Philosophy Phridays – Pantheism

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Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Pantheism.

The word Pantheism is credited to John Toland, an Irish thinker, from 1705. But the basic ideas of pantheism have been around at least as far back as human history can take us. Here is how the article describes these ideas, “At its most general, pantheism may be understood positively as the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe.” It is not confined to any one religion, culture, or period. It has always been a worldwide phenomenon.

There are two ways people arrive at pantheistic viewpoints, either from a posteriori religious experience or from a priori philosophical reasoning. The a posteriori position is basically when the world around us arouses religious emotions from us. We start to see the world itself as divine. The a priori position reasons from principles such as that God is omnipresent or that the world could not sustain itself without God or that God is omniscient or that God is the substance from which all things are formed. They reason from these ideas that God is everything or at least God is in everything.

For as long as there has been pantheism, there have been people who reject pantheism. There are many reasons for rejecting pantheism. Some complain that God is not a personal being in pantheism. Others say that God is necessarily perfect, and the world is imperfect, so they can’t be identical. (Although, it’s unclear how a perfect creator could create an imperfect world and still be considered perfect.) But what it mostly boils down to is that pantheism simply makes some people uncomfortable.

I’m not in any kind of position to weigh in on the truth of pantheism. I find it fascinating how there’s always been this tug-of-war between theists and pantheists. It’s hard, if not impossible, to find a religion that doesn’t have pantheistic tendencies. It’s hard, if not impossible, to find pantheists that don’t personify the divine in some way. And even atheists often speak in pantheistic terms. All I can say is that pantheism has as much going for it as any other theism (or atheism), and has as much against it as any other theism (or atheism). It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves.

Mander, William, “Pantheism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/pantheism/>.

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Three Second Rule

This is a scene of fiction that I wrote. I don’t know where it’s going beyond this, but I wouldn’t consider it complete either. Any feedback would be great!

              “Okay, Ms. Anne. No, it’s fine. I was going next door anyway. Please, you don’t have to pay me back, it’s just a dollar. Okay. I’ll bring it to you.”

              Joshua regretted giving Ms. Anne his phone number. He’d unclogged her toilet, carried in cases of water, gone with her to Home Depot and moved her furniture around in the couple of weeks. He suspected that she’d waited until now to have all these chores done for her. But each time he saw the crutches by the refrigerator in her apartment and the boot around her foot, he sighed. Only another month.

              “Yeah hello? Yeah, can I get an order of chicken with broccoli with vegetable fried rice, and an egg roll? Yeah. Thanks.” He wasn’t that hungry, but it felt like a waste to walk next door to the restaurant just for an egg roll.

              Joshua looked out the window. Ben had started begging for money early today. He was standing in his usual spot, rocking side to side on his feet as his beltless pants sagged in the front. Joshua could see the lint in Ben’s hair from the second floor, dotting his hair like the salt and pepper of gray hair. Yet Ben was the same age as Joshua. He remembered Ben’s smile in middle school, a wide, lippy grin that turned down at the corners to seal his mouth shut. He sat up just a little in his seat when he knew the answer to a question. He didn’t raise his hand, but he wanted everyone to see that he knew.

              “Yo man, you got fitty sense?” Ben asked as Joshua walked in front of him. Sour air rolled out from Ben’s mouth, passing through jagged yellow teeth and over the gaps where they’d fallen out.Joshua felt the $10 bill rustling in his pocket.

              “Nah, sorry,” Joshua said without looking at him. All of Main Street, and you gotta stand in front of my building? Joshua allowed himself to get annoyed. It was an easier feeling to handle than guilt.

              Red Lotus was bustling as usual. Joshua was hit with the dirty smell of grease used over and over again. Flames leapt into the air behind the counter and engulfed the wok in the chef’s hands. The Chinese Food Lady was sitting behind the counter with the phone cradled to her ear and a pen in her left hand. “Po fri ri wi chicken wing? Fiteen minute,” she said before slamming the phone and looking up. “Hello.” She grabbed a bag and placed it on the counter. “Nine twenty fi.” He handed over the ten.

