William & Mary

Philosophy professor continues work on confounding problem

  • Repugnant conclusion:
    Repugnant conclusion:  Noah Lemos, Leslie and Naomi Legum Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at William & Mary, has spent years working on the pesky problem of the repugnant conclusion.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Two heads may be better than one, but in this case, many noggins still haven’t produced a solution.

The problem of the repugnant conclusion is a pesky one that philosophers have worked on for decades. Most recently, Noah Lemos, Leslie and Naomi Legum Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at William & Mary, has spent years trying to solve it.

Lemos explains the conflict of the level of positivity totaled by the number of happy people living prosperous, pleasurable lives of high utility versus those who aren’t.

“The problem of the repugnant conclusion is that for any population that you can imagine with very high levels of utility, there’s a much larger population where people have lives that are barely worth living, where the total amount of good in that second world is much higher,” Lemos said.

“So if we evaluate worlds according to the total amount of utility in those worlds, that world where people have lives that are barely worth living is a better world. And that seems repugnant; that seems absurd.”

The conclusion is derived at from a bunch of “very intuitively plausible premises,” such as the principle of transitivity, which reasons that if A is better than B and B is better than C, then A is better than C. So he has tried to find out which of those should be rejected.

Philosophers have made a lot of attempts at solutions over the past 30 years. Those philosophers include the late Derek Parfit who brought the problem to prominence when he was a professor at Oxford University.

Lemos consulted a former teacher of his, who said the dilemma is that all of the solutions are repugnant.

“So I’ve worked on it pretty intensely for the past six years,” Lemos said. “And sometimes I’ll think I have a solution, and I’ll tell my wife I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve solved the repugnant conclusion. And then about a week later, I’ll realize, nope, that won’t work either. It’s no better than any of the other solutions that have been attempted.

“And my fear is I’ll probably die without ever knowing what the solution is.”

He started on this in the early 1990s with a paper titled “Higher Goods and the Myth of Tithonus” published in the Journal of Philosophy.

The scenario was that Tithonus fell in love with a goddess and the goddess goes to Zeus and says she loves Tithonus and asks for him to be made immortal. Zeus agrees, but the goddess forgot to wish for eternal youth for Tithonus.

“So he just gets older and older, and more wrinkled,” Lemos said. “And he gets smaller and smaller and he turns into a cricket, but he’s an immortal cricket. And he has just a little bit of cricket pleasure every day. And the question comes up does Tithonus have a good life? Because he has a huge amount of pleasure because he’s an immortal cricket, but it’s spread out very thinly.

“And most people would say I wouldn’t want that to happen to me. If Zeus could change me immediately into an immortal cricket, I wouldn’t want it. Even though the total amount of pleasure in my life might be really high. So one of the problems is to explain why that’s not such a good life, even though the total amount of good in that life is really high.”

Another example, according to Lemos, is that three gods each suggest creating a world. The first god says I can create a really good world where there are 1,000 people and they all live really good lives with 1,000 units of good for each one of them. The next god says I can do better; I can create a world where there are a million people, and each one of them has 500 units of pleasure. So far more people, but half the amount of pleasure.

The third god says I can create a world where there are 20 billion people, but each one of them only gets one unit of pleasure. Their lives are just devoted to Muzak and boiled potatoes, said Lemos.

“But that third god can create so many people and give each one of them one unit of pleasure that the total amount of utility in that world is much higher,” Lemos said. “So according to certain theories of value, that’s the best world. And again, that just seems absurd.

“So some people have said that we shouldn’t focus on the total amount of utility, but we should focus on the average amount of utility that each person gets. So you imagine a world where there’s fewer people, but the average utility in that world is pretty high, say 500 units of utility. So we should look at the average utility when we evaluate worlds.”

The problem with that view, he added, is that you can imagine two worlds where there are just 1,000 people where the average utility is say, 500. Now imagine a world where there’s a million people, but everybody gets 490 units of utility. In that case, it seems like the second world is much better: There are far more people, but they’re only slightly worse off. And if you just focus on average utility, the first world is better. But that seems to be a mistake.

“So trying to come up with some solution to this has proven extremely difficult,” Lemos said. “And I once proposed a solution, other people have proposed it too, that some goods are just higher than others. So that a life that involved Beethoven and moral virtue and knowledge and wisdom and fine food and the best of books — the goods in that life are so good that you can’t trade them for any amount of just say physical pleasure.

“But that view won’t work either because you can imagine a successive step down … but there are just lots more of those people. So you can imagine a series of step down in utility until you get a world where there’s billions of people with lives that are just barely worth living.”

Lemos uses the problem in teaching his advanced seminars on value theory, and to this day students can become obsessed with solving it, according to Lemos.

It also has practical applications

“The problem is often couched in terms of population ethics, like how many people should there be?” Lemos said. “Should we aim at a vast population where lives are just barely worth living, or should we aim at much smaller populations where each person might have a very high standard of living? What principles should we look at to make this kind of determination?

“Should we look at the total amount of good in the world? Or should we just look at the average amount?”

For now Lemos will be putting the problem aside to work on other projects.

“But it’s sort of in the back of my mind when I go to bed at night; this problem just keeps circulating,” he said. “I don’t know how to solve it, and it’s frustrating.”