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THEORIA, 2016, 82, 166181

doi:10.1111/theo.12094

Population Ethics and Different-Number-Based Imprecision


by

GUSTAF ARRHENIUS
Institute for Futures Studies and Stockholm University

Abstract: Recently, in his Rolf Schock Prize Lecture, Derek Part has suggested a novel way of
avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion by introducing what he calls imprecision in value compari-
sons. He suggests that in a range of important cases, populations of different sizes are only impre-
cisely comparable. Part suggests that this feature of value comparisons opens up a way of avoiding
the Repugnant Conclusion without implying other counterintuitive conclusions, and thus solves one
of the major challenges in ethics. In this article, I try to clarify Parts proposal and evaluate whether
it will help us with the paradoxes in population ethics.
Keywords: population ethics, imprecision, Different-Number-Based Imprecision, Repugnant Con-
clusion, impossibility theorems, population paradoxes, Derek Part

1. Introduction

MANY WOULD AGREE THAT the present generation, at least in the afuent parts
of the world, is proting from the earths resources at the expense of future gen-
erations. In combination with a steadily increasing population, this could result in
a future world crowded with people whose lives are worth living but of poor qual-
ity because of environmental degradation and lack of resources. Assume that we
have an opportunity to avoid this scenario and to create a world with a sizeable
but smaller population in which every person enjoys very high quality of life.
Which future is the better one? Most of us, it seems, nd it evident that the latter
future is superior to the former. For example, Derek Part holds that the contrary
claim would be an instance of his infamous Repugnant Conclusion:

The Repugnant Conclusion: For any population consisting of people with very high positive welfare,
there is a better population in which everyone has a very low positive welfare, other things being equal.1

1 Here is how Part (1984, p. 388) formulates the conclusion: 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. Hence, my formulation is more general than his. The ceteris paribus clause in the formulation
is meant to imply that the compared populations are roughly equal in all other putatively axiologically relevant
aspect apart from individual welfare levels (cf. discussion below). Although it is through Parts writings that
this implication of Total Utilitarianism has become widely discussed, it was already noted by Henry Sidgwick
(1907, p. 415), before the turn of the century. For other early sources of the Repugnant Conclusion, see Broad
(1979, pp. 249250), McTaggart (1927, pp. 452453) and Narveson (1967).

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POPULATION ETHICS AND DIFFERENT-NUMBER-BASED IMPRECISION 167

Very low positive welfare


Population B is much larger than A

Very high positive welfare

A B

Figure 1. The Repugnant Conclusion

In Figure 1, the width of each block represents the number of people whereas
the height represents their lifetime welfare. Dashes indicate that the block in ques-
tion should be much wider than shown, that is, the population size is much larger
than shown.
These populations could consist of all the past, present and future lives, or all
the present and future lives, or all the lives during some shorter time span in the
future such as the next generation, or all the lives that are causally affected by, or
consequences of a certain action or series of actions, and so forth.2
All the lives in the diagram have positive welfare, or, as we also could put it,
all the people have lives worth living. The A-people have very high welfare
whereas the B-people have very low positive welfare.3 The reason for this could
be that in the B-lives there are, to paraphrase Part, only enough ecstasies to just
outweigh the agonies, or that the good things in those lives are of uniformly poor

2 More exactly, a population is a nite set of lives in a possible world. A, B, C, A1, A2,, An,
A[B, and so on, denote populations of nite size. We shall adopt the convention that populations repre-
sented by different letters, or the same letter but different indexes, are pairwise disjoint. For example,
A\B = A1\A2 = . We shall assume that for any natural number n and any welfare level X, there is a
possible population of n people with welfare X (for a discussion of this No-Limit Assumption, see
Arrhenius, forthcoming, 2000a, ch. 3).
3 We shall say that a life has neutral welfare if and only if it is equally as good for the person living it
as a neutral welfare component, and that a life has positive (negative) welfare if and only if it has higher
(lower) welfare than a life with neutral welfare. A welfare component is neutral relative to a certain life
x if and only if x with this component has the same welfare as x without this component. A hedonist, for
example, would typically say that an experience which is neither pleasurable nor painful is neutral in
value for a person and as such does not increase or decrease the persons welfare. The above denition
can of course be combined with other welfarist axiologies, such as desire satisfaction and objective list
theories. Moreover, there are a number of alternative denitions of a neutral life in the literature, many of
which would also work ne in the present context. For a discussion, see Arrhenius (forthcoming, chs.
2 and 9; 2000a), Broome (1999, 2004), Bykvist (2007, p. 101) and Part (1984, pp. 357358 and appen-
dix G). Notice also that we actually do not need an analysis of a neutral welfare in the present context
but rather just a criterion, and the criterion can vary with different theories of welfare.

