The Repugnant conclusion

 
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07 September 2018 10:40
 

I have been thinking deeply about morality and the repugnant conclusion. For me I have failed to see the problem with the repugnant conclusion. I have found the best way to think about morality is to think about it in a semi-mathematical way. We know that we want to avoid suffering and favour well-being so it logically follows that we could have an increase in suffering that would cancel out a gain in our well being. The amount of suffering to well being we should trade off would seem to have an answer in principle.

When we look at “The Repugnant Conclusion” the idea is that creating lots of mildly fulfilling lives is more good then a few that are very fulfilling and the claim is that this is inconsistent in some way or somehow wrong. This statement seems to me not to be inconsistent or wrong, if we find that after using our trade-off system the total remaining well-being is still larger in the large group of mildly fulfilling lives.

This view is consistent with all thought experiments I can think of. I can try to explain it in a way that would make sense. Let’s imagine that we were an outside observer and we had to choose which world we wanted to be brought into (similar to the thought experiment where you are trying to create a world where you wouldn’t know exactly who it is in that world you would be). It would seem that this breaks the experiment but I actually posit that this is because we’ve failed to accurately describe the thought experiment in the first place. The thought experiment should actually include any potential being that could exist. This actually makes the thought experiment extremely complicated but far more accurate. If you were placing yourself in the the repugnant conclusion in this context the question you should be asking yourself is more like this (we’ll use small numbers for easy understanding) would I rather live a life that I found worth living but only just or would I rather a 99.99% chance I wouldn’t exist and a .01% chance to have an extremely fulfilling life.

The conclusion becomes a lot less “repugnant” now.

Happy to hear criticisms or if I have failed to understand the repugnant conclusion to its full extent I am genuinely interested to hear why.

 
Antisocialdarwinist
 
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07 September 2018 17:53
 

A bit of a tangent, but in my opinion, Harris’s take on the “repugnant conclusion” contradicts his thesis, that science can determine human values. If we’re ignoring the values science determines for us because we find them repugnant, then we can’t very well claim that science has determined our human values, can we?

 
 
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07 September 2018 22:00
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 07 September 2018 05:53 PM

A bit of a tangent, but in my opinion, Harris’s take on the “repugnant conclusion” contradicts his thesis, that science can determine human values. If we’re ignoring the values science determines for us because we find them repugnant, then we can’t very well claim that science has determined our human values, can we?

I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think this is a tangent at all, this is spot on. We shouldn’t be surprised to find moral truths that make us uncomfortable.

 
Twissel
 
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07 September 2018 22:26
 

“Repugnant Conclusions” only occur if you don’t include enough parameters to calculate your “moral landscape”: if the best way to make life better for a million is to kill 20, but the million would feel very bad about it, then The Moral Landscape should have a path that doesn’t require said killing, but might take longer.

 
 
Poldano
 
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09 September 2018 23:36
 

The repugnant conclusion assumes that any life is better than no life, or to put it another way, that any existence is better than no existence. If the value of non-existence is assumed to be neutral, and the value of an indifferent life is assumed to be the same, then the calculations will never lead to the repugnant conclusion. Instead, the argument will devolve into what weighting factors one should apply to various levels of happiness and non-happiness.

One might be inclined to assume that asserting a neutral value to nonexistence would justify arbitrary murder. This is not necessarily the case, because the value of a life in terms of well-being or happiness cannot be calculated on the basis of the single individual whose existence or nonexistence is at issue. Simply by coming into being, and indeed even before coming into being, an individual can have an effect on the happiness of other individuals. Such an effect is very difficult to calculate in principle, and may be impossible in actuality. Nonetheless, it clearly exists.

 
 
Jan_CAN
 
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10 September 2018 06:48
 

In my opinion, moral decisions cannot be determined or arrived at by science alone or in a semi-mathematical way.  One can imagine all kinds of unspeakable horrors and injustices that could result in an attempt to fit the human condition into an equation.  It’s one thing to play around with thought experiments, but quite another if one were to seriously consider any group of people, some kind of elite, making such decisions.  The kind of arrogance and cold-heartedness that would be required to decide that one has a right to determine whether others should die or suffer for the greater good; and of course, this elite would make sure that they and theirs are the beneficiaries of such decisions.

I would argue that if a so-called ‘moral truth’ made one uncomfortable or was repugnant, it is in effect not a ‘truth’.  A sense that something is repugnant is likely a result of conscience and humanity speaking and should be listened to, not disregarded.

[ Edited: 10 September 2018 07:20 by Jan_CAN]
 
 
Brick Bungalow
 
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11 September 2018 20:55
 

Good post.

I feel like the discomfort and dissonance we feel when taking a moral premise to it’s furthest logical conclusion is important. I think the exercise is essential for any serious thinker and anyone dedicated to a real truth ethic. The myriad of implications merits a great deal of exploration.

I’m not convinced that ethical questions can or should be reduced to some kind of equation. Or, another way to put it market principles are often necessary for the efficient execution of a moral choice but they are rarely the map to that choice.

The queasiness of conscience is also an unreliable guide to finding the good on it’s own but I think it often prompts useful correction. In this case I think it’s suggestive of a category error. Namely the default to a so-called ‘greater good’ or the good of the many. This is intuitive in the abstract but I think it’s also an intuition that accompanies every massive failure of moral intuition and moral behavior.

I’m headed for bed now but I think there is a lot to say about this. It’s a profound problem.