              The quarters clanking in his pocket sounded like bowling balls crashing together as he left the restaurant. Ben was standing in his spot. He hadn’t looked over and seen Joshua with his bag. Bags meant food, and food meant change. Joshua walked quickly past Ben, looking across the street to fix his gaze on some fascinating part of his neighborhood he’d never seen before. But it was the same as always, bodegas and churches clustered around crumbling lots.

              The steam burst forth from the chicken with garlic sauce as Joshua removed the lid. The broccoli was emerald green and crunchy when he popped one into his mouth. He surveyed the table to make sure he had everything, and noticed a lone egg roll sitting on the edge. Why did I order that? he asked. I don’t even like-

              Joshua sighed. He put the lid back on his food. He didn’t even bother to put his shoes on. As dirty as the hallway floor was, it would only take him a moment to run the egg roll down to Ms. Anne. He hurried down the hallway, sliding on his socks to the top of the stair case. His sock got caught on an exposed nail, and Joshua stumbled. The egg roll slid from its wax paper pouch, landing on the first step with a soft thud.

              He snatched it up before the three-second rule expired. He examined it carefully, removing a small hair stuck to the bottom before placing it back in its pouch. He thought about going to get her another one. But she wouldn’t even know that it had been dropped. And I don’t have my shoes on. And I don’t have any more cash. It’ll be fine. Joshua knocked on Ms. Anne’s door and took out his phone. He’d liked six statuses by the time she hobbled over to open the door. She was almost as tall as he was, with strong shoulders and her hair pulled back into a small pony tail at the top of her head. She readjusted her red-framed glasses as she looked at him.

              “Here you go, Ms. Anne,” he said, handing over the egg roll and a handful of duck sauce packets.

              “Thank you Joshua. Those Chinese folks must put something in this to make it taste so good.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a dollar.

              “Don’t worry about it,” Joshua said.

              “Just take it, it’s only a dollar. I ain’t paying you for the rest of the stuff you’re doing,” she laughed. She closed the door, and Joshua stood there for a moment, listening to her hobble back to the couch. He ran back upstairs. He decided to get a soda with the dollar. As he put on his shoes, Joshua thought about Ben out front. Better take the back door.

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Philosophy Phridays – Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Kant’s Transcendental Idealism.

Immanuel Kant is a weird figure for me. He is huge in the field of philosophy. It’s hard to overstate how important he is. He has shaped every discussion that has come after him. I first encountered him in “Introduction to Modern Philosophy” where we studied the Critique of Pure Reason. It wasn’t supposed to be a deep read, it was an intro class after all, but I kept us bogged down on the Critique for weeks. It just didn’t make any sense to me. I’d read a passage and it seemed big, important, and deep. Then, I’d realize that I couldn’t explain it, so I’d reread and reread and reread. That didn’t do any good. So, I’d ask a ton of questions, to other students and my professor and other professors. None of it helped as half the answers I received contradicted each other. Finally, I decided that a huge chunk of the Critique is literal nonsense. It was the only way I could move on. And it was the way I learned that even a “great thinker” can just be wrong.

Kant’s transcendental idealism is a perfect example of my issues. Here is how Kant says it:

I understand by the transcendental idealism of all appearances [Erscheinungen] the doctrine that they are all together to be regarded as mere representations and not as things in themselves [nicht als Dinge an sich selbst ansehen], and accordingly that space and time are only sensible forms of our intuition, but not determinations given for themselves or conditions of objects as things in themselves [als Dinge an sich selbst]. (A369; the Critique is quoted from the Guyer & Wood translation (1998))

In the two-hundred and forty years since this was written, no one has been able to say with any certainty what it means. The most straightforward reading makes Kant a phenomenalist. Basically, only experiences are real. The big problem is that after Kant’s early critics attributed that position to him, he aggressively denied it.