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168 GUSTAF ARRHENIUS

quality, e.g., eating potatoes and listening to Muzak.4 However, since there are
many more people in B, the total sum of welfare in B is greater than in
A. Hence, a theory like Total Utilitarianism, according to which we should maxi-
mize the welfare in the world, ranks B as better than A an instance of the
Repugnant Conclusion.5
Notice that problems like the Repugnant Conclusion are not just problems for
total utilitarians or those committed to welfarism, the view that welfare is the only
value that matters from the moral point of view, since we have assumed that other
axiologically relevant aspects are roughly equal. Hence, other values and consid-
erations are not decisive for the value comparison of populations A and B. Thus,
the Repugnant Conclusion is a problem for all moral theories according to which
welfare matters at least when all other things are equal, which arguably is a mini-
mal adequacy condition for any moral theory.
The Repugnant Conclusion highlights a problem in an area of ethics which has
become known as population ethics which involves foundational questions
regarding axiology and our duties to future generations. The main problem in
population ethics has been to nd an adequate theory about the value of out-
comes where the number of people, the quality of their lives, and their identities
may vary. Since any reasonable moral theory has to take these aspects of possible
outcomes into account when determining the normative status of actions, the
study of population ethics is of general import for moral theory. Through his pio-
neering and seminal contributions, Part can rightly be said to be the founding
father of this important eld.6
As the name indicates, Part nds the Repugnant Conclusion unacceptable and
most philosophers agree. However, it has been surprisingly difcult to nd a the-
ory that avoids the Repugnant Conclusion without implying other very counterin-
tuitive conclusions.7 Actually, it is impossible to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion
(or even worse conclusions) without violating some intuitively very convincing
conditions. We know this for sure through a number of so-called impossibility
theorems.8 The proofs of these theorems show that there is no theory that fulls a
number of intuitively compelling adequacy conditions conditions which every-
one seems to agree that a reasonable moral theory must full. Examples of such
conditions are that one future is better than another if everyone is better off in the
former as compared to the latter, or that it is better to create happy rather than

4 See Part (1984, p. 388) and Part (1986, p. 148). For a discussion of different interpretations of the
Repugnant Conclusion, see Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2000a) and Part (1984, 2014, 2016).
5 Throughout this article, better means better, all things considered if not otherwise indicated.
6 Another pioneer is Jan Narveson. See Narveson (1967, 1973, 1978).
7 For a summary, see Arrhenius (2013a); Arrhenius et al. (2010).
8 See, e.g., Part (1984, 1986) and Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2000a, 2000b, 2003, 2005a, 2009a, 2011).

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POPULATION ETHICS AND DIFFERENT-NUMBER-BASED IMPRECISION 169

unhappy people. The question as to how the Repugnant Conclusion should be


dealt with has become one of the cardinal challenges of modern ethics and the
inquiry into what it shows about the nature of ethics has opened up many new
avenues for research. Population ethics has proved a very fruitful area of research,
having implications for all areas of moral and political philosophy. This is all
thanks to Parts ground-breaking work in this area.
Recently, in his Rolf Schock Prize Lecture, Part has suggested a novel way of
avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion by introducing what he calls imprecision
in value comparisons (Part, 2014).9 Part suggests that in a range of important
cases, outcomes are only imprecisely comparable. In such case, transitive rela-
tions such as equally as good as are not applicable. Instead, we have to make
use of imprecise concepts that are non-transitive. This imprecision is not due to
any cognitive or epistemic limitations but a fact about the value comparisons of
certain types of outcomes.
More specically, Part (2014) suggests that [w]hen two possible worlds
would contain different numbers of people, this fact makes these worlds less pre-
cisely comparable. From this it follows that many of the comparisons of different
future populations will involve imprecise comparisons and transitivity of the
involved relations might fail. Part suggests that this feature will open up for a
way of avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion without implying other counterintui-
tive conclusions, and thus solve one of the major challenges in ethics. In this arti-
cle, I shall try to clarify Parts proposal and evaluate whether it will help us with
the paradoxes in population ethics.

