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This is a short explanation from a philosopher about why Negative Average Preference

Utilitarianism is a terrible view, for the benefit of nonphilosophers in the rationalist community who
might be attracted to it. As far as I can tell, these people have been moved to find it appealing by an
article by Roger Chao in the journal Philosophy of Life, so this will be a response to that piece. As far
as I know, no professional ethicist holds NAPU (Chao himself appears to work for social welfare
nonprofits), and I don’t think what I have to say here is controversial in the discipline. Could it be
that a revolutionary solution to longstanding problems in population ethics was discovered and left
to languish unappreciated in an obscure journal in Japan? That would be surprising. As it turns out,
Chao’s paper is deeply confused on a number of basic issues, and NAPU has no significant
advantages, and many significant disadvantages, against the standard views about population ethics.

NAPU has two important elements that distinguish it from standard preference
utilitarianism. First, it is negative – that is, it suggests that a preference being unsatisfied lowers the
welfare of a person, but a satisfied preference does not improve the welfare of a person. More
standard views will allow that frustrated preferences are bad for a person, but add that satisfied
preferences are good for a person. Second, it is an average view, which means that what matters is
the amount of frustrated preferences per person, and not the total amount of frustrated preferences.

To see whether NAPU is a plausible contender, then, we should compare it to its closest
competitors – negative total preference utilitarianism (NTPU), and standard average preference
utilitarianism (SAPU). Chao’s claim is that these views are subject to serious problems which NAPU
can solve without incurring any comparably serious costs – that it is “the most intuitively plausible
and appealing form of utilitarianism which solves the Repugnant Conclusion, without leading to any
counter intuitive dilemmas”. I will show that he is wrong.

Kill the Poor?

Why is negative average preference utilitarianism better than standard average preference
utilitarianism? According to Chao, the standard view “commits us to killing the worst off” to raise
the average, and NAPU does not. Chao’s thought seems to be that if we kill the worst off, then the
remaining people have a higher average preference satisfaction, so SAPU will recommend that
action.

This is, however, just a misunderstanding of SAPU. All average views tell you to maximize
an average: the total amount of something over some denominator. But what is the base over which
we are averaging? In other words, what goes in the denominator? In principle, someone could say
the total number of people who exist after the year 3000, or the total number of people on the
planet earth. In actuality, advocates of average views almost invariably say we ought to maximize the
average preference satisfaction of all the people who did, do, and will exist (or at least who do and
will exist).

But this shows Chao’s objection is misguided. If the worst off still have futures with a
positive balance of preference satisfaction, then killing them off does not improve the average. By
killing them, you remove the value of their satisfied preferences from the numerator, but you do not
remove them from the denominator. So the average will be strictly lower. So, Chao’s objection to
the standard average view is not an objection at all.

In fact, Chao’s confusion is even worse, because if “killing the worst off” were an objection
to SAPU it would necessarily be an objection to NAPU. Chao thinks that NAPU will avoid the
objection because killing people violates strong preferences of theirs. But if the right way to measure
the average were to only consider the remaining people, as Chao’s objection demands, then this
doesn’t matter. By killing the people who have the most unsatisfied preferences, you lower the
average desire frustration of the remaining people. Chao cannot have both his solution and his
objection.

Even without looking at the details, we could have seen in advance that Chao must be
making a mistake here, because staying alive is always more in a person’s interest on SAPU than
NAPU. NAPU says that frustrated preferences count against a person’s welfare. SAPU says this, and
that satisfied preferences count in favor of it. If killing someone would lower an individual’s welfare
on NAPU, because of the frustration of their strong desire to live, then it would ALSO lower their
welfare on SAPU, which acknowledges this reason as well as the reasons given by their future desire
satisfaction.

The Real Problems with Averagism

If the “killing the worst off” objection does not apply, does this mean average views are the
best accounts of population ethics? No. In fact, averagism is the least popular approach, because it
has probably the most absurd implications of any of the natural views. Inexplicably, Chao does not
consider these other problems even though, unlike the fallacious “killing the worst” objection, many
of them were pointed out by Parfit himself in his discussion of the repugnant conclusion.

There is one that Chao does seem to be aware of – that the standard average view violates
Mere Addition, implying that adding a life we recognize as worthwhile, with no effect on anyone
else, can make the world worse. Chao claims that NAPU avoids this consequence. But nowhere in
the paper does he explain his reasoning, and in fact it does not. This is easy to prove. Imagine a
world where the only people who have existed so far have not had any (or had very few) unsatisfied
preferences. Then adding anyone with any (or a few) unsatisfied preferences, no matter how
otherwise fulfilling their life is, will, on NAPU, make the world worse. The only way for NAPU to
escape this would be to claim that no life with any unsatisfied preferences is worthwhile, which is
even worse than violating Mere Addition.

