Skirting the mere addition paradox

by Stuart_Armstrong1 min read18th Nov 201325 comments


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Consider the following facts:

  1. For any population of people of happiness h, you can add more people of happiness less than h, and still improve things.
  2. For any population of people, you can spread people's happiness in a more egalitarian way, while keeping the same average happiness, and this makes things no worse.

This sounds a lot like the mere addition paradox, illustrated by the following diagram:

This is seems to lead directly to the repugnant conclusion - that there is a huge population of people who's lives are barely worth living, but that this outcome is better because of the large number of them (in practice this conclusion may have a little less bite than feared, at least for non-total utilitarians).

But that conclusion doesn't follow at all! Consider the following aggregation formula, where au is the average utility of the population and n is the total number of people in the population:


This obeys the two properties above, and yet does not lead to a repugnant conclusion. How so? Well, property 2 is immediate - since only the average utility appears, the reallocating utility in a more egalitarian way does not decrease the aggregation. For property 1, define f(n)=1-(1/2)n. This function f is strictly increasing, so if we add more members of the population, the product goes up - this allows us to diminish the average utility slightly (by decreasing the utility of the people we've added, say), and still end up with a higher aggregation.

How do we know that there is no repugnant conclusion? Well, f(n) is bounded above by 1. So let au and n be the average utility and size of a given population, and au' and n' those of a population better than this one. Hence au(f(n)) < au'(f(n')) < au'. So the average utility can never sink below au(f(n)): the average utility is bounded.

So some weaker versions of the mere addition argument do not imply the repugnant conclusion.

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