So, we’re stuck looking for another interpretation. One that denies the objective reality of space and time, contains external objects, but the only things that can be experienced are appearances, and these appearances aren’t things in themselves. This has led to a lot of debate about whether appearances are identical with representations or if they are two different type of objects. Or are they one object viewed from different points of view? But if you take them as one object, you’re back at phenomenalism. And if you take them as two objects, we somehow have knowledge of something that it is impossible to have evidence for. That opens a whole can of worms about a priori vs. a posteriori knowledge and analytic knowledge vs. synthetic knowledge that has never made much sense to me.

I know that Kant was trying to split the difference between the rationalists and the empiricists, but the attempt strikes me as a failure. How that failure came to dominate the philosophical discussion for two-hundred years I will never know. If you don’t think I’m being fair to Kant, you’re probably right, but I encourage you to read the whole article. And if you have any insights on how to square this particular circle, please share them with me.

Stang, Nicholas F., “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/>.

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She Said, He Said

I wanted to say a little something about the latest kerfuffle in the Democratic Primary race. Elizabeth Warren said that, in a closed door meeting between the two, Bernie Sanders said that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. Sanders denies saying any such thing. Audio was captured after the last presidential debate of them arguing about it. Progressives are kind of freaked out about it and Sanders’ supporters are being even nastier than usual.

The useless press is saying that one of them is lying. They say Warren could be lying to stop Sanders’ surge in the polls. They say Sanders could be lying to keep from alienating women. My gut is telling me that neither one of them is lying. I believe that Warren really did hear Sanders’ skepticism about a woman being able to win, and I believe that Sanders doesn’t know he said anything wrong.

I don’t have any privileged information on the matter. My gut is simply reacting to what I know about Warren and Sanders. That is that Warren is a woman and Sanders is sexist. Warren being a woman makes her a competent judge of sexism. She’s been dealing with it her entire life. It’s long past time we start believing women’s reports of sexism. I also think Warren is too smart to think lying about it would be a good strategy. She knows that we are still too sexist as a country to think that she would be believed in a “he said, she said” situation. She sat through the Kavanaugh hearings after all.

Sanders’ sexism may not be in the same class as Kavanaugh (or Trump), but it’s unmistakable. I give him the benefit of the doubt and call it old man sexism. In certain contexts, it’s almost forgivable sexism. His attitude toward women was probably progressive fifty years ago. But times have changed and he hasn’t kept up. It was painfully obvious in his interactions with Clinton in 2016 and especially in his disbelieving reaction to her overwhelming victory. Nothing has changed in 2020. He’s still arrogant and condescending every time he interacts with a woman.

So, I feel pretty certain that Sanders thinks he was just being practical as he said something really insulting to Warren. In a more just world, this disagreement would really hurt Sanders. We shouldn’t stand for casual sexism anymore, certainly not from our presidential candidates. But, as with Clinton, Sanders’ supporters, the media, and the general public are likely to blame the victim and start complaining that Warren is wrong.

I feel that this is important because I’m tired of the narrative that Warren and Sanders are interchangeable. Warren is clearly the better candidate in terms of intelligence, temperament, and understanding. Add to that the fact that she’s better on women’s issues and race, and she’s just a far superior candidate. I’m not saying I won’t vote for Sanders if he wins the primaries, a boiled turnip would be better than Trump, but I’d be much happier voting for Warren.

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Philosophy Phridays – Feminist Metaphysics

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Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Feminist Metaphysics.

Metaphysics, broadly speaking, is the study of what exists, what those existent things are like, and how they came to exist. It is the most fundamental branch of philosophy. It tries to find the answers to the things that are simply background assumptions in all other fields of inquiry such as causation, free will, identity, and substance. To quote the article, “It should thus not come as a surprise that there could be a specifically feminist metaphysics, where the question of prime importance is to what extent the central concepts and categories of metaphysics, in terms of which we make sense of our reality, could be value laden in ways that are particularly gendered.”

