Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Ethical Structures, Non-Identity and the Repugnant Conclusion

Derek Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion results from a consideration of welfare and population.  In essence, the conclusion is that a world in which a very large number of people have lives that are barely worth living is preferable to a world in which a much smaller number of people have significantly better lives.

My attention was brought to this ethical conundrum by Sam Harris and William MacAskill in one of Harris' podcasts - Being Good and Doing Good.

The Repugnant Conclusion is reached in a step wise fashion with certain assumptions, primarily the idea that we should maximise "quality of life" (with a further assumption that we can quantise "quality of life" or at least think about units of "quality of life", which are even further assumed to be positive).  Also tied into this is the idea of future persons, who don't currently exist (hence their non-identity, which leads to other considerations which I'll get to shortly).

Imagine one person, A, existing with a total of 100 units of "quality of life" (let us call these UQL) and say that 100 units of UQL is pretty damn good.  If we are maximising UQL, then it follows that 101 people existing with 1 UQL each is better than this one person existing with 100 UQL, where having 1 UQL is equivalent to having a life that is barely worth living.  With the leap to the conclusion, this seems bizarre - many people living what is only slightly better than a life that is not worth living doesn't intuitively feel better than A living the bliss of a 100 UQL "pretty damn good" life.

(Note that our intuitions associated with this are likely to be faulty.  As I write, the 2016 Paralympics have opened and the whole and healthy among us would probably find it difficult to think that someone who is eligible to enter these Games would not want to swap their stumps for real legs, or to be able to see, or to not be confined to a wheelchair.  However, these people would not see themselves as a life that is barely worth living - and this applies to more the mundanely handicapped, not just Paralympians.  Some even claim that they would turn down the hypothetical option to turn back the clock and not be handicapped.  This notion has important links to the "non-identity problem".)

The Repugnant Conclusion, however, is not reached by a leap, it is reached step-wise.  Consider, rather than 101 people living a 1 UQL life, two people living lives that are only slightly worse off than A's life, even 99 and 99 UQL.  This is clearly better than just one person living a life with a total of 100 UQL, it's very close to double the total UQL.  Keep doing this over and over again and you eventually reach the conclusion that a very large number of people living lives that are barely worth living can be better than any significantly smaller number of people with significantly better lives.

Converting this into a real world situation, this would mean that it would be better to keep producing more and more humans until all of us are living lives that are barely worth living, but we'd do it one baby at a time where each new baby would not significantly degrade the average UQL and would slightly raise the total UQL.  There are few among us who do not realise that if we were all to continue to produce large numbers of children, as we did in the past, then the future will look bleak indeed, but few of us choose not to produce any children at all in order to not contribute to great suffering on the part of our potential descendants - noting that our population increase shows little sign of slowing down (at least globally) and may in fact increase if we are so foolish as to eradicate malaria, cure cancer, prevent heart disease, stroke and diabetes and provide universal first world medical care and clean water to the third world without modifying their family structures - so even if we restrict ourselves to one child, we may still thus produce descendants who will be born in to a world with a vastly increased population.

Now we turn to the "non-identity problem".  This problem revolves around hypothetical people, who might exist (or not exist) based on decisions we make.  In essence, the question is whether it is better for a person to exist than not exist, given that their existence might not be perfect.  Such moral dilemmas are faced (or ignored) by people who are aware of the risk of defects in their unborn child and choose to get a check.  Say an unborn child is found to have Down Syndrome and the parents decide to abort the pregnancy.  In this situation (at least in a sense), an existent person stops existing and a life that was probably worth living is not lived.  (There's a complex calculus that could conceivably be conducted to determine what the overall UQL would be with the introduction of this Down Syndrome child and it is arguable that the total UQL would go down, but this would possibly be the case anyway with the decision to go with an abortion since such a decision is rarely an easy one.  Other arguments could be made that humanity is held back by its weakest links, but such arguments would veer close to eugenics and are probably repugnant in themselves.)

We could step back a little and think not of an abortion, but of a decision to not conceive.  We make these decisions all the time and have few qualms about them, because they involve acts of omission rather than commission - the omission of an emission in the case of the withdrawal method, and the occlusion of an emission in the case of condoms and similar devices, such that both methods result in sperm and ovum not meeting.  However, in each decision to avoid conception, we are effectively denying the existence of a person who could have existed and who could have lived a life worth living.  If we have the potential to bring into being a person who could live a life worth living, how do we justify not doing so (assuming that any reduction in our quality of life is marginal and we can continue to live a life worth living)?

If we cannot justify choosing to not bring into being a child with UQL of greater than 1, then the conclusion is that we should just keep producing children to the greatest extent possible, until we would otherwise start producing children with an UQL of less than or equal to zero.  And this does not seem right.

So how could we justify to not create such a child?

Selfishness seems a common (albeit post hoc) justification.  I like my life as it is, I don't want to compromise it by introducing children into it.  However, this is making the assumption that my marginal quality of life (the slight difference between the quality of life that I have as a single, unencumbered person and the quality of life I would have as parent) is more important than the hypothetical quality of life of this potential child (which would not exist in the world if the child did not exist).

