Monday, November 03, 2008

Welfare and Contributory Value

Distinguish two ways to evaluate a life: welfare value (how good it is for the person living it) and contributory value (what value it adds to the world at large). Might these come apart? Not according to 'crude aggregation', i.e. the view that the value of the world is simply the sum of the welfare values of the lives in it. But we should reject crude aggregation (for one thing, it implies Parfit's repugnant conclusion). I take it this commits us to the view that welfare and contributory value can come apart. But when?

Suppose average welfare matters. Then it could make the world worse to add a new life that has low positive welfare, if this drags down the average. At the very least, the contributory value would seem less than the positive welfare value -- if not negative, then perhaps simply zero; we don't think the extra mediocre life makes the world a better place than it otherwise would have been, even though it is better for the individual to exist than not. Still, there remains some connection: holding constant the fact of their existence, making the new individual significantly better or worse off would also (respectively) improve or worsen the world.

A more radical divergence in these values might be achieved if desert matters. Suppose it makes the world worse if good things happen to bad people (who instead deserve to suffer). Then the happiness of an unrepentant murderer has negative contributory value - it makes the world worse - even though happiness is presumably good for the murderer himself, i.e. it adds to the welfare value of his life.

Can you think of any other examples? I take it the common thread here is a kind of holism about worldly value, such that the contributory value of an individual life cannot be assessed in isolation from how it affects the overall pattern or 'shape' of the world as a whole. Whether it's good to add additional lives (of certain welfare values) to the world depends on how many other people exist, and how well-off they are. As I once put it: 'Adding one to a billion does not make the world a more beautiful shape. But a world with a person is surely more beautiful than the void.'

If we start thinking about the value of the world from this more 'aesthetic' perspective, even more possibilities arise. We may find value in symbolic historical events or 'narrative arcs', independently of how they affect individual people. I recently read a news story about a 109 year old daughter of a slave voting for Obama. There's something kind of cool about that -- like a spark of light that pushes back against the shadows of history -- something that makes the world a better place. And this might still hold true even if the woman personally found the experience merely a bother, and not something that improved her life (from a self-interested perspective) at all. (No doubt communitarians could come up with more along these lines.)

Which sorts of cases do you find most plausible?


  1. 1. Avoidance of the repugnant conclusion is only one among several conditions which we intuitively believe a moral theory must fulfill to be credible. Since fulfillment of all such conditions is demonstrably impossible, the mere fact that aggregationism implies the repugnant conclusion is not a valid reason for rejecting it.

    2. The average view fails to fulfill a stronger condition than your example suggests. It implies that adding people whose lives are extremely bad for them is morally good if life for the rest is on average worse than it is for these people.

    3. Here are two other ways in which good and wellbeing can come apart. First, the welfare level at which a life is neither good nor bad morally may not coincide with the level at which it is neither good nor bad for the person living it. Second, a life twice as morally good may be more or less than twice as good for the person whose life it is.

  2. Hi Pablo, much depends on whether the other alleged 'conditions' seem as stringent as the requirement to avoid the RC. I don't think they are; I'm quite happy to instead reject the 'independence' requirement, adopting value holism instead. Hence my claim: "the contributory value of an individual life cannot be assessed in isolation from how it affects the overall pattern or 'shape' of the world as a whole".

    re:#2, I never discussed a pure average view, but I would reject that too. Even so, I'm open to the possibility that a small extremely bad world could (depending on how we fill out the details) be improved by adding more people who are just moderately poorly off (i.e. low negative welfare). That does seem like the kind of thing that could, perhaps, improve the overall 'shape' of the world, making it a slightly less terrible place, no?

    Your point #3 is helpful -- it shows ways that even anti-holists might think welfare and contributory (moral) value diverge.

  3. I'm with Pablo on this one. I think the repugnant conclusion is the least troubling option.

    just moderately poorly off (i.e. low negative welfare)

    I don't think this is a good description of low negative welfare. It sounds to me like people who are lower middle class, not people whose lives are so unbearably bad that it is rational for them to kill themselves. I can't see any circumstance when adding such lives improves the world. Note that in your example it also increases inequality.

    I am interested in your holistic approach though, and would like to see some examples of how it could be plausibly fleshed out. My guess is that it will only avoid troubling examples by not being concrete enough to allow critics to construct them, but I'd like to be proved wrong on this.

  4. Toby - it doesn't necessarily follow from having negative welfare that it is rational to kill oneself. Strictly speaking, it is merely to say that one would have been better off never to have existed in the first place. Whether it's better to cease existing sooner rather than later is a further question -- you can see how the intrapersonal equivalent of an average utilitarian might give a different answer here, if one's future days would be less bad than one's past.

    In support of the idea that appending (lesser) negatives can be a good thing, recall the Kahneman studies showing that people prefer a longer pain with a less-painful ending than a shorter pain without that extra less-painful bit tacked on. See here for further discussion.


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