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Embracing the “sadistic” conclusion

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).

Remains the sadistic conclusion. A population ethics that accepts this is one where it is sometimes better to create someone whose life is not worth living (call them a “victim”), rather a group of people whose lives are worth living. It seems well named – can you not feel the top-hatted villain twirl his moustache as he gleefully creates lives condemned to pain and misery, laughing manically as he prevents the intrepid heroes from changing the settings on his incubator machine to “worth living”? How could that sadist be in the right, according to any decent system of ethics?

Remove the connotations, then the argument

But the argument is flawed, for two main reasons: one that strikes at the connotations of “sadistic”, the other at the heart of the comparison itself.

The reason the sadistic aspect is a misnomer is that creating a victim is not actually a positive development. Almost all ethical systems would advocate improving the victim’s life, if at all possible (or ending it, if appropriate). Indeed some ethical systems which have the “sadistic conclusion” (such as prioritarianism or egalitarianism) would think it more important to improve the victim’s life that some ethical systems that don’t have the conclusion (such as total utilitarianism). Only if such help is somehow impossible do you get the conclusion. So it’s not a gleeful sadist inflicting pain, but a reluctant acceptance that “if universe conspires to prevent us from helping this victim, then it still may be worth creating them (as the least bad option)” (see for instance this comment).

“The least bad option.” For the sadistic conclusion is based on a trick, contrasting two bad options and making them seem related (see this comment). Consider for example whether it is good to create a large permanent underclass of people with much more limited and miserable lives than all others – but whose lives are nevertheless just above some complicated line of “worth living”. You may or may not agree that this is bad, but many people and many systems of population ethics do feel it’s a negative outcome.

Then, given that this underclass is a bad outcome (and given a few assumptions as to how outcomes are ranked) then we can find other bad outcomes that are not quite as bad as this one. Such as… a single victim, a tiny bit below the line of “worth living”. So the sadistic conclusion is not saying anything about the happiness level of a single created population. It’s simply saying that sometime (A) creating underclasses with slightly worthwhile lives can sometimes be bad, while (B) creating a victim can sometimes be less bad. But the victim isn’t playing a useful role here: they’re just an example of a bad outcome better than (A), only linked to (A) through superficial similarity and rhetoric.

For most systems of population ethics the sadistic conclusion can thus be reduced to “creating underclasses with slightly worthwhile lives can sometimes be bad.” But this is the very point that population ethicists are disputing each other about! Wrapping that central point into a misleading “sadistic conclusion” is… well, the term “misleading” gave it away.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. Hi Stuart,

    It’s of course trivial, as you say, to note that the sadistic option may be better than some other option. (obviously, for instance, a mildly sastistic option is better than a massively sadistic option…maybe, all-things-considered, extreme repugnant conclusion scenarios are like this) But embracing it implies it is the best not just of *some* options, but of *all* options. I would submit that the sadistic option is by definition a suboptimal policy, insofar as there is always a (Pareto?) superior option: the same population, minus the extra lives not worth living. To say that a life is not worth living implies it is better if that individual never lived in the first place (not to say one should kill them – we’re talking about creating populations here, I presume, not managing them). So, we should prefer a situation where we avoided all gratuitous cases of lives not worth living to those that include them. If a theory implies that merely adding a life not worth living (with no other effects) is an overall improvement, that is a reductio that disproves the theory. There’s a ‘no gratuitous sadism’ constraint on any population ethic.

    One might worry this constraint could imply an extinction ethic, if all lives were not worth living. And extinction’s really, really bad, right (pace Benatar), so the no gratuitious sadism constraint has its on reductio! But a no-extinction principle actually implies that the last person on earth (or the last minimum set of people needed to sustainably avoid extinction) has a life worth living – their suffering is outweighed by the greater good of species survival. One might contest that this greater good is not really in any individual’s interests, but some apersonal moral good of survival. Yet his oddly implies that you can demand that the entire population live overall terrible lives – lives so bad they’re not worth it – in exchange for a result that benefits no one. Also, if we’re allowing apersonal moral considerations in our population ethic, we should consider a sense of ‘worth’ that includes such apersonal reasons.

    1. >If a theory implies that merely adding a life not worth living (with no other effects) is an overall improvement, that is a reductio that disproves the theory.

      Indeed. But no serious theory of population ethics has that property, and the standard “sadistic conclusion” is more general than that example.

      1. Well, according to Arrhenius, Yew-Kwang Ng’s theory has that property. But, I see now you’re offering a more modest argument – that sometimes adding someone without a life worth living > adding more people with lives (barely) worth living – leaving open that adding no one is superior to both.

        In that case, I’d like to hear more about why you reject this idea: while both adding multiple people barely above the worth-living threshold and one person barely below the threshold are bad, the latter is always worse than the former. This is because the latter involves specifically acting against the interests of some individual victim (you wrong them), while the former wrongs no one and is only bad from some apersonal point of view. In addition, sadism is bad internally and by definition (its badness follows from the sense of ‘life worth living) while the repugnant conclusion has no such internal problems – it rather relies on intuitions about outcomes, which are themselves usually in comparison to smaller, higher-utility populations rather than sadistic alternatives. Intuitions about the relative badness of the repugnant conclusion become much weaker (imho) when compared with sadism, and for my money the sadistic conclusion loses out. I’d much rather have lots of lives worth living than one life not worth living at all.

        1. >In that case, I’d like to hear more about why you reject this idea: while both adding multiple people barely above the worth-living threshold and one person barely below the threshold are bad, the latter is always worse than the former.

          Because this likely violates continuity as you let both happiness thresholds tend towards zero. And I don’t know any sensible population ethics that has this property.

          >I’d much rather have lots of lives worth living than […]

          As I’ve argued, for almost all ethical systems (at least those that use archimedean cardinal preferences), the second part of the sadistic conclusion is irrelevant. The only relevant debate is whether the first part can sometime be a negative or not. If it can, then it can be worse than a lot of other options (including the single victim, in some circumstances).

          1. Hrm…I take it the non-continuity issue is something vaguely like this: each additional person barely above the threshold and/or closer to the threshold is an additional mark against the population, and it’s non-continuous to say no amount of such negative marks could overcome/outweigh the negative mark coming from one person barely below the threshold. But then I wonder, why must the judgment about the goodness/badness of population outcomes be continuous? Why can’t there (say) be trumping conditions/side constraints? And why can’t bringing into existence (only) people with lives not worth living be such a trumping condition/side constraint? You say no sensible population ethic would have that non-continuous property, but (e.g.) the paper you cite by Arrhenius finds such side constraints (including the rejection of sadism, which evidently relies on non-continuity) plausible, even if they can’t all be satisfied.

            And, I think it’s not quite enough to say that repugnance can be negative/worse than other bad options to prove that repugnance is sometimes worse than one barely-below-the-threshold victim. Compare: one person barely below the threshold vs. one person massively below the threshold. The first part can sometimes be worse than other bad options, but it doesn’t follow that it can sometimes be worse (absent other effects) than the second part. (it’s quite plausible that the former is necessarily better than the latter) I guess you’ll just deny this is such a case, though (maybe based on continuity?).

            1. >But then I wonder, why must the judgment about the goodness/badness of population outcomes be continuous?

              Because there is no strong difference between “barely worth living” and “barely not worth living”. If the first person stubs their toe, or the second gets an extra cookie, then their positions reverse. The line is an overall estimate, estimated according to certain criteria, rather than a glowing chasm that it’s clear whenever you cross over it.

              Do you want to meet up to discuss this? You should have my email.

    1. Cheers! Damnation, I thought I invented the idea – though it’s probably obvious enough that many people have thought of it…

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