Discussion:
  1. Michael Huemer (2008). In Defence of Repugnance. Mind 117 (468):899-933.
    I defend the 'Repugnant' Conclusion that for any possible population of happy people, a population containing a sufficient number of people with lives barely worth living would be better. Four lines of argument converge on this conclusion, and the conclusion has a simple, natural theoretical explanation. The opposition to the Repugnant Conclusion rests on a bare appeal to intuition. This intuition is open to charges of being influenced by multiple distorting factors. Several theories of population ethics have been devised to (...)
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2008-12-28
The "sadistic conclusion"
Huemer (p.911) objects to the Average Utility Principle on the grounds that it implies:
The Sadistic Conclusion: In some circumstances, it would be better with respect to utility to add some unhappy people to the world (people with negative utility), rather than creating a larger number of happy people (people with positive utility).
This does seem counterintuitive, at least at first glance.  But further reflection reveals that it is not much of a move from the (not especially outrageous) claim that adding mediocre lives can make a world worse. For then we may expect that adding a great many mediocre lives could make a world much worse (transforming it from a predominantly flourishing world to a predominantly mediocre one).  In any case, if this is a harm at all, then it isn't surprising that it could outweigh the modest harm of adding a single moderately bad life.  We are tempted to draw a bright line between lives that are worth living and those that aren't, but the absolute difference in utility might be as small as you care to imagine. So we should not place as much weight on it as the objection requires.

This explanation also brings out the fact that there's nothing especially sadistic about the "sadistic conclusion".  The name suggests the thesis that adding unhappy people to the world is a good thing, but that's not the specified view at all. The stated conclusion is compatible with the claim that adding unhappy people to the world is indeed a bad thing (certainly worse than if the people in question had been happier; perhaps worse than adding no-one at all). The claim is merely that adding larger numbers of barely happy people could be even worse.  Seen in this light, the conclusion does not seem nearly as objectionable or counterintuitive as the label primes us to expect.

2008-12-30
The "sadistic conclusion"
Thanks for your comment, Richard. Of course you're right that the "sadistic conclusion" does not entail that creating unhappy people is good. The average utility principle does, however, entail that in some cases creating miserable people is good--as in Parfit's "Hell" example. In that case, the world is full of people whose lives consist of horrible torture. It would be good to create some more people who will also be horribly tortured, provided that the new people will suffer slightly less. That is perhaps better named a sadistic conclusion.

2008-12-30
The "sadistic conclusion"
Indeed!  AUP does seem implausible for just that reason.  What's especially interesting about your objection, though, was that (as you argue in the paper) it applies not just to the simple view where average utility is all that counts, but also to views that give any weight to average utility at all. So, with those hybrid views in mind, I am interested in evaluating your version of the "sadistic conclusion": is it really so bad?

2008-12-30
The "sadistic conclusion"
Yes, good point. The hybrid views are more interesting than a pure Average Util Pr. Let's consider two ideas related to Parfit's Hell example:
  1. The weak Hell Conclusion: Sometimes, it is good to create lives with negative utility (people who would be better off dead, so to speak).
  2. The strong Hell Conclusion: For any given negative welfare level, there are circumstances in which it would be good to create people at that level.
I think both of those are obviously false. (I also think the Sadistic Conclusion is obviously false, but I focus on the Hell Conclusions here, since I think you find them more disturbing than the Sadistic Conclusion.) Can the Hell Conclusions be derived from hybrid theories, which attribute some weight to average utility and some weight to total utility?

I think the weak Hell Conclusion follows as long as some non-zero weight is assigned to average utility. Just start with a group of horribly tormented people, and add an equal-sized group of people with slightly negative utility. You can produce a large increase in average utility, with an arbitrarily small change in total utility.

To get the strong Hell Conclusion, we must assume that, for any given negative welfare level, it is possible to have a welfare level many times worse than it. Thus, to show that it could be good to create people with -100 utility, assume that the world starts out containing only people with -1000 utility. When we add the -100 utility people, we greatly increase the average welfare, while only substracting 100 from the total. By modifying the "-1000" number, you can produce an arbitrarily large ratio between the average utility improvement and the total utility decrement.