Most contemporary work in population ethics operates within the framework of welfarism – the assumption that individual welfare is the fundamental value. But this framework is a straitjacket, leading population ethics into a labyrinth of sterile paradoxes. Once welfarism is rejected, a vastly more plausible approach to population ethics becomes available.

The approach that I favour involves a kind of perfectionism at the level of society. Of course, the welfare of individuals comes into the story. But as I shall explain, it is by no means the whole story.

The fundamental principle for population ethics, I propose, concerns societies. (To fix ideas, let us assume that two societies are distinct only if there is no communication between them at any time. Thus, almost all human beings alive today belong to a single society in this sense.)

According to this fundamental principle, it is in a way intrinsically better for a society to endure for a longer period of time, so long as it improves, or at least does not deteriorate, in terms of certain crucial achievements and virtues. The society’s enduring longer, while improving or not deteriorating in terms of these achievements and virtues, is in this way better than the society’s either dying out earlier, or permanently deteriorating in terms of these achievements and virtues.

Roughly, for a society to endure, there must be a continuous transmission of knowledge and understanding, and cultural and institutional practices, from one generation to the next. Clearly, this knowledge and understanding, and these cultural and institutional practices, change constantly over time. But they change through a connected series of links, in which the earlier knowledge and practices exert an influence on the later knowledge and practices. (As I understand it, our society could endure even if we have no more biological children. The next generation could consist of artificial life-forms, such as androids. They would still be part of our society if they learn their first language from us, and so on.)

The crucial achievements of a society include above all the society’s intellectual, cultural, artistic, and athletic achievements. For example, the society’s intellectual achievements include its knowledge of the natural and social sciences, its technology, the understanding of history and philosophy that it contains, and the like.

The crucial virtues of a society include above all: justice, and effectiveness at promoting the common good. Clearly, if the average level of welfare in each generation is lower than in the preceding generation, the society will be deteriorating in its effectiveness at promoting the common good. So, unless there are compensating gains in the other virtues or achievements, it will not be better for a society to endure if its average level of welfare just constantly declines. (This, in my view, is the only role that individual welfare plays in the correct account of population ethics.)

This picture supports the conclusion that each of us has a reason to prefer outcomes in which our society performs better – partly through enduring for a longer, rather than a shorter, time – over outcomes in which our society performs worse.

As I see it, this reason is broadly similar to the reasons that each of us has to pursue various forms of individual self-improvement (to pursue knowledge, to develop and exercise skills and virtues, and so on). However, there are a number of key differences between the reason that each of us has to prefer our society to perform better and each person’s reason to pursue individual self-improvement:

  • There is an enormous difference in value between (a) outcomes in which our society endures longer and improves in terms of these achievements and virtues and (b) outcomes in which it either dies out sooner, or deteriorates in terms of these achievements and virtues. This enormous difference in value generates a particularly weighty reason for each of us to prefer the former outcomes over the latter.
  • This is a reason for each of us to have the same preference between these outcomes – whereas reasons of individual self-improvement are primarily reasons for each person to pursue her own self-improvement (rather than the improvement of others).
  • The task of making our society better, in part through its lasting longer, is a task that can only be pursued by collective action: we must collectively raise children, organize schools and education systems, protect the environment, and so on.

Thus, we have compelling reason to commit ourselves to this grand collective project of getting our society to endure and improve. Doing one’s part in this collective project thus becomes a deeply moral issue.

This, it seems to me, is a much more plausible approach to population ethics than the dominant welfarist framework. A few philosophers – including Derek Parfit (in “Can We Avoid the Repugnant Conclusion?”, Theoria 2016) – have explored the prospects of perfectionist approaches to population ethics. But to my knowledge, no one has clearly articulated the social-perfectionist approach that I have sketched here.

Instead, the specialist literature on population ethics remains totally dominated by theorists who are wedded to welfarism — indeed to a broadly utilitarian tradition. These theorists endlessly strive in vain to make sense of welfarist comparisons between outcomes in which certain lives are lived and outcomes in which those lives are not lived. This is, in my view, a hopeless endeavour: the blinkered welfarist approach will never yield a plausible understanding of population ethics.

14 Replies to “Non-Welfarist Population Ethics (by Ralph Wedgwood)

  1. Just a background question: suppose there are two societies on the same planet, a very large one and a small one. This requires that they have no communication with each other. Now suppose we are wondering whether to cause there to be communication between the larger and smaller society. Would such communication threaten the existence of the smaller society?

  2. Thanks, David!

    I started worrying about this sort of question right after submitting my post… On second thoughts, I now think that the “no communication” condition should be appealed to only in order to count how many societies the world contains at a time. Then I think I should say that both the large society and the small one will count as “enduring” even if they merge, by entering into regular cultural communication with each other.

  3. I wonder about this case: suppose we could make a great leap forward, at which point progress stops at this happy point, even slipping just slight bad from the peak, OR we could instead move toward that happy point steadily over many years. It would clearly be open to you to say the early gains outweigh the value of steady improvement. But is it really plausible that there is something valuable to outweigh here, the fact of improvement?

