Avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not necessary for population ethics: new many-author collaboration.

post by deanspears · 2021-04-14T00:48:22.789Z · EA · GW · 16 comments

This is a link post for https://deanspears.medium.com/the-repugnant-conclusion-is-a-puzzle-that-has-occupied-philosophers-and-economists-for-decades-9a8a071597be

Contents

  Population ethics “is not simply an academic exercise, and we should not let it be governed by undue attention to one consideration.”
None
16 comments

29 economists and philosophers, including leading researchers published today in Utilitas: “avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not a necessary condition for a minimally adequate... approach to population ethics.”  The link at the top of this post is to my own summary of the article and how we reached it, posted at Medium.

Population ethics asks how to evaluate policies and social trends that change the size of the global population. For decades, research has focused on whether to accept “the Repugnant Conclusion.” The Repugnant Conclusion is a hypothetical claim about how to compare populations of well-off people against imaginable, enormous populations of worse-off people. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains the Repugnant Conclusion and calls it “one of the cardinal challenges of modern ethics”. In a new publication in the journal Utilitas (link to open access paper), 29 philosophers, economists, and demographers agree: “avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion should no longer be the central goal driving population ethics research.”

The collaborators come from different institutes, continents, and academic disciplines. They also come from different perspectives. Their statement emphasizes that they came to their agreement for different reasons. Some think the Repugnant Conclusion is true. Others are unsure, but think it would be no big deal if true, or just one among many factors to consider. Others coauthors argue that the Repugnant Conclusion makes no sense to begin with. 

Population ethics “is not simply an academic exercise, and we should not let it be governed by undue attention to one consideration.”

The collaborators conclude with a hope that population ethics will one day make progress beyond the debates and questions of today: “Perhaps someday the correct approach to axiology, social welfare, or population ethics will be agreed upon among experts. If so, we do not know whether the approach used will entail the Repugnant Conclusion. We should keep our minds open.”

Contact: Dean Spears. dspears@utexas.edu
Citation: Zuber, et al. (2021) Utilitas (link)

16 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by AppliedDivinityStudies · 2021-04-15T18:22:41.328Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Separating this question from my main comment to avoid confusion.

Your medium post reads: "Tyler Cowen, calling for faster technological growth for a better future, dismissed the Repugnant Conclusion as a constraint: “I say full steam ahead.”"

Linking to this MR post: https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/08/preface-stubborn-attachments-book-especially-important.html

The MR post does not mention the Repugnant Conclusion, nor does it contain the words "full steam ahead". Did. you perhaps link to the wrong post? I searched the archives briefly, but was unable to find a MR post that dismisses the Repugnant Conclusion: https://marginalrevolution.com/?s=repugnant+conclusion

comment by AppliedDivinityStudies · 2021-04-15T18:11:39.464Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with every claim made in this paper. And yet, its publication strikes me as odd and inappropriate.

Consider the argument from Agnes Callard that philosophers should not sign petitions. She writes: "I am not saying that philosophers should refrain from engaging in political activity; my target is instead the politicization of philosophy itself. I think that the conduct of the profession should be as bottomless as its subject matter: If we are going to have professional, intramural discussions about the ethics of the profession, we should do so philosophically and not by petitioning one another. We should allow ourselves the license to be philosophical all the way down." https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/13/opinion/philosophers-petitions.html

The article in question here is not exactly a petition, but it's not a research paper either. Had it not be authored by so many distinguished names, it would not have been deemed fit for publication. By its own admission, the purpose of this article is not to make an original research contribution. Rather, its purpose is to claim that "the Repugnant Conclusion now receives too much focus. Avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion should no longer be the central goal driving population ethics research".

Is this a good principle to publish by? Is the role of philosophers in the near-future to sign off in droves on many-authored publications, all for the sake of shifting the focus of attention?

Of course philosophers should refute the arguments they disagree with. But that doesn't seem to be what's occurring here.

