By Ben Levinstein and Anders Sandberg
Almost everybody agrees factory farming is morally outrageous, with several billions of animals living lives that are likely not worth living. One possible solution to this moral disaster is to make in vitro meat technologically and commercially viable. In vitro meat is biologically identical to real meat but cultured in a tank: one day it may become cheaper, more efficient and safer than normal meat. On animal welfare grounds, then, in vitro meat seems like a clear win as it has the potential to eliminate or greatly reduce the need for factory farms. However, there is a problem…
Almost every week there’s a headline about our planet’s population explosion. For instance Indian officials confirmed recently that India is projected to overtake China in just over a decade – to become the most populous country on Earth. Many are worried that the planet is becoming increasingly overpopulated. Whether it is overpopulated, underpopulated, or appropriately populated is a challenging ethical question.
How should we compare a decrease in average quality of life with a gain in population size? Population ethics is a rigorous investigation of the value of populations, where the populations in question contain different (numbers of) individuals at different levels of quality of life. This abstract and theoretical area of philosophy is relevant to a host of important practical decisions that affect future generations, including decisions about climate change policy, healthcare prioritization, energy consumption, and global catastrophic risks.
We face very important decisions about climate change policy, healthcare prioritization, energy consumption, and global catastrophic risks. To what extent can the field of population ethics contribute to real-world decisions on issues like these? This is one of the central questions being pursued by researchers in the Population Ethics: Theory and Practice project at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. The project, overseen by Dr Hilary Greaves, officially began earlier this month, and will continue (at least in its present form) for three years. The research team aims to make progress in theoretical population ethics, and to assess its relevance to pressing practical issues that affect future generations.
This is not the post I was planning to write. Originally, it was going to be a heroic post where I showed my devotion to philosophical principles by reluctantly but fearlessly biting the bullet on the sadistic conclusion. Except… it turns out to be nothing like that, because the sadistic conclusion is practically void of content and embracing it is trivial.
Sadism versus repugnance
The sadistic conclusion can be found in Gustaf Arrhenius’s papers such as “An Impossibility Theorem for Welfarist Axiologies.” In it he demonstrated that – modulo a few technical assumptions – any system of population ethics has to embrace either the Repugnant Conclusion, the Anti-Egalitarian Conclusion or the Sadistic conclusion. Astute readers of my blog posts may have noticed I’m not the repugnant conclusion’s greatest fan, evah! The anti-egalitarian conclusion claims that you can make things better by keeping total happiness/welfare/preference satisfaction constant but redistributing it in a more unequal way. Few systems of ethics embrace this in theory (though many social systems seem to embrace it in practice). Continue reading