  4. Thanks, Dave!

    You’re actually extrapolating from what I said — I didn’t mean to commit myself to any answer to the question of which of these two outcomes is better.

    I was just focusing on comparisons between two outcomes: one in which we die out at a time t, and a second in which we endure for a longer period, past this time t. My claim was that the second outcome is better than the first if and only if there is no long-term deterioration in the post-t period in the second outcome.

    So, I didn’t mean to commit myself to any particular view about how to compare societies that last for the same period of time, or to any specific metric of the relevant sort of improvement.

  5. Thanks, Ralph, I see. So now there’s a flip side of my question that goes like this: If a deteriorating extension (call it phase 2) adds no value in a scenario A, then for some degree of decreased value, presumably a society should choose scenario B, the lower level of value in phase 1 if that can be extended without deteriorating in phase 2. Now the total amount of value in A could be said to outweigh the disvalue of the deterioration itself, but is there really anything to outweigh? Must the difference in total value (not counting any disvalue of deterioration) be some significant quantum higher in A for it to beat B due to the disvalue of deterioration as such?

  6. Thanks again, Dave!

    I still want to avoid being committed to any particular answer to the flip side of your question too. (Ultimately, this is because I don’t accept the idea that value is “added” in the way that you seem to be assuming — but I suspect it would take us too far afield to explore that issue.)

    In the flip side of your question, we have two crucial times, t0 and t1. Options A and B both involve society’s enduring past both t0 and t1: the difference is that in option A, the society is wonderful between t0 and t1, but then appreciably deteriorates after t1, while in option B, the society improves slowly but steadily from t0 to t1 and beyond.

    Now I want to say that both options A and B are better than option C, in which the society dies out at t0. In addition, option A is not definitely better than option D, which is just like option A until t1, but then involves the society’s dying out. But I don’t think I am committed to saying anything about how A compares to B!

  7. OK, that helps on one thing, but I still haven’t gotten my main question through. So, pardon my reorganizing the cases one more time–dropping the previous labels for clarity:

    I. SHORT: At level L from t0 to t1, then goes away.
    II. STEADY: Just like (I) except it continues at level L after t1
    III. DECLINE: Just like (I) except it continues and deteriorates from level L after t1
    IV. LOWER STEADY: Like (II), except at some level L-n, lower than L

    You say:
    (II) Steady is better than (III) Decline.
    (III) Decline is not definitely better than (I) Short.

    I assume that in Decline, even in the declining phase, there are positive though declining levels of what makes a society good. But since Short is at least as good as Decline, those positive values are being cancelled or outweighed in some way by the fact of decline itself: the downward slope.

    That strongly suggests that some steady societies at a lower level than L—and even at a lower overall value (bracketing the impact of decline), would be better than Decline. For some non-zero level of “n” in IV, IV would be better than III even if worse by all non-slope measures.

    My concern is much like the “leveling down” challenge for egalitarianism: It look as though on your view, and maybe implausibly, all other (non-slope) value considered together is worth lowering to some extent, only for the sake of avoiding a certain formal pattern, a downward slope.

    Is that clearer?


  8. Thanks yet again, Dave!

    You say that you “assume” that “in Decline, even in the declining phase, there are positive though declining levels of what makes a society good.” According to this assumption, as I understand it, every moment in time in some sense “contains” a certain amount or “level” of “what makes a society good” — where having higher levels of “what makes a society good” at any point in the sequence makes the whole sequence of events over time better.

    I really do not accept this assumption (which I associate with the atomistically-additive aspect of utilitarianism, which in my view is what leads to the “repugnant conclusion” and other problems…). My picture is more holistic: the fundamental bearer of value, as I see it, is not the particular moment in time, but the whole sequence of events over time itself.

    So I really am not committed to what you think my view “strongly suggests”. I am not saying that the goodness of the declining phase of Decline is counterbalanced by its declining slope. I am talking about a kind of goodness that belongs irreducibly to the whole sequence over time. Thus, the last generation in Short may reasonably decide not to reproduce, I believe, without thinking that any such “counterbalancing” is going on.

    Incidentally, I didn’t say that Decline is worse than Short. I just said that it’s not better. I suspect that with many versions of Decline, it’s a case of incomparability!

  9. Ok, interesting. So, you say that you don’t accept that, a)”every moment in time in some sense “contains” a certain amount or “level” of “what makes a society good”” b) “where having higher levels of “what makes a society good” at any point in the sequence makes the whole sequence of events over time better.”

    As for (a) you’re measuring some kind of value at time slices, otherwise the idea of decline is undefined. Decline in what? So your point is apparently to reject (b).

    But all I needed for my question was that there be some measure of the portion of the value of a society considered over a period that is independent of the question of slope: its justice, achievement, culture, etc. I’m not assuming it’s a sum of the values at time slices, let it be dynamic or diachronic or holistic in one way or another. Now, one could in principle say that there is no (or no commensurable) value in those things (justice, achievement, culture, etc.) unless there is also non-negative slope. At the moment I see no reason to believe that. But unless you accept that, wouldn’t Decline be better than Short?

