On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in
B.Contestabile firstname.lastname@example.org First version 2007 Last version 2013
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
▪ 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.
The full text was published 2010 in
The preference for non-existence
There are two intuitions relating to the preference for non-existence:
1. Non-existence as the smaller evil [Contestabile, 111].
2. Non-existence as a perfect state [Contestabile, 108].
For more information about these intuitions see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition.
Quantity versus quality
According to the first Noble Truth there is an unresolvable conflict between the classical utilitarian interest to expand life and the Buddhist interest to avoid suffering. The interest to expand life stands for the quantity (size) of the population: the interest to avoid suffering stands for the quality of life [Contestabile, 109]
Utilitarianism doesn’t have a preference for quantity. The total 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.
The biological root of the classical utilitarian intuition could be the replication of genes, which is a maximization function as well [Dawkins].
1. In classical utilitarianism it is possible to compensate a loss in the quality of life by the number of people. The expansion of a population at the cost of quality is known as Repugnant Conclusion [Parfit, 387-390].
2. In cases where the population size is no issue – like the Speed Limit example [Contestabile, 110-111] – it is more efficient to improve the welfare of the happy majority than the one of the suffering minority. A small improvement of the majority’s quality of life has the same effect as a big improvement of the minority’s quality.
“The interest to expand life stands for the quantity (size) of the population: the interest to avoid suffering stands for the quality of life [Contestabile, 109]”
refers to the “normal” case, i.e. populations with positive total welfare, such as depicted in the Mere Addition Paradox.
In a more general consideration we have to distinguish between populations with positive and negative total welfare.
1. Positive totals trigger expansion
2. Negative totals trigger contraction
There are attempts to influence this mechanism by increasing/decreasing the moral weight of suffering (respectively risk) relative to happiness, so that contraction/expansion is accordingly enforced. The moral weight of suffering can be increased/decreased by modifying the definition of a life worth living.
A neutral life is such that it is generally neither better nor worse that it is lived than not lived [Broome, 142].
To modify the definition of a life worth living means to shift the horizontal axis in Fig.1. An upwards shift increases the moral weight of suffering and vice-versa.
The happy majority is depicted by white squares, the suffering minority by shaded squares.
The extreme cases are the following:
a. The biological proliferation of genes is characterized by an unlimited expansionism, respectively unrealistic optimism. Procreation works as if suffering would not exist. All lives are supposed to be worth living.
b. This axiology is confronted with an extreme version of the Repugnant Conclusion (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, chapter 2.4), which says that – from a certain point – a large population with a low level of happiness is better than a small population with a high level of happiness.
2. Antifrustrationism [Fehige, 518]
a. According to antifrustrationism preference-satisfaction has no moral value; there are just different states of frustration. Non-existence is perfect because of the absolute absence of frustration. Sentient beings cannot improve this perfection. There are no lives worth living.
b. This axiology is confronted with an extreme version of the Negative Repugnant Conclusion [Broome, 213] which says that – from a certain point – a large population with minor frustration is worse than a small population with major frustration.
The counter-intuitive claim that no life is worth living is known under the terms
▪ Reverse Repugnant Conclusion (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, chapter 2.4)
Attempts have been made to mitigate the Repugnant Conclusion. One of them is to raise the minimum quality (for a life to be worth living) above a critical level. However, such an approach enforces the Negative Repugnant Conclusion, which is like a mirror image of the Repugnant Conclusion [Broome, 213]. The influence of quality (relative to quantity) is strengthened in the positive territory of welfare, but weakened in the negative territory [Contestabile, 110].
The Buddhist axiology which upgrades non-existence [Contestabile, 108] has to be distinguished from antifrustrationism, which devaluates preference-satisfaction, see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition.
Insofar as the Speed Limit example is concerned with the distribution of welfare among a fixed number of people; it does not contribute to population ethics [Arrhenius, 110]. Its relevance for population ethics concerns the comparison with an empty population.
For details about this comparison, see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.
Furthermore, the Speed Limit example is useful to introduce the concept of incommensurability.
According to Arrhenius the only way to avoid paradoxes is by questioning commensurability and breaking out of the two-parameter model. [Contestabile, 112]
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, the aggregation of their preferences delivers an inter-subjective criterion to decide between policies. The focus shifts to forecasting and educational advertising.
▪ There is a theoretical hurdle in the process of aggregation. Incommensurable preferences lead to Arrovian impossibility theorems [Arrhenius 2000]. No voting system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide ranking while also meeting a certain set of reasonable criteria [Arrow]. In practice this theoretical obstacle can be bypassed. The arrovian impossibility theorem only becomes effective if three or more options are at stake – not if the voters have to confirm or decline a specific policy.
▪ A more disturbing problem is the protection of minorities. Under certain circumstances the aggregation of preferences allows exterminating a minority by majority decision [Hare, 121-122]. Theories of justice [Rawls] prevent the worst cases of abuse, but in less evident cases (like the Speed Limit example) the problem reappears. The majority decides what kinds of suffering are tolerable.
For a comparison of the majority intuition with the perspective of an impartial observer see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View
1. Arrhenius Gustav (2000), Future Generations, A Challenge for Moral Theory, FD-Diss., Uppsala University, Dept. of Philosopy, Uppsala: University Printers
2. Arrow Kenneth J. (1966), Social Choice and Individual Values, Wiley, New York
3. Contestabile Bruno (2010), On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.11, No.1., Routledge, London
4. Hare Richard Mervyn (1976), Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism, Contemporary British Philosophy, H.D. Lewis Ed.
5. Parfit Derek (1984), Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, Oxford
6. Rawls John (1971), A Theory of Justice, Belknap Publishers, Cambridge