2. Imprecision

Here is an example of what Part means by imprecision in value comparisons:

Suppose that I ask you whether Einstein or Bach was a greater genius, or achieved more. You
may rst assume that this question couldnt have an answer, since it makes no sense to compare
the genius, or achievements, of scientists and composers. But I might then point out that Bach was
clearly a greater genius than many bad scientists, and Einstein was a greater genius than many bad
composers. When you realize that there can be truths of this kind, you would not suddenly come
to believe that as geniuses, or in their achievements, Einstein and Bach might be precisely equally
as great. As you would see, the truth could be only that one of these people was imprecisely
greater than the other, more plausibly, that they were imprecisely equally as great. (Part, 2014)

9 My discussion will focus on this paper, drawing on my lecture at the Rolf Schock Prize Symposium
in Logic and Philosophy in honour of Derek Part (where Part presented his paper). However, Part
has signicantly revised his view, partly, he tells me, in response to some of the criticism of his earlier
position that I shall present here. This new version of Parts paper appears in this issue of Theoria
(Part, 2016). Unfortunately, I wont have space here to discuss Parts revised view but I hope to return
to it in another paper.

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170 GUSTAF ARRHENIUS

Equally as good as is transitive: If A is equally as good as B, and B is equally


as good as C, then A is equally as good as C. Imprecisely equally as good as,
however, is non-transitive: Even if A is imprecisely equally as good as B, and B
is imprecisely equally as good as C, A might not be imprecisely equally as good
as C. For example, that Einstein and Mozart are imprecisely equally as good and
Mozart and Bohr are imprecisely equally as good is compatible with Einstein
being greater than Bohr. According to Part (2014), [s]uch imprecision is not
the result of our lack of knowledge, but is part of what we would know if we
knew the full facts.10
That there are non-transitive value relations of this kind seems likely. A well-
known case is not better than. As Part (2014) puts it:

If your life could go in different ways, it might be true that your being a writer would not be better
than your being a doctor, which would not be better than your being a slightly less successful
writer. But your being a writer would be better than your being a slightly less successful writer.
Not better than would not here be a transitive relation.

But how should this help us with the paradoxes in population ethics? Part
adds another important assumption which he calls Different-Number-Based
Imprecision:

When two possible worlds would contain different numbers of people, this fact makes these worlds
less precisely comparable [and even less so, the greater the difference]. As well as adding value to
the world, the existence of extra people always creates an extra margin of imprecision
The amount of added value may be less than the increased margin of imprecision. When that is
true, though the existence of these extra people would make the world in one way better, it would
not make the world better all things considered. The resulting world would instead be imprecisely
equally as good as the world in which these people never exist. (Part, 2014, and personal com-
munication, last emphasis added)

So many additions of lives with positive welfare will not make the world better
but just make it imprecisely equally as good as the original one. Whether or not
this is the case depends on the added peoples welfare levels. Addition of lives
with very low positive welfare will not make the world better whereas additions
of lives with very high welfare will make it better:

Suppose next that these peoples lives would not merely be worth living, but would be very good
The amount of added value would then be greater than the increased margin of imprecision
[T]heir existence would make the world, not only in one way better, but also better all things con-
sidered. (Part, 2014)

10 His idea is similar to, but not the same as, Ruth Changs (2002, 2005) proposal that there is a fourth
value-relation: on a par. On a par is also a non-transitive relation.

