On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in

  Population Ethics



     B.Contestabile    admin@socrethics.com                                                           First version 2007   Last version 2014








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.” [Arrhenius 2004, 201].



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 comparison of classical utilitarian and Buddhist intuitions demonstrates the close tie between intuitions and interests. The perplexing Buddhist intuition about non-existence can be explained (except for metaphysical reasons) by a radically different priority given to survival.

         The method of measuring the quality of life is not decisive for the existence of paradoxes. The Buddhist axiology changes but doesn’t remove counter-intuitive combinations.

         If the conflict of interest (quantity versus quality) is described within a two parameter model, it causes conflicting intuitions. In axiologies which favour quantity (utilitarianism) or quality (perfectionism) the conflicting intuitions inevitably lead to paradoxes.

         In order to find a compromise 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.










The full text was published 2010 in


Contemporary Buddhism, Volume 11, Issue 1


pp. 103-113











How many people should there be?     


According to the above abstract there is no consistent theoretical answer.

In the following we have a look at some practical approaches. They depend on various assumptions:



1)      The different qualities of welfare are assumed to be commensurable


1a) Positive total welfare

Classical utilitarianism – despite of its expansionist potential [Contestabile, 109] – does not have a preference for quantity. Total welfare can be augmented by an improvement of quality as well. But the fact that the improvement of quality takes more energy than the multiplication of the same quality favours expansion at the cost of quality.


         It is easier to copy an invention than to invest in research (e.g. generic drugs)

         It is easier to procreate than to improve the quality of life [Parfit, 387-390].

Expansive population policies at the cost of quality can be prevented by comparing averages:

The most popular theory among welfare economists, Average Utilitarianism, ranks populations according to the average welfare per life in the population [Arrhenius 2000, 53].

Average utilitarianism says that the best population size is the one that produces the highest average welfare.

Despite of its theoretical deficiencies [Arrhenius 2000, 53-57][Broome, 191-195] this normative guideline has some influence on national policies.

The term welfare has to be associated with life satisfaction; it is not restricted to economic welfare.

Human rights and intergenerational justice are side constraints for the maximization of average welfare.



1b) Negative total welfare

Insofar as the Speed Limit example [Contestabile, 110-111] is concerned with the distribution of welfare among a fixed number of people; it does not contribute to population ethics [Arrhenius 2000, 110]. Its relevance concerns the comparison with an empty population.

         If the suffering of the traffic victims surpasses the happiness of the drivers, then – according to classical utilitarianism – it is better to stop mobile traffic.

         If the suffering within a population surpasses its happiness, then – according to the same logic – it is better to stop procreation; non-existence is the lesser evil.

But the empty population is only a theoretical option. In practice it is impossible to eradicate humanity by global voluntary childlessness or by a conscious violent self-destruction. Populations with negative total welfare have to be analysed like the mirror image of populations with positive total welfare [Broome, 213].

         For the rationality of a negative total, see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

         For a practical implementation see Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering, chapter Negative Utilitarianism.



1c) The sign of total welfare

The following assumptions decide about the sign of total welfare:

1.      The notion of a life worth living:

a.      If non-existence is considered to be the worst case, then every life is worth living [Broome, 2-12] and total welfare is necessarily positive.

b.      If non-existence is considered to be the best case, then no life is worth living [Stanford, chapter 2.4] and total welfare is necessarily negative.

c.      If a life worth living is understood as a life with positive welfare, then total welfare can be either positive or negative.

2.      Within case (1c) it is decisive, how suffering is measured relative to happiness:

a.      Current surveys on life satisfaction suggest that total welfare is positive.

b.      If suffering is given a higher weight than in surveys, then total welfare may turn negative.

Above assumptions are shaped by conflicting interests:

         The biological interest to expand life favors a positive evaluation and triggers a corresponding expansive policy.

         The Buddhist interest to avoid suffering favors a negative evaluation and triggers a corresponding contractive policy.

The predominating assumption that total welfare is positive, might be the result of a distorted perception, caused by the biological interest to expand life, see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition.




2)      The different qualities of welfare are assumed to be incommensurable


The Speed Limit example [Contestabile, 110-111] is useful to introduce the concept of incommensurability, because it compares the convenience of the car drivers with the suffering of traffic victims.

The aggregation of incommensurable preferences is the most general approach to solve conflicts of interest (like quantity versus quality). The “repugnancy” of a population [Contestabile, 105] can be considered to be a matter of individual preference. A majority-definition of “repugnancy” is then derived by aggregating the individual preferences for each combination of population-size and welfare. If the individuals are well informed about the consequences of a certain population policy and if they can freely express their attitude towards risk, then the aggregation of their preferences delivers an inter-subjective criterion to decide between policies.

For ethicists, however, majority decisions are not a satisfying answer to the question “How many people should there be?”.

Majority decisions may overrule normative guidelines (like intergenerational justice), but they do not replace them.









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

2.      Arrhenius Gustav (2004), The Paradoxes of Future Generations and Normative Theory, in the Repugnant Conclusion, Essays on Population Ethics, 45-60, Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publications

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., Routledge, London

5.      Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006), The Repugnant Conclusion