This risks being an overly-heated debate, so I'll stop there. I would just ask you to consider whether or not this is what the practice of philosophy ought to look like, and if it constitutes a desirable precedent for academic publishing.

Replies from: MichaelPlant, jackmalde, RobBensinger
comment by MichaelPlant · 2021-04-18T12:49:22.488Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

When I first saw the paper, I thought "oh cool, how novel for philosophers to come together and say they agree on something, for once". But then, as I reflected on it a couple of days later, I thought the publication was odd. After all, there's not much in the way of argument, so the paper is really just a statement of opinion. As such, there is a problematic whiff of an appeal to authority and social pressure here: "oh, you think the repugnant conclusion is repugnant? But you shouldn't, because all these smart people disagree with you. Just get with the progamme, okay?"

In general, I don't see how papers which say (little more than) "We agree with X" merit publication. What would be the point of a paper which said, e.g. "We, some utilitarian philosophers, do not think the usual objections to utilitarianism succeed because of the usual counter-objections"? We already know that philosophers believe a variety of things.

Replies from: Max_Daniel, Halstead
comment by Max_Daniel · 2021-04-18T20:18:09.208Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In general, I don't see how papers which say (little more than) "We agree with X" merit publication. What would be the point of a paper which said, e.g. "We, some utilitarian philosophers, do not think the usual objections to utilitarianism succeed because of the usual counter-objections"? We already know that philosophers believe a variety of things.

I have some sympathy to your general point. However, I think this case is relevantly different from utilitarian philosophers stating they agree with utilitarianism, for the following reasons:

  • Many philosophers working in (non-applied) ethics seem to have an attitude of extreme reverence toward Derek Parfit. Parfit rejected the Repugnant Conclusion [1], and essentially founded [2] the field of population ethics on the premise that it's task was to find some 'Theory X' that would avoid the Repugnant Conclusion and other problems.
  • My impression is that most academic work in population ethics has in fact sought to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion, with papers such as Huemer's In Defence of Repugnance being the exception.
  • The name 'Repugnant Conclusion' suggests that it is obviously unacceptable.

None of these claims have true analogs for utilitarianism. It's not the case that the field of normative ethics was conceived as a project to defeat utilitarianism; there is plenty of work arguing for utilitarianism; etc.

More broadly, I think analytic philosophy has a tendency to spawn 'industries' that produce ever more refined attempts and rebuttals of formal theories that try to provide a solution to some problem, the framing of which is usually taking for granted. Perhaps the most infamous examples are countless attempts to find some definition or 'analysis' of the concept of knowledge in terms of more primitive concepts such as justification, truth, and belief, in response to Edmund Gettier's examples allegedly showing that knowledge can't simply be justified true belief. (Indeed, philosophers have discussed the 'Gettier Problem problem', i.e. the philosophical problem of explaining why solving the original Gettier Problem is pointless or otherwise problematic.) Other examples might be the logical positivist project to reduce meaning to predictions of sense data, attempts at defusing van Inwagen's Consequence Argument for the incompatibility of free will and determinism by providing counterexamples to one of its premises, or the ever-growing zoo of Frankfurt-style examples aimed at showing that moral responsibility does not require a 'could have done otherwise' property.

To the extent that there is progress in philosophy, I think it often consists in disrupting such industries by reframing the problem they were built on or forcefully arguing against some desideratum that was thought to be necessary for a 'solution'. (A more cynical view would be that such work merely replaces one flawed industry with the next.) At the very least, such work has often become famous, e.g. Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Strawson's Freedom and Resentment, Frankfurt's Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility and Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person, Kripke's Naming and Necessity, etc.