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There is also a low level such that if the added life has sufciently negative wel-
fare, then it makes the outcome worse all things considered (Part, personal
communication).11
There are a number of interesting but unresolved questions with this proposal.
One can wonder where the upper and lower welfare limit should be set and how to
determine this. More importantly, one can wonder about the motivation behind
Different-Number-Based Imprecision. Part appeals to the idea of separateness of
persons but it remains unclear how these ideas are connected (Part, personal com-
munication). I shall leave these interesting issues aside and instead look at whether,
if true, Different-Number-Based Imprecision could help us with the paradoxes in
population ethics. Let us look at some derivations of the Repugnant Conclusion
and see whether imprecision can help us in blocking some step in them.

3. The Quantity Sequence

There are other axiologies apart from Total Utilitarianism that imply the Repug-
nant Conclusion. These can be characterized by a set of conditions. Consider the
following condition:

Quantity: For any pair of positive welfare levels A and B, such that B is slightly lower than A, and
for any number of lives n, there is a greater number of lives m, such that a population of m lives
at level B is better than a population of n lives at level A, other things being equal.12

Quantity has some intuitive plausibility and should appeal to those thinkers that
nd some truth in the saying the more good, the better. However, it implies the
Repugnant Conclusion together with the following reasonable assumption regard-
ing welfare levels:

Finite Fine-grainedness: There exists a nite sequence of slight welfare differences between any
two welfare levels.

The idea here is that one can get from one welfare level to another in a nite
number of steps of intuitively slight welfare difference. Examples of such welfare
differences could be some minor pain or pleasure or a shortening of life with a
minute or two.13 These differences do not have to be of the same size or type.

11 It is unclear to me whether Part thought that the lower level starts from just below zero. However,
I would strongly recommend such a lower level since otherwise Different-Number-Based Imprecision
would entail violations of the Negative Mere Addition Principle: An addition of people with negative
welfare makes a population worse, other things being equal. Cf. Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2000a, 2000b).
12 A welfare level is an equivalence class on the set of all possible lives with respect to the relation
has at least as high welfare as. For an exact statement of this principle, see Arrhenius (forthcoming,
2000a) where this condition is formulated in terms of at least as good as.
13 For a precise denition of slight welfare difference, see Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2000a, 2011).

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A1 A2 A3 Ar
Figure 2. The Quantity Sequence

Lets say that a life of type a has higher welfare than a life of type b, and suppose
that you are successively making a slightly worse, perhaps by shortening it by a
minute or two or by adding some minor pain. Finite Fine-grainedness implies that
there is a nite (but possibly great) number of such slight worsenings from a to
another type of life c such that a life of this type will have the same welfare or
lower welfare than a life of type b. It is quite hard to deny the intuitive force of
this assumption.14
Consider the sequence of populations in Figure 2 for an informal demonstra-
tion of how these two conditions together imply the Repugnant Conclusion.
Assume that A1 in Figure 2 is a population with very high welfare and that Ar is
a population with very low positive welfare (again, the width of the blocks repre-
sents the number of lives in the population, the height represents their lifetime
welfare; dashes indicates that the block in question should intuitively be much
wider than shown). According to Quantity, there is a population A2 with slightly
lower welfare than A1 and which is better than A1; a population A3 with slightly
lower welfare than A2 and which is better than A2; and so forth. We can assume
that the welfare levels in this sequence of populations satisfy Finite Fine-grained-
ness. Hence, we will nally reach population Ar with very low positive welfare.
By transitivity, Ar is better than A1. Since A1 is an arbitrary population with very
high welfare, this shows that for any population with very high welfare, there is a
population with very low positive welfare which is better, that is, the Repugnant
Conclusion.

14 Notice that Finite Fine-grainedness does not imply that all sequences of slight welfare differences
between two welfare levels are nite, just that there exists at least one such sequence. It is compatible
with the welfare ordering being continuous as well as discreet. It just rules out that there are, so to speak,
big jumps or holes in the order of welfare levels. For a discussion of Finite Fine-grainedness and
possible theories of welfare that violate this condition, see Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2005b); Arrhenius
and Rabinowicz (2015). For an interesting effort to challenge Finite Fine-grainedness (in light of the
impossibility theorems in population ethics), see Carlson (2015) and Thomas (2015).