    If you do accept it, then a society of low but positive and steady non-slope value (justice etc.) over a period will be holistically better than the holistic value over a similar period of a society of very high and always positive but declining non-slope value. Have I got the view right? If so, do you accept this implication?

  10. Thanks again, Dave!

    There certainly is a measure of how just the society is during the period after t1 in Decline. The “deterioration” that I was talking about is defined in terms of that measure. But the value of justice is distinct from the kind of diachronic goodness or value that is at issue in population ethics, at least on the picture that I was sketching.

    The value of justice presupposes that we have a society, and then compares different possible ways for the society to be arranged, or different periods in the society’s history, or the like. As I see it, justice does not compare the existence of a society with the non-existence of that society.

    Yes, justice is a “value”. But this simply means that if one way for the society to be arranged, W1, is more just than a second way for the society to be arranged, W2, then W1 is in a certain distinctive respect — the justice respect — better than W2. It does not mean that the justice of the society is itself something that makes the universe better or anything like that — so that the universe is better with the just society existing than with no society existing at all. (Like Philippa Foot and Judith Thomson, I am not sure that I really understand such statements about how good the whole universe is…)

    This, then, is my reason for saying that the level of justice of a possible continuation of our society into the future only makes it better for us to bring about this continuation of our society into the future if it does not represent a permanent decline from our present level of justice.

    However, I still don’t accept what you take to be an implication of this. I am only comparing social states of affairs that have a shared past but different futures — one future in which the society continues into the future and a second in which it ceases in the present. The two societies that you are comparing in your final question do not have a shared past. So, I am not committed to saying anything about how they compare (in terms of this diachronic goodness that I am talking about).

  11. Another comment on the exchange between Dave Estlund and me:

    Dave at several points talks about “positive value”. The assumption behind this way of talking is presumably that there is both positive and negative value. This assumption makes perfect sense with the atomistically-additive approach of theories like utilitarianism: events or states of affairs have positive value if adding them to the world makes the world better, and negative value if adding them makes the world worse.

    However, this assumption does not obviously make any sense at all within a more holistic framework. Within the holistic framework, for every relevant kind of value, the bearer of value is some complex state of affairs — and this value is not in any sense built up out of the values of the “parts” of that complex. The role of the value is just to rank alternative complex states of affairs of this kind, ranking some as better and some as worse. There is no role here for a positive / negative distinction, and no obvious way to introduce such a distinction that could play any significant role.

    For this reason, the alternative non-welfarist approach to population ethics that I sketched in my post is designed to be compatible with the view that there is no non-arbitrary “zero point” at all, and so also no significant distinction between “positive” and “negative” value.

  12. Ralph, I’m glad you brought that up. I believe I respected (as I at least tried to do) the points you make about the holism. I was careful not to treat any ingredient of the complex whole as having positive value of its own. I spoke of a society in which, even though its value is declining, it is still positive over a given period. So far, that respects the complex over time being the thing of value. You also, and separately suggest that there may be no salient zero point–not a point specifically about the holism I think. On that, I had in mind a society whose value over the period in question was worth continuing the society into that period–the society with that continuation ranked over the society that stops short of it. It doesn’t matter for my point whether we treat that as a zero point, though I did in order to have the compact term “positive” available. Your view is, I think, that in light of the fact of decline, continuation is not definitely better. So I asked, suppose we considered the value over that period independently of the decline. I’m aware, as I said, that one *could* say, owing to your holism, that apart from the slope the other ingredients lack any continuation-worthy value of a kind that would support that ranking, but I reported that I find this implausible, the ingredients being such things as significant justice, achievement, and cultural features–these are to be filled in so as to make my example the most challenging one. I’m not here considering your comment in reply, just your points now about the holism and ordinalism. I wonder if you still think I’ve somehow presupposed something contrary to them.

  13. Dave, I now wonder if I’m missing something… I thought in your last-but-one comment, you were focusing on two societies that didn’t share a common past — but now you seem to be objecting directly to my claim that Short is not worse than Decline (or conversely, that Decline is not better than Short).

    If I understand you correctly, you think that this claim is implausible. So I take it you think that when the last generation in Short made the decision not to reproduce but to die out instead, they made the wrong decision. In your view of the case, they rejected the better possible future (better on account of ingredients like significant justice, cultural and other achievements, and so on) in favour of an inferior future (a future in which their society simply dies out).

    I agree that it’s not obvious what the right thing to say about this case is. But I don’t find your view any more obviously plausible than mine. Moreover, without assuming principles about value that I reject, I also don’t see how you have any argument against my claim, beyond your reporting that you find it implausible…

  14. That’s right, Ralph, I agree with that exactly. After emphasizing the continued existence of what could be significant justice, achievement, and cultural production, etc. I mean only to be reporting an intuitive response contrary to your position. It’s provisional, since theory might in the end make my response untenable.

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