The repugnant conclusion is irrelevant because people find it repugnant

Vox is embroiled in a bit of controversy because the online magazine solicited an article from a Swedish philosopher, Torbjorn Tannsjo, endorsing the repugnant conclusion and then decided that Tannsjo’s conclusions were too repugnant to publish.  My advice is to go ahead and publish because it won’t lead to any repugnant consequences.  Nobody is going to change their actions based on Tannsjo’s philosophy in the article.

The repugnant conclusion is a challenge to utilitarianism that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls, “one of the cardinal challenges of modern ethics” and explains it thus:

In Derek Parfit’s original formulation the Repugnant Conclusion is characterized as follows: “For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living” (Parfit 1984).

Although moral philosophers care a lot about it, pretty much nobody else does.  Even Parfit didn’t like it which is why he called it “repugnant”.  That is why Vox shouldn’t worry about publishing the repugnant article.  Nobody is going to be convinced.  Religious movements that encourage maximum fertility have been much more influential, but they don’t use the repugnant conclusion’s utilitarian reasoning and even they have not been that successful at convincing people to have large families.  For example the Catholic Church promotes anti-birth control policies that could lead to large families, but almost no Catholics  abide by the church’s official teaching on the matter.

A few families can have nineteen kids because the rest of society provides them with support, but if everyone had that number of children, we would see hardship.  For example, the Nineteen Kids and Counting family is rich and can hire people to work building their house, growing their food, and providing their healthcare.  The American health insurance is regulated to subsidize large families.  Each American spends over $8,000 per year on healthcare on average, but families pay the same premium for insurance regardless of how many kids they have.  This is one of many ways Americans subsidize other people’s kids.  The average baby costs over $30,000 in healthcare, but almost no families pay the full cost.  If the Duggars paid an actuarially fair price for health insurance for each birth, they would have expected to pay $570,000 just for the births.  Almost half of all births were paid for by Medicaid even before Obamacare and it is undoubtedly more now.

Most rich families choose to have small families and poor families have more children on average.  Poor families also rely upon numerous supports from the rest of society.  We subsidize other people’s kids because America need somebody to have kids to support us in our old age and despite all the subsidies for kids, average family size is shrinking.  The US spends over $12,000 per child in public education (and more for the average year of college education).  That would total $216,000 for eighteen kids to get one year of public schooling.  It simply isn’t feasible for a society to afford quality education for every child if every family has eighteen kids and counting.  We wouldn’t have enough teachers when all our parents would be too busy to work outside the home.

This is one reason why most people don’t support the repugnant conclusion that they should maximize their children.  They realize that large numbers of children create large costs and they aren’t willing to pay those costs themselves nor impose them on others.  But there are numerous ways to avoid the repugnant conclusion as you can see listed in Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia at the links above.  Medianism is one simple way out of the repugnant conclusion.  If your goal is to maximize the happiness of the median person, then you don’t want to maximize population.

But I’m not going to put any effort into promoting medianism as a way to solve this “cardinal challenge… of modern ethics” because the repugnant conclusion isn’t a challenge to most people’s way of thinking.  As Kevin Drum mentions, most people don’t care about it.  What people do care about is cost-benefit analysis and mean GDP, which also happen to be ways to reject the repugnant conclusion.*  These are the main modern ethical systems that run our economies and Medianism is a way to challenge and slightly improve on them.

Many people, including Kevin Drum and numerous people in his comment thread, try to solve the repugnant conclusion by rejecting utilitarianism:

Why on earth would anyone take Tannsjo’s argument seriously in the first place? The entire thing hinges on the premise that we all have a moral duty to maximize the absolute amount of felt happiness in the universe. If you don’t believe that, there’s nothing left of his essay.

But virtually no one does believe that. And since Tannsjo never even tries to justify his premise, that makes his entire piece kind of pointless. It would have taken me about five minutes to reject it.

Utilitarianism is the idea that we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness or ‘utility.’ Lots of people follow utilitarian thinking whether they realize it or not.  For example cost-benefit analysis is an extremely influential kind of utilitarianism (called mmutilitarianism). Some of Kevin Drum’s own writing reflects this kind of moral thinking so his argument against utilitarianism is incoherent in the context of his own broad moral thinking.  His core argument against the repugnant conclusion is a remarkably sloppy and un-self-reflective considering that there are many other ways to argue against it including an offhand remark he makes later in his article: “We care about lots of things; they often conflict; and we always have to end up balancing them in some acceptable way.”  That makes a lot more sense than claiming to reject utilitarianism.  Like all simple moral theories, utilitarianism is imperfect and so we all balance utilitarian thinking against other kinds of simple moral heuristics which also have their flaws too.  All tools have their limits.  There is no need to deny that hammers have value just because you come across a loose screw now and then.

*Note that cost-benefit analysis could support the repugnant conclusion in theory, depending on the methodology, but in practice, I have never seen any cost-benefit analysis that actually does support the repugnant conclusion, so it is not a de facto issue for this highly influential ethical tool.

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