In other words, feminist metaphysics is about whether sex and gender are real or simply social constructs (we’ll ignore the question of in what sense social constructs are real for another time). It is about sussing out what are brute facts about the world and what are cultural concepts. Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, it is about figuring out to what extent we are stuck with our current view of the world, and in what ways we can change it.

This is a hugely important topic as it impacts everyone, but especially a bit more than half the population. Metaphysics is also the most difficult subject to make progress in. Sadly, in the general public’s mind, the difficulty outweighs the importance and people outside the field often fail to respect feminist studies (or racial studies).

Two quotes from Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex have, in many ways, shaped the debate. The first is, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The other is, “He is the Subject, he is the absolute – she is the Other.” The first quote gets to the fact that many (if not most) of our concepts are socially constructed. When talking about sex and gender, we usually split everything in two, male and female, women and men. The feminist metaphysician asks whether these ideas correspond to the ultimate reality, and if so, how. What about intersex people? Are they male or female or should there be a third, or a fourth, sex? Do women need to have female anatomy?

Given those questions, they can ask further questions like what makes a woman a woman. There are many different plausible answers to this, but many have decided that a gender is sometimes an idea and sometimes an object. As an idea it is sort of like a right. Rights don’t exist apart from a certain historical context and society. Neither do women. So a woman is simply a being who performs the role of a woman. As an object, we talk of gender being constructed. It is what it is because of the way it is classified. Think of insects being insects as opposed to mammals or fish. As these ideas are further exposed, we come to see that things could (and probably should) be very different.

Beauvoir’s second quote gets into the relational aspect of gender. For most of human history, women only exist in relation to men. Men are the category and women are the humans who don’t fit that category. In other words, we have not been able to define a woman without reference to men. I think it’s clear how we get to normative views that elevate men and subjugate women.

The reason these questions matter is that before feminism, before people started asking these questions, everyone just assumed that sex and gender distinctions, and everything that flowed from them, were natural. They then used the appeal to nature (even though it’s a fallacy) to say that a patriarchal society is good or right. Feminist metaphysics has disrupted the whole operation. It is no longer clear that sex and gender are natural distinctions and whether they are or not, they are clearly value-laden in a way that they don’t have to be. That’s progress.

This account is so just barely scratching the surface that no mark can be seen without a microscope. There have been, and will be, many books written on the subject. I hope I stated the general ideas fairly, and maybe it peaked your interest. But it’s such a big and important subject, I’m afraid I might not have. This week’s encyclopedia entry says it much better than I ever could.

Haslanger, Sally and Ásta, “Feminist Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/feminism-metaphysics/>.

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Doctor Visits

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I had my annual physical yesterday. That’s not normally a huge deal. I mean, I get a little freaked out every year, but that’s only because I’m utterly terrified of all things medical. I’m told I suffer from Vasovagal Syncope, which is, “Fainting resulting from certain stressful triggers which lead to sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate.” My stressful triggers are all medical such as blood, needles, etc., etc. Knowing this about myself, there are ways to manage it. I have some breathing techniques, a slight pain can keep the symptoms at bay, or I can do things to get my heart pumping. The net result is that, while I don’t ever like going to the doctor, I survive most visits without passing out.

Yesterday was a particularly stressful physical. My doctor retired last summer. This was the first physical I’ve had since I was twelve or thirteen with a different doctor. It’s amazing how much anxiety that created. The doctor appeared competent, was friendly and knowledgeable, and had a good bedside manner. That didn’t matter, though. When I got my flu shot, I got dizzy, the lights seemed to dim, and I had to lie down for a bit. It’s happened enough where I knew I was fine, but it’s still embarrassing (so, of course, I’m sharing).

It turns out, I’m in pretty good health for a middle-aged person. I’m hoping that extra layer of stress caused by change won’t be there at the next visit and I won’t have another episode. It had been a while before yesterday since I’d fainted. I’d like this current streak to be even longer.