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Here is Parts suggestion for how an appeal to imprecision can block this
derivation:

Each of these larger worlds would be in one way worse than the neighbouring world with fewer
people, since everyone would be slightly worse off. These worlds would be in another way better,
since there would exist many more people with lives that were only slightly less worth living. But
though the existence of more such people would always make the world in one way better, this
added value would always be less than the increased margin of imprecision. The existence of these
people would never make the outcome better all things considered. So it would not be true that if
there were enough such people, the goodness of their existence would outweigh the fact that every-
one would be worse off. (Part, 2014, rst emphasis added)

So the idea is that A2 is not better than A1 but only imprecisely equally as good,
since the added value of more people with positive welfare is less than the
increased margin of imprecision. Likewise for A3 and A2, and so on. Since
imprecisely equally as good as is non-transitive, the Repugnant Conclusion
does not follow. Actually, it does not even follow that A1 is imprecisely equally
as good as Ar which would be a slightly weaker version of the Repugnant Con-
clusion. This result is compatible with A1 being better than Ar, which is what
most people seem to believe. This appeal to imprecision implies, of course, a
rejection of Quantity. However, it is compatible with a weaker version formulated
in terms of imprecisely equally as good as.
Is this argument convincing? Well, perhaps at least at lower welfare levels and
where the difference in welfare is small. It of course depends on what further
arguments one might be able to marshal in favour of Different-Number-Based
Imprecision. But the point here is that an appeal to imprecision can block the
above derivation of the Repugnant Conclusion which speaks in favour of the idea
of imprecision. There are, however, other derivations of this conclusion.

4. The Sequential Mere Addition Paradox

The next derivation is based on two principles. Here is the rst one:

The Mere Addition Principle: An addition of people with positive welfare does not make a popula-
tion worse, other things being equal.15

The idea is that you do not make a population worse by adding lives worth living.
How can the mere existence of people with lives worth living make a population
worse, one might ask? Yet, although it might seem a compelling principle at rst
glance, it is controversial. Several authors have rejected it for quite good reasons
(Ng, 1989, p. 244; Blackorby et al., 1995, p. 1305; Blackorby et al., 1997,

15 Cf. Part (2014, p. 420ff ), Hudson (1987), Ng (1989) and Sider (1991). Cf. n. below.

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pp. 210211; Fehige, 1998).16 One might, for example, object to it on egalitarian
grounds since a mere addition can introduce great inequality in an otherwise per-
fectly equal population (see Arrhenius, forthcoming, 2009b, 2013b). However,
we shall set this issue aside for now since we are here interested in how impreci-
sion can help us (more on this below).
The next condition is a weak egalitarian condition:
Inequality Aversion: For any triplet of welfare levels A, B and C, A higher than B, and B higher
than C, and for any population A with welfare A, there is some larger population C with wel-
fare C such that a perfectly equal population B of the same size as A[C and with welfare B is
better than A[C, other things being equal.17

Another way of stating Inequality Aversion is to say that for any welfare level of
the best off and worst off, and for any number of best off lives, there is some
(possibly much) greater number of worst off lives such that it would be better to
have an equal distribution of welfare on any level higher than the worst off, other
things being equal.
It is a very weak egalitarian condition since it can be satised by a theory
which demands that the total welfare must be greater for a population with perfect
equality to be better than an unequal population of the same size. Moreover, it is
also compatible with principles that give much greater weight to the welfare of
the best off as compared to the welfare of the worst off. For example, a theory
which requires that to compensate for one person falling from twenty to ten units
of welfare, a hundred people have to be moved from zero to ten units, is compati-
ble with Inequality Aversion. In that sense, its name is a bit misleading since it is
compatible with quite non-egalitarian theories. Roughly, Inequality Aversion only
rules out theories that imply that we should always or sometimes give some kind
of lexical priority to the best off.18 A simple example of such a theory is
Maximax: Maximise the welfare of the best off.

