Why the Repugnant Conclusion is Inescapable


The spectre of the repugnant conclusion and the search for a population axiology that avoids it has endured as a focus of population ethics. This is in part because the repugnant conclusion is often interpreted as a defining problem for totalism, while the implications of averagism and related views are taken to illustrate the theoretical cost of avoiding the repugnant conclusion. However, we show that this interpretation cannot be sustained unless one focuses only on a special case of the repugnant conclusion: namely, the subset of instances of the repugnant conclusion where there is no portion of the population unaffected by the choice between population outcomes (as in Derek Parfit’s original illustration). To avoid an inappropriate focus on only this proper subset of instances of the repugnant conclusion, we formulate a general characterization of the repugnant conclusion. We then prove formally that all leading welfarist axiologies imply this conclusion, including averagism and Ng’s Theory X0 , including probabilistic and ‘very repugnant’ variants that involve the addition of negative lives. We then prove that the full range of axiologies considered by population ethics each imply an extended version of the repugnant conclusion, including axiologies that are incomplete, intransitive, rank-dependent, person-affecting, and/or pluralist. The upshot is that the repugnant conclusion does not ultimately tell against any approach to axiology, and the methodological requirement to avoid the repugnant conclusion should be dropped from population axiology



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Mark Budolfson
University of Texas at Austin

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Anarchy, State, and Utopia.Robert Nozick - 1974 - New York: Basic Books.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia.Robert Nozick - 1974 - Philosophy 52 (199):102-105.
Weighing lives.John Broome - 2004 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Population axiology.Hilary Greaves - 2017 - Philosophy Compass 12 (11):e12442.

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