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Taking Down the Christmas Tree

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Of all the grown-up things I have to do, I think my least favorite is taking down the Christmas tree in the beginning of January. There are two main reasons for this. The first is obvious, it is the absolute, no kidding, real end of the holiday season. The second is the stress.

I know that eventually everything comes to an end. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, though. A Christmas tree changes the whole home. It brings a little bit of magic into our lives. Then, as the new year starts, we remove the decorations and dump the tree by the side of the road. It’s an awfully unceremonious end for something that’s literally magical. At least we can set it up again in eleven months.

It doesn’t seem like taking down the Christmas tree would cause that much stress. There’s some stress with the cleanup, trying to get all those pine needles off the floor. But the bulk of the stress is the undecorating. What if you miss something? An ornament disappears forever. And it’s even worse if it’s an ornament that your kid made. That would be a disaster. So, you check and check again. Then check with a flashlight. Then check one more time. Ok, not really one more time, because you have to use the flashlight again. Finally, you take it outside and check it again at the curb. You’re just never sure. It’s stressful.

Hopefully today will wind up being my least favorite day of the year. I’ve lost a bit of magic and had to deal with too much stress. I can’t wait for December.

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A Good Illustration of the Problem With the News

A few days ago, Qasem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike. That’s probably not a shock. It’s all over the news. On the surface, it almost looks like the news is being competent in their coverage. We know who, Qasem Soleimani. We know what, was killed. We know when, January 3, 2020. We know where, Bagdad. And we know parts of how, by a drone. The thing that we don’t know, and the news is not helping us at all, is how to judge the story. That comes down to two things, we don’t know the why, and we don’t know the consequences.

Consequences are difficult. I’ll give the news a pass on this one. I don’t believe anyone knows the consequences of the drone strike yet. I’ll bet Iran hasn’t settled on a response. It might be a lot of rhetoric or it might be a war, or just about anything in between. We’ll have to wait and see.

That is why the why is crucial. If someone is killed on the street in front of a hundred witnesses and fifty witnesses say the killing was an act of self defense and the other fifty say it was a murder, it becomes almost impossible for anyone else to make a judgement. And with Soleimani’s killing the press is content to just repeat what others are saying. Trump says that the drone strike was to make America safer. People who dislike Trump are saying that the drone strike was to distract the public from the impeachment or to start a war to help Trump’s reelection campaign. Any of those are plausible, and all the news is giving me is biased testimony for me to try to make a judgement.

This is what the news does these days. It tells you what people say about events rather than showing evidence for why and how the events happened. As a result, every political story is the same. Trump and the Republicans say one thing and Democrats say the opposite. If it’s a conservative news outlet, they say that the Republicans are right and if it’s a liberal news outlet, they say that the Democrats are right. It’s incredibly predictable, and at no point do they provide actual evidence that would allow members of the public to judge for themselves.

In the Soleimani case, the news has to answer a series of questions. How long has Soleimani been on the kill list? Who put him on the kill list? How does killing Soleimani make America safer? How does killing Soleimani stop an immanent attack? How does conflict with Iran help Trump’s reelection campaign? How does conflict with Iran hurt the Democrats’ articles of impeachment? Does it help the reelection campaign or hurt the articles of impeachment? Was this the first opportunity the U.S. has had to take out Soleimani? If not, why were the other opportunities passed up? These are just to start. And the news can’t just tell me how Trump or Pelosi answer these questions. They need to investigate and provide evidence.

In the mean time, the press should be telling us what they don’t know. They should be providing us with the list of unanswered questions. How can people hope to arrive at sound judgements without this as a bare minimum? This is just one example, but the news needs to do better.

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The Longest Two Minutes

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People have known for a long time that time is relative. It’s where sayings like, “Time flies when you’re having fun,” come from. Twice a day, time slows to a crawl. It stretches interminably out so that you can experience all the agony of three lifetimes in just two minutes. I’m talking, of course, about brushing your teeth.

Everyone knows that we’re supposed to brush our teeth for two minutes when we brush. I’m not a dentist, so I don’t know why two minutes is the magic number, but it’s what dentists say. They even make toothbrushes with built in alarms to tell you when it’s been two minutes. And there are phone apps to time two minutes. Some of them even give you a prize for consistently meeting the two minute time. I know the benefits of good oral hygiene, so I try to manage two minutes twice a day, but man, oh man, is it hard.

I can’t figure out why it’s so hard. For most people, brushing your teeth isn’t a physical struggle. And for most people, it’s not painful. It’s one of the more innocuous things we do every day. But it takes forever. I have one of the toothbrushes that beeps after two minutes. Yet, I check my watch three or four times while I’m brushing, convinced that the timer is broken. I stand over the sink for hours, but two minutes hasn’t gone by yet. It’s maddening that 112% of my day is eaten up in four minutes.

Sadly, I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. It’s 2020 now. We’re officially living in the future. But there don’t seem to be any advances in tooth brushing on the horizon. So I’ll keep wasting hours for two minutes every morning and evening. I wanted to get this out there because I can’t be the only one. If enough of us speak out, I’ll bet there’s some dentist out there that can invent a method that works in under thirty seconds. That would be acceptable.

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Philosophy Phridays – The Repugnant Conclusion

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is the Repugnant Conclusion.

Today’s topic is from the realm of population ethics. Population ethics poses questions such as, “Should we procreate?” “Is there a moral obligation to have children?” and “Can the population get too big?” It is currently a hot topic in philosophy and proves false the notion that all philosophers deal with problems that are thousands of years old.

The Repugnant Conclusion was formulated by Derek Parfit in 1984. He said, “For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.” Intuitively, this is a hard pill to swallow, the idea that a huge population with lives that are barely worth living is better than a small population where everyone is blissful. So, how does he get there?

The answer is simple, Utilitarianism. Take a look at this chart:

Figure 2

The height of the rectangles corresponds to the level of welfare of the population while the width is how big the population is. You can think of the area of each box as the total welfare. Which is the best? A has a very high level of welfare, but A+ has just as many people at that level of welfare plus another group of people at a lower, but still positive, level of welfare. So, most people would say that A+ is better than A because there is more total welfare. But B has the same number of people as A+, and they are all a bit happier than the lower tier in A+, but not quite as happy as the upper tier. Most people would say that B is better than A+, again more total welfare. And if B is better than A+, and A+ is better than A, B is better than A. This can be continued forever where each new, larger, not quite as happy population is better than the happier, but smaller, populations because the larger populations have more total welfare.

It is called the Repugnant Conclusion because almost no one likes the conclusion, but it is very hard (some say impossible) to escape from it. My instinct, and others have had this thought, is that the Repugnant Conclusion isn’t something we should follow. Rather it shows a failure of Utilitarianism, kind of like trolley problems. There must be more to consider than just adding up welfare. But defenders of the Repugnant Conclusion can control for these other factors. If A, A+, and B are all equally free or just or egalitarian or loving or anything else you can think to put in there, the only difference is the total welfare, wouldn’t we want to maximize that welfare?

In the 35 years since Parfit raised the problem, philosophers have been trying to solve it. There are eight general approaches that have become popular.

The first approach is to change the way we measure value in regards to welfare and a life worth living. One way of doing this is to rank populations by average welfare rather than total welfare. This does solve the problem as A is the best population. But it introduces a lot of other problems. For instance, a society where most people are miserable, but there are a few people that are so happy it raises the average above a society where everyone is moderately happy. Do we really want to say the society with a majority of miserable people is better? Another way to change the measure is to say that the value of each additional life decreases with the increase in population. This leads to some absurd conclusions, though, as if there is some limit to how much welfare a population can have. Where is that limit? And how do you tell the next person on the list that they’re one too many?