16 Ng (1989, p. 238) ascribes to Part the view that a population axiology should satisfy the Mere
Addition Principle and one might get that impression from Part (2014, p. 420ff ). In personal communi-
cation, however, Part has expressed doubts about the Mere Addition Principle in cases where the added
people are much worse off than the rest of the population. See also Feldman (1997, ch. 10), Kavka
(1982) and Carlson (1998, pp. 288289).
17 For an exact statement of this principle, see Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2000a) where this condition is
formulated in terms of at least as good as. I have here formulated it in terms of better than to sim-
plify the exposition.
18 There are some more subtle theories that violate Inequality Aversion, such as theories that invoke
some form of superiority in value. See Arrhenius (2005b) and Arrhenius and Rabinowicz (2005, 2015)
for a discussion. Given Finite Fine-grainedness, Inequality Aversion can be derived from an even more
intuitively compelling condition, Non-Elitism, which roughly says that there is at least some very small
decrease in welfare for one of the best off persons which can be compensated for by an increase in wel-
fare for at least some (possibly much greater) number of the worst off people, to the effect that the
involved people enjoy the same level of welfare. See Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2000a, 2003, 2011).

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POPULATION ETHICS AND DIFFERENT-NUMBER-BASED IMPRECISION 175


A A+ B B+ C Z
Figure 3. The Sequential Mere Addition Paradox

Now consider the populations in Figure 3. All the people in population A enjoy
very high welfare. In A+, we have added a second group of lives, the + lives,
with positive welfare a bit lower than the lives in A. In B, which is of the same
size as A+, we have equalized the welfare at a level higher than the + lives but
lower than the A-lives. We can assume that A+ and B full the antecedent of Ine-
quality Aversion.19 Let us also assume completeness (or full comparability as this
property is also called) of the relation is at least as good as: For any population
X and Y, X is at least as good as Y, or Y is at least as good as X.
Given completeness, the Mere Addition Principle implies that A+ is at least as
good as A. Inequality Aversion implies that B is better than A+. Likewise for
populations B, B+ and C, and so forth until we nally reach population Z with
very low positive welfare. By transitivity, Z is better than A, that is, the Repug-
nant Conclusion.
Here is Parts take on this case:

The amount of added value may be less than the increased margin of imprecision. When that is
true, though the existence of these extra people would make the world in one way better, it would
not make the world better all things considered. The resulting world would instead be imprecisely
equally as good as the world in which these people never exist. (Part, 2014, emphasis added)

So the idea is that A+ is not at least as good as A but, because of Different-Num-


ber-Based Imprecision, A+ is instead imprecisely equally as good as A. Given
this, transitivity fails and we cannot derive that Z is better than A. Actually, it
does not even follow that B is better than A since a dening characteristic of
imprecisely equally as good as is that one thing B can be better than another
thing A+ without being better than A which is imprecisely equally as good as
A+.

19 If welfare is measurable on at least an interval scale, we could also assume that the total and average
welfare in B is higher than in A+.

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176 GUSTAF ARRHENIUS

So in this case, imprecision makes it possible for us to hold onto the Mere
Addition Principle and Inequality Aversion but still avoid the Repugnant Conclu-
sion. We can still hold on to the belief that A is better than Z.
So far, so good, but there is a simpler version of the Mere Addition Paradox
that will raise problems for the appeal to imprecision.

5. The Simple Mere Addition Paradox

In Figure 4 below, A is a population of people with very high welfare, B is a


much larger population than A but consisting of people with very low welfare,
and Z is a population of the same size as A[B (the population consisting of both
the A- and B-people). Everybody in Z has very low positive welfare but they are
all better off than the people in B. Moreover, there is perfect equality in Z.20 We
can assume that A[B and Z full the antecedent of Inequality Aversion.
The Mere Addition Principle together with completeness implies that A[B is
at least as good as A whereas Inequality Aversion yields that Z is better than
A[B. By transitivity, Z is better than A, that is, the Repugnant Conclusion.
Can we avoid this conclusion by claiming again that A[B is imprecisely
equally as good as A because of Different-Number-Based Imprecision? Unfortu-
nately, that move does not help here, at least as long as we want to claim that A
is better (or at least as good as) Z, which is what most people would like to say
to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion (and certainly Part). Since Z is better than
A[B, and A is better than Z, it follows by transitivity of betterness (which Part
does not dispute) that A is better than A[B, which contradicts the claim that
A[B is imprecisely equally as good as A. We get that A[B is both worse and
not worse than A (since imprecisely equally as good as entails not worse
than). So imprecision does not help here.