In any case, Mere Addition is only an appetizer for the real problems with averagism. Worse
is what Parfit calls Two Hells. Suppose that the world contains a thousand people suffering
unimaginable torment at the hands of a demon in Hell for a thousand years. And suppose you have
the option to create a Hell Two, where a thousand more people would be created suffering only
slightly less horrifying unimaginable torment at the hands of the demon’s little brother for a thousand
years. Averagism, both SAPU and NAPU, entail that you ought to do this, since it increases the
average welfare. Chao’s failure to consider this well-known problem is a bit bizarre.
And it doesn’t end there. Averagism violates the following claim, which is as obvious as any
claim in ethics: If option A lowers the well-being of every existing person, and only leads to the
creation of people suffering unimaginable torment, and option B increases the well-being of every
existing person, and only leads to the creation of people living very good lives, then you should
choose option B. To see this, imagine that there exist ten billion extremely happy aliens (whether
this is accounted for in terms of lack of desire frustration or otherwise). And suppose that I have the
option to A) slightly lower the well-being of every person and alien, and create a thousand new
people being tortured in hell or B) slightly increase the well-being of every person and alien, and
create a hundred trillion people living very happy, but not extremely happy lives. If the numbers are
right, then B) is worse for the average well-being than A). This is another problem NAPU does not
solve.

Moreover, NAPU, like other average views, only nominally avoids the repugnant conclusion.
It is able to reject, like any average view, that a world with lots of mediocre lives is better than one
with a few happy lives. But it is not able to avoid what we can call the conditional repugnant conclusion:
that if there are many unhappy aliens on far off planets, it is better for us to create a massive number
of people with very mediocre lives than a large number of people with happy lives. The conditional
repugnant conclusion is, I think, close to as counterintuitive as the standard repugnant conclusion.
And NAPU entails it for straightforward reasons.

Negativity

So, NAPU has no substantial advantages over SAPU when it comes to the kind of problems
it’s supposed to solve. And negative views are subject to serious objections in their own right.

First, ironically, even though the standard average views do not, as Chao claimed, entail we
ought to kill happy people, NAPU itself threatens to recommend it. This is because shorter lives
have fewer preferences and in general, fewer unsatisfied preferences. Chao’s answer to this (and the
basis of his claim that NAPU is better than classical negative utilitarian views) is that people have
strong preferences regarding the future which will be thwarted.

But it is not clear that this would help. We would have reason not to kill an individual
(bracketing off effects on others) only if the strength of their existing desires towards the future
exceeds the strength of every unsatisfied desire they would have in the future (including, it is worth
mentioning, any desire not to die they still have when they do perish). I don’t know how to assess
the plausibility of this, but I do not find it obvious one way or another. SAPU, of course, does not
have any such problem.

Chao thinks that the total version of negative preference utilitarianism (NTPU) is
implausible because it tells us not to have any children. He is right – it is for this sort of reason that
few people find negative views appealing. Setting aside whether, as mentioned above, NAPU would
also recommend mass slaughter, however, NAPU has implications which are just as absurd about
procreation.
For one, although NAPU doesn’t tell us that it is always wrong to have children, it says that it
is wrong to have children if it would increase average desire frustration. This means that if there is
an alien planet full of aliens with few unsatisfied desires, it is wrong to have children. This is hardly
much more plausible.

Second, NAPU suggests that the following would be close to an ideal procreative policy: we
have many, many, many children – then, as infants, we painlessly kill them. This would be wonderful
according to NAPU because these additional children will add to the denominator, without adding
many frustrated preferences. Infants do not have many future directed desires, and so if they do not
live long, they have much fewer unsatisfied desires than the average person. Note that Chao could
not say that killing the children would remove them from the denominator, because then his view
would no longer be immune to the “killing the worst off” objection.

So, to summarize, Chao is wrong that “killing the worst off” is a problem for standard
average views. He is wrong that NAPU would help at all even if it were a problem. He is wrong that
NAPU avoids violating Mere Addition. He is wrong that NAPU avoids the standard problems
raised against Averagism. He is wrong that NAPU avoids close analogues of the Repugnant
Conclusion. He is wrong that NAPU avoids having consequences for procreation as absurd as other
negative views. Of the reasons given in the paper, none of them succeed in pointing out an
advantage for NAPU over other more common nearby views.