was published 2010 in


Contemporary Buddhism, Volume 11, Issue 1


pp. 103-113










- A Solution to the Mere Addition Paradox


- Population Ethics with Negative Welfare






Further Reading


For more information about the relation between utilitarian and Buddhist intuitions see

         The Denial of the World from an Impartial View

         Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition