A Normative Rule for Decision-Changing Metrics

byFrankAdamek10y5th Aug 200917 comments


Yesterday I wrote about the difficulties of ethics and potential people. Namely, that whether you bring a person into existence or not changes the moral metric by which your decision is measured. At first all I had was the observation suggesting that the issue was complex, but no answer to the question "Well then, what should we do?" I will write now about an answer that came to me.

All theories regarding potential people start by comparing outcomes to find which is most desirable, then moving towards it. However I believe I have shown that there are two metrics regarding such questions, and those metrics can disagree. What then do we do?

We are always in a particular population ourselves, and so we can ask not which outcome is preferable, but if we should move from one situation to another. This allows us to consider the alternate metrics in series. For an initial name more attractive than "my rule" I will refer to the system as Deontological Consequentialism, or DC. I'm open to other suggestions.

Step 1: Consider your action with the metric of new people not coming to be: that is, only the welfare of the people who will exist regardless of your decision.* I will assume in this discussion there are three possibilities: people receive higher utility, lower utility, or effectively unchanged utility. You might dispense with the third option, the results are similar.

First, if you expect reduced utility for existing people from taking an action: do not take that action. This is regardless of how many new people might otherwise exist or how much utility they might have; if we never bring them into existence, we have wronged no one.

This is the least intuitive aspect of this system, though it is also the most critical for avoiding the paradoxes of which I am aware. I think this unintuitive nature mostly stems from automatically considering future people as if they exist. I'd also note that our intuitions are really not used to dealing with this sort of question, but one more approachable example exists. If a couple strongly expects they will be unhappy having children, will derive little meaning from parenthood and few material benefits from their children and we believe them, if in short they really don't want kids, I suspect few will tell them they really ought to have children anyway as long as the children will be happy. I think few people consider how very happy the kids or grandkids might be either, even if the couple would be great parents; if the couple will be miserable we probably advocate they stay childless. Imagining such unhappy parents we also tend to imagine unhappy children, so some effort might be required to keep from ruining the example. See also Eliezer's discussion of the fallibility of intuition in a recent post.

Second, if we expect effectively unchanged utility for existing people it is again perfectly acceptable to not create new people, as you wrong no one by doing so. But as you don't harm yourself either, it's fine for you if you create them, bringing us to

Step 2a: Now we consider the future people. If they will have negative utility, i.e. roughly speaking they wish they hadn't been born, or for their sake we wish they hadn't been born, then we ought not to bring them into existence. We don't get anything and they suffer. If instead they experience entirely neutral lives (somehow), if they have no opinion on their creation, then it really doesn't matter if we create them or not.

If they will experience positive lives, then it would be a good thing to have created them, as it was "no skin off our backs anyway". However I would theoretically hold it's still perfectly acceptable not to bring them into existence, as if we don't they'll never mind that we didn't. But my neutrality towards bringing them into existence is such that I would even accept a rule I didn't agree with, saying that I ought to create the new people.

Now back into step 1, there is the case were existing people will benefit by creating new people. Here we are forced to consider their wellbeing in

Step 2b: Now if the new people have positive utility, or zero utility in totally neutral lives, then we should go ahead and bring them into existence, as we benefit and at least they don't suffer. However if they will have overall negative lives, then we should compare how much utility existing people gain and subtract the negative utility of the new people. You might dislike the idea of this inequality (I do as well) but this is a general issue with utilitarianism separate from potential people; here we’re considering them the same as existing people (as they then would be). If you've got a solution, such as weighting negative utility more heavily or just forcing in egalitarian considerations, apply it here.


This concludes Deontological Consequentialism. I won't go over them all here, but this rule seems to avoid unattractive answers to all paradoxes I've seen debated. There is one that threw me for a loop, the largely intractable "Mere Addition Paradox". I'll describe it briefly here, mostly to show how DC (at first) seems to fall prey to it as well.

A classic paradox is the Repugant Conclusion, which takes total utilitarianism to suggest we should prefer a vast population with lives barely worth living more than relatively few lives of very high utility. Using DC, if we are in the high utility population we note that we (existing people) would all experience drastically lower utility by bringing about the second situation, and so avoid it.

In the Mere Addition Paradox, you start from the high utility situation. Then you consider, is it moral to increase the utility of existing people while bringing into being huge numbers of people with very low but positive utility? DC seems to suggest we ought to, as we benefit and they have positive lives as well. Now that we've done that, ought we to reduce our own utility if it would allow the low-utility people to have higher utility, such that the total is drastically increased but everyone still experiences utility not far above zero? Deontological Consequentialism is only about potential people, but here both average and total utilitarianism suggest we should do this, increasing both the total and average.

And with this we find that by taking it in these steps we have arrived at the Repugnant Conclusion! For DC this is accomplished by "slipping in" the new people so that they become existing people, and our consideration of their wellbeing changes. The solution here is to take account of our own future actions: we see that by adding these new people at first, we will then seek to distribute our own utility to much increase theirs, and in the end we actually do experience reduced utility. That is, we see that by bringing them into existence we are in reality choosing the Repugnant Conclusion. Realizing this, we do not create them, and avoid the paradox. (In most conventional situations it seems more likely we can increase the new people's utility without such a decrease to our own.)

*An interesting situation arises when we know new people will come to be regardless of our decision. I suggest here that we average the utility of all new people in each population, treat the situation with fewer total people as our "existing population", and apply DC from there. Unless people are interested in talking about this arguably unusual situation however, I won't go into more detail.