A AB Z
Figure 4. The Simple Mere Addition Paradox

20 If welfare is measurable on at least an interval scale, we could also assume that the total and average
welfare in Z is higher than in A[B.

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POPULATION ETHICS AND DIFFERENT-NUMBER-BASED IMPRECISION 177

A possible way out here is to claim that A is not better than (or equally as good
as) Z but rather that A is imprecisely equally as good as Z, by an appeal yet again
to Different-Number-Based Imprecision. Then it does not follow that A is better
than A[B and thus we avoid the contradiction.
Is this satisfactory? Well, although we would avoid the Repugnant Conclusion
with this move, another version of it would follow:

The Weaker Repugnant Conclusion: There is no population consisting of people with very high
positive welfare which is better than all populations with very low welfare, and for any such
very high welfare population there is a population consisting of people with very low positive
welfare which is imprecisely equally as good, other things being equal.

Those who nd the Repugnant Conclusion very counterintuitive, like Part,


would not nd much comfort in the Weaker Repugnant Conclusion, I surmise.
Rather, this shows how a theory can avoid the former conclusion in an unsatisfac-
tory way: By implying that at least one large population with people enjoying
very high welfare is incommensurable with or imprecisely equally as good as all
populations with very low positive welfare but no population with very high wel-
fare is better than all populations with very low welfare. Perhaps it can be reason-
ably believed that some populations with very high welfare are imprecisely
equally as good as some populations with very low positive welfare. However,
that there is no population consisting of people enjoying very high welfare that is
better than all populations with very low welfare, given that other things are
equal, seems rather cold comfort to those who nd the original Repugnant Con-
clusion very counterintuitive.21
A better strategy, I think, is to claim that mere additions of lives with much
lower welfare than the original population makes the resulting population worse
and that A[B is in fact worse than A.22 This would of course amount to giving
up the Mere Addition Principle.
However, it would not involve an appeal to imprecision, so one might then
wonder what work is left for imprecision in regards to the population paradoxes?
Well, one could retain a version of the Mere Addition Principle involving addi-
tion of lives whose welfare is not very much lower that the welfare of the original
population. With this version of the Mere Addition Principle, the simple Mere
Addition Paradox would not follow. Still, it would be sufcient for the derivation
of the Sequential Mere Addition Paradox. We can block this latter paradox,

21 Moreover, such a theory would still violate the plausible Quality condition: There is a perfectly
equal population with very high welfare which is at least as good as any population with very low posi-
tive welfare, other things being equal. For a discussion, see Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2000a).
22 As Part has done; see n. 14.

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178 GUSTAF ARRHENIUS

however, with an appeal to imprecision. Hence, imprecision in combination with


a weakening of the Mere Addition Principle might actually help us with at least
the Mere Addition Paradoxes.
There are, however, harder paradoxes in population ethics.

6. The Sixth Impossibility Theorem

Let me turn to a last and worse problem for Different-Number-Based Imprecision.


As I mentioned in the introduction, there have been a number of impossibility
theorems in population axiology.23 The proofs of these theorems show that there
is no theory that fulls a number of intuitively compelling adequacy conditions
conditions which everyone seems to agree that a reasonable moral theory must
full. The theorem which involves, to the best of my knowledge, the logically
weakest and intuitively most compelling conditions, and thus represents the hard-
est challenges to the very existence of a satisfactory population ethics, is the
following:

The Sixth Impossibility Theorem: There is no population axiology which satises Egalitarian
Dominance, General Non-Extreme Priority, Non-Elitism, Weak Non-Sadism, and Weak Quality
Addition. (Arrhenius forthcoming, 2009a, 2011)

