This paper was originally published as a working paper in May 2022 and is forthcoming in The Journal of Philosophy.
How should we weigh suffering against happiness? This paper highlights the existence of an argument from intuitively plausible axiological principles to the striking conclusion that in comparing different populations, there exists some depth of suffering that cannot be compensated for by any measure of well-being. In addition to a number of structural principles, the argument relies on two key premises. The first is the contrary of the so-called Reverse Repugnant Conclusion. The second is a principle according to which the addition of any population of lives with positive welfare levels makes the outcome worse if accompanied by sufficiently many lives that are not worth living. I consider whether we should accept the conclusion of the argument and what we may end up committed to if we do not, illustrating the implications of the conclusions for the question of whether suffering in aggregate outweighs happiness among human and non-human animals, now and in future.
There is both great happiness and great suffering in this world. Which has the upper hand? Does the good experienced by human and non-human animals in aggregate counterbalance all the harms they suffer, so that the world is morally good on balance? Or is the moral weight of suffering greater?
To answer this question, we need to know how to weigh happiness against suffering from the moral point of view. In this paper, I present an argument from intuitively plausible axiological principles to the conclusion that in comparing different populations, there exists some depth of lifetime suffering that cannot be counterbalanced by any amount of well-being experienced by others. Following Ord (2013), I call this view lexical threshold negative utilitarianism (LTNU). I don’t claim that we should accept LTNU. My aim is to explore different ways of responding to the argument. As we’ll see, the positions at which we may arrive in rejecting its premises can be nearly as interesting and as striking as the conclusion.
In section 2, I define LTNU more rigorously and set out the argument. It relies on a number of structural principles governing the betterness relation on populations, together with two key premises. The first is the contrary of what Carlson (1998) and Mulgan (2002) call the Reverse Repugnant Conclusion (RRC). The second says, roughly, that the addition of lives with positive welfare levels makes the outcome worse if accompanied by sufficiently many lives that are not worth living. In section 3, I consider whether we should be willing to accept the argument’s conclusion, especially given that LTNU has been thought to entail the desirability of human extinction or the extinction of all sentient life (Crisp 2021). In section 4, I discuss our options forrejecting the argument’s structural principles. I argue that our options for avoiding the disturbing implications of LTNU discussed in section 3 are limited if we are restricted to rejecting one or more of these principles. In section 5, I consider the possibility of rejecting the first of the key non-structural premises. I focus on the possibility of rejecting the contrary of RRC without accepting RRC. This, I claim, is also not promising, considered as a way of avoiding the disturbing implications of LTNU discussed in section 3. I will have nothing original to say about RRC per se, except that the overarching argument of this paper may be taken as a reason to accept it. In section 6, I consider the possibility of rejecting the last remaining premise. Specifically, I consider the possibility that there are some lives so good that their addition to the population can justify the addition of any number of lives that are only barely not worth living, and the independent interest of this hypothesis to the project of reckoning the overall goodness of the world.