Against population ethics

The following is an excerpt from some comments I wrote to Will MacAskill about a pre-publication draft of What We Owe the Future. It is in response to the chapter on population ethics.

Chapter 8 presented some interesting ideas and did so clearly, I learned a lot from it.

That said, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something bizarre about the entire enterprise of trying to rate and rank different worlds and populations. I wonder if the attempt is misguided, and if that’s where some of the paradoxes come from.

When I encounter questions like “is a world where we add X many people with Y level of happiness better or worse?” or “if we flatten the happiness of a population to its average, is that better or worse?”—my reaction is to reject the question.

First, I can’t imagine a reasonable scenario in which I would ever have the power to choose between such worlds. Second, if I consider realistic, analogous scenarios, there are always major considerations that guide my choices other than an abstract, top-down decision about overall world-values.

For instance, if I choose to bring one more person into the world, by having a child (which, incidentally, we just did!), that decision is primarily about what kind of life I want to have, and what commitments I am willing to make, rather than about whether I think the world, in the abstract, is better or not with one more person in it.

Similarly, if I were to consider whether I should make the lives of some people worse, in order to make the lives of some less-well-off people better, my first thought is: by what means, and what right do I have to do so? If it were by force or conquest, I would reject the idea, not necessarily because of the end, but because I don’t believe that the ends justify the means.

There seems to be an implicit framework to a lot of this along the lines of: “in order to figure out what to do, we need to first decide which worlds are better than which other worlds, and then we can work towards better worlds or avoiding worse worlds.”

This is fairly abstract, centralized, and top-down. World-states are assigned value without considering, to whom and for what? The world-states are presumed to be universal, the same for everyone. And it provides no guidance about what means are acceptable to work towards world-states.

An approach that makes more sense to me is something like: “The goal of ethics is to guide action. But actions are taken by individuals, who are ultimately sovereign entities. Further, they have differing goals and even unique perspectives and preferences. Ethics should help individuals decide what goals they want to pursue, and should give guidance for how they do so, including principles for how they interact with others in society. This can ultimately include concepts of what kind of society and world we want to live in, but these world-level values must be built bottom-up, grounded in the values and preferences of individuals. Ultimately, world-states must be understood as an emergent property of individuals pursuing their own life-courses, rather than something that we can always evaluate top-down.”

I wonder if, in that framework, a lot of the paradoxes in the book would dissolve. (Although perhaps, of course, new ones would be created!) Rather than asking whether a world-state is desirable or not, we would consider the path by which it came about. Was it the result of a population of individuals pursuing good (if not convergent) goals, according to good principles (like honesty and integrity), in the context of good laws and institutions that respect rights and prohibit oppression? If so, then how can anyone say that a different world-state would have been better, especially without explaining how it might have come about?

I’m not sure that this alternate framework is compatible with EA—indeed, it seems perhaps not even compatible with altruism as such. It’s more of an individualist /​ enlightened-egoism framework, and I admit that it represents my personal biases and background. It also may be full of holes and problems itself—but I hope it’s useful for you to consider it, if only to throw light on some implicit assumptions.

Incidentally, aside from all this, my intuition about the Repugnant Conclusion is that Non-Anti-Egalitarianism is wrong. The very reason that the Conclusion is repugnant is the idea that there’s some nonlinearity to happiness: a single thriving, flourishing life is better than the same amount of happiness spread thin over many lives. But if that’s the case, then it’s wrong to average out a more-happy population with a less-happy population. I suppose this makes me an anti-egalitarian, which is OK with me. (But again, I prefer to analyze this in terms of the path to the outcome and how it relates to the choices and preferences of the individuals involved.)