However, a comparison with such contributions also brings me back to where I agree with you: I think these philosophers provided value because they didn't merely state that they disagreed with, or disliked something about some 'industry'. And, crucially, they even went beyond arguing for or explaining their view. They also made a positive contribution by showing how different and more fruitful work could look like. So e.g., roughly speaking, Quine said "you can't 'reduce' the meaning of an individual proposition to anything, you need to look at the full web of beliefs", Strawson said "the basis for moral responsibility lies not in questions whether or not anyone could have done anything otherwise but in people's 'reactive attitudes' toward each others' behavior", Frankfurt regarding the same issue instead pointed to the internal structure of a moral agent's preferences, etc. Then other philosophers can and did make positive contributions by describing how meaning is a holistic property, what it is about the structure of an agent's internal preferences that makes them morally responsible for their actions, etc.

At least at first glance I couldn't find such a  positive contribution in the paper we're discussing here. It's all well and good to say that one doesn't like the existing population ethics 'industry' - and I agree, in my view the field has been stale for a long time and has consisted mostly of footnotes to Parfit -, but then what else do you want people to do? Quine wouldn't have been nearly as influential had he said "perhaps one day the correct approach to meaning will be uncovered, but I don't know whether Carnap would agree with it". And I suspect the lack of a clear positive recommendation or other 'way out' may prevent this paper from having the effect it tries to have. Though perhaps only time will tell. (E.g. arguably semantic holism wasn't exactly well developed in Two Dogmas itself.)

 

--

[1] At least Parfit clearly rejected the Repugnant Conclusion in Reasons and Persons, Part IV of which seems close to a 'founding document' for population ethics. As the authors of the paper discussed here mention, Parfit seems to later have somewhat changed his stance, though my memory from one of his last papers was still that he was hoping to advance some view avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion (through some combination of lexicality and incomparability or vagueness - indeed the paper was titled Can We Avoid the Repugnant Conclusion?). However, I'm no expert on Parfit's late work and could easily be wrong; e.g. I don't know what if anything he says on population ethics in On What Matters.

[2] There are papers on what we'd today call population ethics that precede Parfit's work, and Reasons in Persons in particular. However, my impression is that Parfit's work, and Reasons and Persons in particular, have had a domineering influence over subsequent work in what became known as population ethics, at least among analytic philosophers in a broadly consequentialist tradition. Again, I'm no expert on the history of population ethics, and would welcome corrections.

Replies from: RobBensinger
comment by RobBensinger · 2021-04-18T22:40:43.451Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

but then what else do you want people to do?

The paper doesn't provide a roadmap for this, but it does indicate what kinds of problems it thinks are more worthy of population ethicists' time: problems that help us make real-world moral decisions.

"Ethical arguments are widely used in public debate, everyday decision-making, and policy-making. For example, ethical arguments against social inequality and discrimination are common – although not universal, not always successful, and not always correct. Many public decisions affect the world's future population. Population ethics is therefore an essential foundation for making these decisions properly. It is not simply an academic exercise, and we should not let it be governed by undue attention to one consideration."

Replies from: MichaelPlant
comment by MichaelPlant · 2021-04-19T11:49:34.484Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I suppose so. But if you don't think the article provides new reasons to care less about avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion, then it doesn't provide new reasons to focus on other moral problems more.

comment by Halstead · 2021-04-18T21:00:08.763Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Echoing what Max says, I think this paper comes from the assumption that a lot of population ethics is just off down the wrong track of trying to craft theories in a somewhat ad hoc manner that avoid the repugnant conclusion. It is difficult to think of how else these people could try and make this point given that making the same points that others have made before, in some cases several decades ago, would not be publishable because they are not novel. This strikes me as something of a (frustrated?) last resort to try and make the discipline acknowledge that there might be a problem in the way it has been going for thirty years. 

I suppose one alternative would have been to publish this on a philosophy blog, but then it would necessarily have got less reach than getting it in a top journal. 

Although unusual in philosophy, the practice is widespread in science. Scientists will often write in short letters criticising published articles that are light on substantive argument but reiterate a view among some prominent researchers. 