Different-Number-Based Imprecision can, of course, only be used to undermine


conditions that apply to different number cases, that is, cases that involve compar-
isons of populations of different sizes. In the above theorem, the rst three condi-
tions are same number conditions. Only Weak Non-Sadism and Weak Quality
Addition apply to different number cases and are thus candidates for involving
Different-Number-Based Imprecision. Part would not want to undermine the
latter condition since it is a logically weaker and more intuitively compelling ver-
sion of avoidance of the Repugnant Conclusion (in fact, avoiding an even worse
conclusion).24 Hence, to get out of this theorem, he needs to show that Weak
Non-Sadism can be convincingly undermined by an appeal to imprecision. Is it
possible? Here is the condition:

23 See n. 6.
24 The worse conclusion is The Very Repugnant Conclusion: For any perfectly equal population with
very high positive welfare, and for any number of lives with very negative welfare, there is a population
consisting of the lives with negative welfare and lives with very low positive welfare which is better than
the high welfare population, other things being equal. This conclusion was, to the best of my knowledge,
rst introduced by Fehige (1998, p. 535). Andrew Williams (personal communication) thinks that a more
appropriate name for this conclusion is the utterly repugnant conclusion.

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POPULATION ETHICS AND DIFFERENT-NUMBER-BASED IMPRECISION 179

Weak Non-Sadism: There is a (very) negative welfare level and a number of lives at this level such
that adding these lives to a population is worse than adding any number of people with positive
welfare, other things being equal.25

The idea here is that there is at least some number of horribly suffering lives such
that it is worse to add these lives to a population rather than to add lives with posi-
tive welfare. It is an intuitively very compelling condition. Most people probably
hold the stronger principle that it is always worse to add suffering lives than to add
happy lives, I surmise. So it is very hard to see how imprecision in an intuitive
compelling way could convince us that this condition is false. How could it be that
for whatever number of horribly suffering people the addition of those people is
imprecisely equally as good as the addition of lives with positive welfare?
Unsurprisingly, Part concurs. In a discussion of a theory that violates Weak
Non-Sadism (and thus implies the corresponding Sadistic Conclusion), he writes:
This view implies that compared with the existence of both many people who would all have very
good lives, and very many more other people whose lives would be reasonably good, it would be
better if there existed instead many people whose lives would be full of suffering, and much worse
than nothing. Gustaf Arrhenius has called this the Sadistic Conclusion [T]his view is incredi-
ble. Though the Repugnant Conclusion is hard to accept, we can understand how that conclusion
might be true Though enough of what is minimally good might be better than smaller amounts
of what is very good, how could enough of what is reasonably good be worse than smaller
amounts of what is very bad? (Part, 2014)

Part is here discussing a certain instance of the Sadistic Conclusion but I take
this to be a general endorsement of the very compelling Non-Sadism condition.
Hence, Part himself, correctly in my mind, does not think that Different-Num-
ber-Based Imprecision gives us resources to undermine Non-Sadism. So unfortu-
nately, this idea will not help us nd a solution to the impossibility theorem
which represents the hardest challenges to the very existence of a satisfactory
population ethics. So although Different-Number-Based Imprecision can help us
with some of the paradoxes in population ethics, such as the Sequential Mere
Addition Paradox, hard problems remain.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Katharina Berndt Rasmussen, Krister Bykvist, John Broome,
Tim Campbell, Erik Carlson, Johan Gustafsson, Christian List, Derek Part, Wlodek
Rabinowicz, Orri Stefnsson and Laura Valentini for very helpful discussions.

25 For an exact statement, see Arrhenius (2000a, 2011) where the condition is formulated in terms of
at least as good. It is violated by, for example, Average Utilitarianism since the addition of a certain
number of people with negative welfare can decrease the average less than an addition of a greater num-
ber of lives with positive welfare. For a demonstration, see Arrhenius (forthcoming, 2000a).

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180 GUSTAF ARRHENIUS

Thanks also to the audiences at the Rolf Schock Prize Symposium in Logic and Phi-
losophy, Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, October 2014; Final Conference of
the Franco-Swedish Program for Philosophy and Economics, SCAS, June 2015; and
the workshop Well-being and Population Ethics, Institute for Futures Study, October
2015 for useful questions and comments. Financial support from the Swedish
Research Council and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond is gratefully acknowledged.

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