Friday, February 19, 2021

Guest Post: The Problem of Large Distances in Value Holism

My thanks to long-time reader Evan Dawson-Baglien for contributing the following guest post on 'The Problem of Large Distances in Value Holism':

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Value holism in population ethics appeals to a number of strong moral intuitions that human beings possess. By allowing one to reject the principle of Mere Addition, it in turn allows one to reject the Repugnant Conclusion. It also allows rejection of smaller-scale versions of the Repugnant Conclusion which are perhaps even more repugnant, such as the idea that it is morally neutral to kill someone and replace them with a new person whose life will contain the same amount of utility as the first person’s remaining years.  However, value holism also conflicts with strong intuitions about the relevance of distant events to the creation of new people.  It seems strange to say that we need to have fewer children if we somehow discovered that there was a utopia beyond the light cone of our universe, or that the correctness of the Many Worlds Theory of quantum mechanics might have some bearing on the question in either direction.

One solution that immediately springs to mind is to limit the contributory value of distant people and events in some way.  If the vast universe is divided into “blocks,” and only people and events in a single block have contributory value towards each other, impossibly distant events are no longer relevant to the value of local world as a whole.  It is important to find a non-arbitrary method of doing this that preserves important moral intuitions, such as agent neutrality and objectivity.  The method that seems most in line with these intuitions to me is causal connectivity, since whether things are causally connected is an objective fact not relative to any agent’s point of view.  It makes intuitive sense to argue that events so distant they have no causal connection with our world might not have any effect on the shape of the world as a whole.

The danger of dividing the universe into blocks is that it has the potential to create a new version of the Repugnant Conclusion, one where the mere addition of new blocks with mediocre populations results in a universe full of mediocre blocks that is better than a universe with a smaller number of utopian blocks.  This Repugnant Conclusion lacks the teeth of the original since, if one divides the blocks by causal connectivity, no moral agent will ever find themselves in a position where they are able to implement the conclusion.  However, it would still be preferable to find a way to avoid this new “Toothless Repugnant Conclusion.”  I will suggest a couple possibilities below.

The first possible solution is to regard both total utility and contributory holistic value as only meaningful within a block.  Attempting to assess the aggregate value of multiple blocks is an error akin to dividing by zero.  When asking what is better, a huge number of mediocre blocks, or a small number of utopian blocks, the answer is “N/A.” The advantage of this approach is that it not only avoids the Toothless Repugnant Conclusion, it also resolves a major problem for all forms of aggregative consequentialism, the “problem of infinity.”

               The “problem of infinity” is that in an infinite universe there is already an infinite number of positive and negative things.   Therefore, no matter what action a consequentialist takes, the total amount of positive and negative utility in the universe will be infinity.  This seems intuitively unsatisfying to most people.  It seems like even if the universe is infinite, it is still possible to evaluate how good an action or event is by looking at its local consequences.  The existence of infinite value and disvalue in the distant universe seems irrelevant to this evaluation.

Dividing the universe into "blocks" via a method such as causal connection resolves both issues, providing that one also establishes that it is incorrect to attempt to evaluate the total value of all combined blocks.  It solves the problem of distant people affecting the contributory value of people in a block. And it solves the problem of infinite distant people affecting the total utility of the wider universe.

A second axiology that avoids the Toothless Repugnant Conclusion would be one that, when assessing the value of multiple blocks at once, considers the mere addition of a mediocre block to be bad, but considers the improvement of that block to be better than the extinction of its population.  This means that it might be bad for the shape of the universe as a whole for a mediocre block to come into existence in the first place. However, once the block already exists, it would not do any good for the population living in it to die out. Instead it would be better if the shape of that block as a whole improved relative to the others, even if that improvement involved adding more lives. 

There is more than one way such an axiology might work.  It might take some form of average utilitarianism that takes the average utility of each block over the lifespan of the universe.  Or it might invoke some form of Cohen conservatism wherein the creation of a mediocre new block is regrettable, but once it comes into existence it ought to be cherished and preserved.  This axiology does not simultaneously resolve the problem of infinite value, but it does preserve the intuition that we should be able to aggregate the value of multiple blocks. 

The intuitions in favor of value holism and against the Repugnant Conclusion are strong.  The intuition that distant events are not relevant to the value of creating new lives is also strong.  Rather than allowing one strong intuition to triumph over the other, it may be preferable to develop an axiology that accommodates both.  It is inevitable that choosing a compromise between the two may create edge cases that seem unsatisfying regardless of how we try to resolve them. But a compromise will likely be more satisfying in most cases than the total victory of one intuition over the other.

- Evan


  1. Thanks - very interesting! We talk about a related point in our recent public draft of a new paper, here; where we argue that infinities relevant to ethics don't exist. (In some ways, this simply says that a block in the sense used here is the reachable light-cone for humanity, and notes that even in an infinite universe, our best understanding of physics says that our light-cone is finite.)

    1. Thanks for your reply! I will be sure to check out your paper!


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