Another justification is that any child is a link towards a future descendant living in a bleak, overpopulated world.   But this argument only works if you have decided to never reproduce.  It disappears as soon as you produce your first child and then you seem committed to produce as many children as you can, paradoxically rushing towards a situation in which your descendants are consigned to living in a world which is barely worth living in (and who may in turn have descendants living in a world that is not worth living in).

These linked problems, the Repugnant Conclusion and the Non-Identity Problem, have not been conclusively solved by ethicists.  Attempts to avoid the conclusions tend to result in other paradoxical outcomes, or other ethical problems (for example, if we think about UQL in terms of an average rather than a sum, we can arrive at a conclusion that it is better to eradicate those with low UQL and keep doing so until there is one single blissfully happy person with very high UQL - presuming that this person doesn't mind the genocide going on around her).

What does the Ethical Structure approach lead us to think about these problems?

Careful readers will probably have picked up on stilted wording above.  It's not easy (for me) to breeze past a statement that "X is better than Y" without commenting on the fact that the term "better" isn't securely grounded.  What exactly is a "better life"?  In what way is 100 UQL vested in one person "better" than 101 UQL spread across 101 people?  What does it mean to say it is "better" (or even simply "good") to keep producing children?

A "better" life is merely a life that is more good, but good for what?  And having quality of life is again ungrounded.  Does this mean happier, more productive, containing more puppies, what?  Even if we allow that quality of life need not be defined precisely, we are left with a begged question as to whether a life with high quality is a good thing.  Good for what?  The unabated production of children is good for what?

The answer, if the logic behind the Ethical Structure idea is correct, is survival - but survival on a few levels.

Firstly, to survive we each need to have lives that are worth living, in order to prevent ourselves from self-terminating (or at least so that we put serious effort into not dying).  We need to have both lives that are worth living and the expectation that our children's lives will be worth living in order to survive through them (so legacy survival as opposed to physical survival).  We do not, however, necessarily need to have a quality of life that is very high - merely sufficiently high.  Similarly, we don't need to expect more than that our children should have a sufficiently high quality of life - where "sufficiently high" is a value judgement that will vary from person to person.

Secondly, there is the need to continually signal to other members of our communities that we are obeying the rules and not threatening the welfare of others.  In this context, the unabated production of children is not good because flooding of the population with my children (my legacy) is potentially deleterious to your legacy and even to you personally, if my children were to displace you.  The rules, in the form of social norms, tell us how many children are appropriate and any significant divergence from this number (positive or negative) is generally frowned upon, which is to say you could thus be a suspicious character as a rule-breaker who had too many children.

These are, however, practical considerations and they don't address the more abstract notion that we should want to increase the total quality of life in the world (at least among humans) nor do they explain that we are appalled by the idea of large numbers of people that have lives that are barely worth living.  These, I suggest, derive from our consideration of the people that we want to be or, more accurately, the people that we want other people to think that we are, the nature of which follows from an internalisation of the ethical structure.

The second tier of the structure is the injunction against harm.  This is generally applied to existent people (most importantly ourselves), but in order to be consistent and to convey our reliability to fellow community members in quite a cost-effective way we may also apply it to potential or hypothetical people.

Consider person A, the one with 100 UQL.  We compared this with 101 people with 1 UQL each.  Note that the injunction is against doing harm, rather than being a commandment to do good (since we can more reasonably demand that people not harm us as opposed to demanding that others do good for us).  With the 101 people with 1 UQL each, we either have one person who has been harmed by losing 99 UQL - or who has been eliminated entirely (thus losing 100 UQL and her existence!)  This is a level of harm that we cannot countenance, especially if A is supposed to represent "me".  (This is a difficult conclusion to avoid, since if there were one single person in the universe, hogging all the UQL, then that person would obviously "me" from their own perspective and there would be no other perspective.)

We can accept an incremental decrease in our quality of life, especially if it is hypothetical, because by doing so we are affirming to ourselves and advertising to others that we hold the survival (and thus existence) of other people to be of more importance than maintaining a high quality of life for ourselves.  Remember though that when it gets down to brass tacks, the purpose of my ethical structure is to aid my survival, not yours, and that means I have a point at which I will abandon the "charade" of morality in order survive (as do you).  This means that while I might accept a gradual decline in my quality of life, there is still a point at which I will no longer accept it - not that I necessarily know precisely where that point lies, but it how it is set will probably be related to how I view my legacy in relation to my physical survival, I am likely to call a stop to the diminishment of my quality of life when it threatens my legacy.