Finally, I think it is useful to have more surveys of what different researchers in a field believe, and this is one such instance of that - it tells us that several of the world's best moral philosophers are willing to accept this thing that everyone else seems to think is insane. 

Replies from: MichaelPlant
comment by MichaelPlant · 2021-04-19T11:48:05.568Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your comments, Max and John. They inclined me to be quite a bit more favourable to the paper. I still have mixed feelings: while I respect the urge the move a stale conversation on, I don't think the authors provide new object-level reasons to do so. They do provide a raw (implicit?) appeal for others, as their peers, to update in their direction, but I'm sceptical that's what philosophy should involve.

Replies from: RobBensinger
comment by RobBensinger · 2021-04-20T17:17:30.358Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

while I respect the urge the move a stale conversation on, I don't think the authors provide new object-level reasons to do so.

If adequate object-level reasons were already provided for something, but a field hasn't updated on those reasons, then what should a field do?

Two ideas that come to mind:

  • Summarize and/or signal-boost the existing reasons.
  • Write a paper speculating about why, psychologically or sociologically, the field hasn't updated enough, in the hope that this will cause the field to reflect on its mistakes and change.

The Utilitas paper falls in the first category. (It does summarize / signal-boost past psychological accounts of why people have put too much weight on anti-repugnant-conclusion intuitions; but it doesn't offer new explanations of why people didn't update on those past psychological accounts and other arguments.) 

Regardless of the merits of the second category, I'm not keen on the idea of getting rid of the first category, because I think one of the bigger reasons the world's institutions are failing today, and one of the bigger reasons science is dysfunctional, is an over-emphasis on advancing-the-frontiers-of-knowledge over summarizing-and-synthesizing-what's-known within science and academia.

Cf. Holden Karnofsky's account of science [LW · GW].

comment by jackmalde · 2021-04-16T07:57:21.214Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't find your comment to have much in the way of argument as to why it might be bad if papers like this one become more widespread. What are you actually worried would happen? This isn't super clear to me at the moment.

I agree a paper that just says "we should ignore the repugnant conclusion" without saying anything else isn't very helpful, but this paper does at least gather reasons why the repugnant conclusion may be on shaky ground which seems somewhat useful to me.

Replies from: AppliedDivinityStudies
comment by AppliedDivinityStudies · 2021-04-16T09:01:02.523Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I received a nice reply from Dean which I've asked if I can share. Assuming he says yes, I'll have a more thought out response to this point soon.

Here are some quick thoughts: There are many issues in all academic fields, the vast majority of which are not paid the appropriate amount of attention. Some are overvalued, some are unfairly ignored. That's too bad, and I'm very glad that movements like EA exist to call more attention to pressing research questions that might otherwise get ignored.

What I'm afraid of is living in a world where researchers see it as part of their charter to correct each of these attentional inexactitudes, and do so by gathering bands of other academics to many-author a paper which basically just calls for a greater/lesser amount of attention to be paid to some issue.

Why would that be bad?

  1. It's not a balanced process. Unlike the IGM Experts Panel, no one is being surveyed and there's no presentation of disagreement or distribution of beliefs over the field. How do we know there aren't 30 equally prominent people willing to say the Repugnant Conclusion is actually very important? Should they go out and many-author their own paper?
  2. A lot of this is very subjective, you're just arguing that an issue receives more/less attention than is merited. That's fine as a personal judgement, but it's hard for anyone else to argue against on an object-level. This risks politicization.
  3. There are perverse incentives. I'm not claiming that's what's at play here, but it's a risk this precedent sets. When academics argue for the (un)importance of various research questions, they are also arguing for their own tenure, departmental funding, etc. This is an unavoidable part of the academic career, but it should be limited to careerist venues, not academic publications.

Again, those are some quick thoughts from an outsider, so I wouldn't attach too much credence to them. But I hope that help explains why this strikes me as somewhat perilous.