The second approach is to assume that not all welfare is equal. This basically imagines that there are higher goods and lower goods. Think of J.S. Mill’s famous line about preferring to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Population A from above enjoys all the finer things in life, while population B has fewer finer things, and so on down the line. It can be reasoned from this that population A is better than B. But it’s all very arbitrary. Who decides what’s a higher good or a lower good? And why do you lose higher goods as the population grows?

The third approach is to count welfare differently depending on temporal or modal considerations. This basically means to count actual people more than hypothetical people or to give the present more weight than the future. This could work to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion, but again, it creates new problems. For instance, on this view we have no reason to combat climate change since doing so would lower our current welfare and that matters more than any future welfare. There’s really no planning in this scenario.

The fourth approach is to completely change the way we look at a life worth living. There is a pessimistic point of view, going back to at least Schopenhauer in the West, that says that no life can build positive welfare. The best we can do is satisfy wants, but that doesn’t improve us. So the best we can hope for is a life of neutrality. Realistically, though, some wants will always be unfulfilled, causing well being to go negative. In this view, not being born is actually preferable to being born into a life of suffering. If not being born is preferable, then adding population does not lead to more welfare. That takes care of the Repugnant Conclusion, but it means we are stuck living lives that aren’t worth living.

The fifth approach is to reject transitivity. Transitivity is the logical operation whereby if p is better than q, and q is better than r, then p is better than r. I’m not qualified as a logician to say how such a basic principal can be dropped, but if it could, population A+ could be better than A, and B could be better than A+, but A could be better than B. The problem with this is that without transitivity, there is no logically sound way to choose one thing over another. That conclusion seems pretty repugnant to me.

The sixth approach is to appeal to other values. For instance, it’s not just the total amount of welfare, it’s the level of welfare for each person compared to the level of welfare that person deserves. This runs into the same problems as the second approach. Plus, and this is a not in the article, I believe that the idea of anyone deserving anything just by virtue of existence is absurd. So I would ask the question how these people come to deserve their level of welfare. Another value that is suggested is the Maximin principal. For those who haven’t read Rawls, that means in a society, the goal should be to maximize the minimum level of welfare. That would disrupt the Repugnant Conclusion, more people at a lower level can’t be better than fewer people at a higher level. The problem with Maximin is that the tiniest gain by someone in the lower level trumps even a huge loss by someone, or many people, in the higher level. It’s putting egalitarianism before justice.

The seventh approach is to “accept the impossibility of a satisfactory population ethics.” Parfit believes that a satisfactory population ethics is possible, but some disagree. I fall into this category. Generally, philosophers don’t like the idea of a problem that can’t be answered. I feel this one is impossible for two reasons. One, as I mentioned above, Utilitarianism is the wrong tool for the job. Utilitarianism only works when you can weigh the consequences of an action. There is no way to know the consequences of an individual birth, let alone the consequences of billions of births. Two is that the whole concept of welfare and a life worth living are too vague. There’s a lot of evidence from the assisted-suicide debate that there is often a gap between what the friends and family of the would be suicide believe is a life worth living and what the person herself believes. There is no “view from nowhere” for an impartial answer.

The eighth approach is simply to accept the Repugnant Conclusion. This means accepting that a huge population with a low level of welfare actually is better than a small population with a high level of welfare. People who think we should accept it generally think that our intuitions are wrong. They say that our intuitions are from a misguided picture of what it would be like to live in the huge population. Even if it’s just barely a life worth living, it is still a life worth living, so it can’t be that bad. It still doesn’t sound good to me.

That’s about it for the Repugnant Conclusion. I do have to say, though, that I like that phrase, “Repugnant Conclusion.” I almost think it’s too bad it got used to describe a situation in population ethics. Philosophers have been coming up with repugnant conclusions forever. Just think of Plato’s forcing children to be separated from their families or Calvinist predetermination. It’s weird that it took until the 1980s for someone to coin the phrase.

Arrhenius, Gustaf, Ryberg, Jesper and Tännsjö, Torbjörn, “The Repugnant Conclusion”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/repugnant-conclusion/>.

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