When thinking about population increase, this manifests as a hypothetical willingness to sacrifice a little quality of life in order to allow another person to come into existence.  As we don't want people to suffer (or rather we don't want anyone to think that we would not care about people suffering), our preference is that hypothetical and newly existent people should a similar level of quality of life to ours (or slightly better, or slightly worse, it doesn't really matter particularly since it's hypothetical).  But we are not willing (even hypothetically) to significantly decrease our quality of life, nor to posit into existence people with a quality of life that is substantially below ours.  This might in part be because we don't really deal in absolutes, we deal in comparison, so a single "positive" UQL would be counted as negative when compared to our notional 100 UQL.

An example which came up frequently in the Harris-MacAskill discussion was Singer's drowning child in a lake.  In this thought experiment, you are walking past a shallow lake, one that you can safely enter to extract a child that is drowning.  However, you're wearing a nice set of clothes and the lake, while safe, is dirty or muddy, so while saving the child, you would be ruining your outfit.  Do you risk the expense of getting a replacement outfit and save the child?

The argument goes that you would be a moral monster if you were to fail to save the child simply because you wanted to save your clothes.  Taking your clothes off and rescuing the child naked is apparently not an option, nor is laundering them afterwards, although interestingly enough, it seems a common that people do want to save the child, but they also consider how they might prevent damaging their clothes in the process.  We could instead imagine a hypothetical imperative to drive off the road, thus destroying your car, in order to not kill a small child that had strayed onto the road - a dispassionate choice to prioritise your car over the child would make you a moral monster.  This scenario makes killing the child somewhat more active, rather than passively letting it drown.  In a sense, the drowning child dilemma is more like a variation of the trolley problem, in which you can choose to inconvenience yourself slightly in order to redirect the trolley onto a track that will destroy some of your stuff and thus save the life of a child.

Reframing the dilemma slightly, we could say that by not saving the life of a child on the grounds of a relatively small cost and minor inconvenience we become moral monsters.

Therefore, using Singer's extrapolation, we become moral monsters when we fail to send money to sub-Saharan Africa to help buy mosquito nets, at least those of us who have discretionary funds that we waste on such things as iPhones, summer holidays or food that we don't need (given that if we are overweight it's almost certainly because we eat more than we need).  Harris and MacAskill used the phrase "we're back standing by the lake" or the like to suggest that by failing to help distant people, or by reaching a conclusion that is repugnant, we would be doing the equivalent of letting the child drown (while noting that salience, or immediacy, is absent by virtue of the distance involved).

I agree that if we let the child drown while we stand passively at the lake's edge or as we walk away, we could be considered to be moral monsters.  I'd find it difficult to forgive myself if I failed to act in such a scenario, because I would not be the person I would want to be, and I'd be deeply suspicious of anyone else that I knew to be willing to let the child drown.  However, I don't agree that we run the same risk of being considered moral monsters due to any responsibility to save distant people.  I do, on the other hand, agree that we have precisely the same responsibility to save distant people as we have to save the child - but by that I mean that we have no responsibility to save any of them, none at all.  Yes, I meant to write that. 

As an ordinary person walking past the lake, we have no inherent obligation to save the drowning child.

Before I get accused of being a moral monster, let me try to explain the thinking behind this.  If I don't care what sort of person I am, and I don't care what you might think of me or do to me if I were to fail to react the way you think I should, then I would have no motivation or obligation to save the child (for the sake of saving the child) even if I could do so at no cost or inconvenience to myself.  However, none of us, perhaps not even psychopaths, live in that sort of world.  We live in the sort of world in which a real, if not inherent, obligation emerges when there is a pressing, obvious and reasonable demand for our assistance - because we do care about what sorts of people we are and we do care about what others think of us and what they might do to us.  So take on board an expectation that we should attempt to save a child drowning in a lake if we can do so safely

What is not expected is that we should go out of our way to address a vaguely defined need for assistance that is largely invisible.  This is partly why the crystallisation of that need, via advertising or someone knocking on your door, tends to work.  A level of expectation is only established once we are aware of the need and, to be really effective, there should be some threat of shaming involved, meaning that someone else must know that I am aware of the need.  If I can avoid donating time or money without feeling bad about myself or being shamed for my selfishness, why shouldn't I?

(As an aside, the donation of time and money is more obvious in the US than it tends to be in other countries - acts of charity are certainly more ostentatious.  Charity is simply not expected to the same extent in most other countries, and people will rarely ask as to whether you volunteer time and/or money to any worthy causes.  Spending quality time in your garden may well be more highly regarded than being a "busybody" or "do-gooder".)

So, getting back to Harris and MacAskill's discussion of Singer's drowning child argument, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that the reluctance to donate to worthy-but-distant causes is related to a lack of immediacy or salience.  But I disagree that this is a truly moral issue, since we have no more objective obligation to save the child drowning in the lake than we have to save the child being bitten by mosquitoes in Africa, any obligation we do have is subjective and dependent only on how much we care about our place in the world.

As a society, we might choose to build into our ethical ruleset the notion that ostentatiously donating to worthy causes irrespective of distance is a requirement - and there may well be survival and quality of life benefits in doing so - but until then, our reluctance to donate time and effort to distant causes is no more than a psychological issue that charities need to deal with.

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