Once shared, I think Dean's response will show that my concerns are, in practice, not very serious.

Replies from: deanspears
comment by deanspears · 2021-04-16T14:25:10.750Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi!  I thought I might jump in to make sure we're not conflating the Medium essay, which wasn't written by the whole group, the Social Choice and Welfare paper, which Mark Budolfson and I wrote, and the Utilitas paper, which reflects the whole group.   It is not the case that the Utilitas paper, as you write, "basically just calls for a greater/lesser amount of attention to be paid to some issue" (although that would not necessarily seem bad -- often there are collaborative statements about methodology in the research literature; see, for a valuable example Lancet Commissions).  Here is the main claim of the Utilitas paper, which takes a substantive position in population ethics:

1. What we agree on

We agree on the following:

1. The fact that an approach to population ethics (an axiology or a social ordering) entails the Repugnant Conclusion is not sufficient to conclude that the approach is inadequate. Equivalently, avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not a necessary condition for a minimally adequate candidate axiology, social ordering, or approach to population ethics.

To respond to the other thoughts:

  • Population ethics has, from the beginning, been an interdisciplinary field including economists (who are more likely to collaborate and sometimes address policy audiences),  philosophers (who are more likely to address scholarly audiences and tend to write single-authored papers), and others.  So there is already a long and valuable interdisciplinary tradition of collaborations in population ethics, especially where population interacts with public policy.  An important IPCC consensus document talks about it, for example.  The Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm achieves distinction in the field by promoting high-quality interdisciplinary collaborations in large part about population ethics, with an explicit goal of being policy-relevant (and with, I understand, public funding).  This sort of interdisciplinary, multi-author collaboration is especially common in climate research, but one sees it in many fields. Here is a similar example from my home field of sanitation in developing countries, where we were concerned that the scholarly and policy implications of a few prominent randomized experiments were being misunderstood.
  • Of course, there are incentives throughout scholarly publishing and careers.  Academic publishing is never a level playing field.  Some people have incentives to overstate their disagreement or invent a new idea so that they can start a career.  Some people have an incentive to defend old views so that they can maintain a career.  Attention, time, and resources are all scarce, so there is no easy solution to the challenge of experts needing to choose what they are going to pay more attention to.  
Replies from: AppliedDivinityStudies
comment by AppliedDivinityStudies · 2021-04-16T19:28:45.930Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Dean! Good to hear from you.

I hope you don't feel like I'm misrepresenting this paper. To be clear, I am referring to "What Should We Agree on about the Repugnant Conclusion?", which includes the passages:

  • "We believe, however, that the Repugnant Conclusion now receives too much focus. Avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion should no longer be the central goal driving population ethics research, despite its importance to the fundamental accomplishments of the existing literature."
  • "It is not simply an academic exercise, and we should not let it be governed by undue attention to one consideration. "

That is from the introduction and conclusion. I'm not sure if that constitutes the "main claim". I may have been overreaching to say that it "basically" only serves as a call for less attention. As I noted in the comment, my intention was never to lend too much credence to that particular claim.

I fully agree with your points on the interdisciplinary of population ethics and the unavoidability of incentives.

comment by RobBensinger · 2021-04-16T15:03:55.268Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Intuition check: If philosophy were a brain, and published articles were how it did its "thinking", then would it reach better conclusions if it avoided thinking about whether it's giving too much attention to a topic?

In the case of an individual, we value the idea of reflecting on your thought process and methodology. Reasoning about your own reasoning is good -- indeed, such thoughts can be among the most leveraged parts of a person's life, since any improvements you make to your allocation of effort or the quality of your reasoning will improve all your future reasoning.

The group version of this is reasoning about whether the group is reasoning well, or whether the group is misallocating its attention and effort.

You could argue that articles like this are unnecessary even when a field goes totally off the rails, because academic articles aren't the only way the field can think. Individuals in the field can think in the privacy of their own head, and reach correlated conclusions because the balance of evidence is easy to assess. They can talk at conferences, or send emails to each other.

But if those are an essential part of the intellectual process anyway, I guess I don't see the value in trying to hide that process from the public eye or the public record. And once they're public, I'm not sure it matters much whether it's a newspaper article, a journal article, or a blog post.

Replies from: AppliedDivinityStudies
comment by AppliedDivinityStudies · 2021-04-16T19:44:37.934Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

That's a good way of framing it. I absolutely agree that individuals and groups should reflect on whether or not their time is being spent wisely.

Here are some possible failure modes. I am not saying that any of these are occurring in this particular situation. As a naive outsider looking in, this is merely what springs to mind when I consider what might happen if this type of publishing were to become commonplace.

  • Imagine I am a mildly prominent academic. One day, a colleague sends me a draft of a paper, asking if I would like to co-author it. He tells me that the other co-authors include Yew-Kwang Ng, Toby Ord, Hilary Greaves and other superstars. I haven't given the object-level claims much thought, but I'm eager to associate with high-status academics and get my name on a publication in Utilitas. I go ahead and sign off.

  • Imagine I am a junior academic. One day, I have an insight that may lead to an important advance in population ethics, but it relies on some discussion of the Repugnant Conclusion. As I discuss this idea with colleagues, I'm directed to this many-authored paper indicating that we should not pay too much attention to the Repugnant Conclusion. I don't take issue with any of the paper's object-level claims, I simply believe that my finding is important whether or not it's in an subfield that has received "too much focus". My colleagues have no opinion on the matter at hand, but keep referring me to the many-authored paper anyway, mumbling something about expert consensus. In the end, I'm persuaded not to publish.

  • Imagine I am a very prominent academic with a solid reputation. I now want to raise more grant funding for my department, so I write a short draft making the claim that my subfield has received too little focus. I pass this around to mildly prominent academics, who sign off on the paper in order to associate with me and get their name on a publication in Utilitas. With 30 prominent academics on the paper, no journal would dare deny me publication.

Again, my stance here is not as an academic. These are speculative failure modes, not real scenarios I've seen, and certainly not real accusations I'm making of the specific authors in question here. My goal is to express what I believe to be a reasonable discomfort, and seek clarification on how the academic institutions at play actually function.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-05-10T03:02:54.446Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From the paper itself:

The fact that the Repugnant Conclusion is implied by many plausible principles of axiology and social welfare is not a reason to doubt the existence or coherence of ethics and value theory (although we do not rule out that there may be other reasons for moral skepticism).

If your moral intuitions are not logically compatible, that's a problem for the coherence of your views, right? Is the point that your views are just not the "right ones"? But still, if ethics fundamentally relies on moral intuitions, then I think the more intuitions we need to drop, the more doubt we should have about the reliability of moral intuitions generally and the coherence of ethics altogether.

Of course, some people do not find the RC repugnant at all and never did.

(i) The Repugnant Conclusion depends crucially on intuitions about cases with very large numbers of people. The size of such very large numbers is hard to grasp on an intuitive level (Broome 2004; Huemer 2008; Gustafsson, forthcoming).

My intuitions against the repugnant conclusion don't have anything to do with the large numbers involved. I think it's wrong to add extra people if it means those who would exist otherwise (in a wide non-identity sense, or in a personal sense) will be worse off. This already holds for 1 extra person.

Personally, I lean towards a hard procreation asymmetry and something like negative utilitarianism. If I wanted "more moderate" views, I'd also rather reject the independence of irrelevant alternatives than accept that adding people with sufficiently good lives to the world makes things better, all else equal.

The impossibility theorems in population ethics can be read as strong arguments for the Repugnant Conclusion.

I agree, but they could also be read as strong arguments against any of the other conditions, like the independence of irrelevant alternatives, which seems usually taken for granted in these theorems.