Life extension, again

Sadly, it turns out I misread Russell Blackford's article, and we aren't really to think of the life extension drug as costing users a reduction in offspring.  Boo hoo, because I thought it was awfully fun contemplating whether it's worth giving up life-creation for life-prolongation.  I was working myself into a nearly Catholic fervor about the beauty of making new people.

No, what's going to happen is that in the 150 scenario, population will be halved fairly naturally, since people will have on average 2 kids in the first 75 years, but won't reproduce in the second 75 years.   In the usual 75 scenario, people would have 2 kids per 75 years of life.  So there are indeed half as many people in 150 but not because people have traded away one kid for a longer life.

Apologies to Russell for messing that up!  Now let's see what else I can mess up. (I wish I could just give you the pdf, but that would be a no-no.) 

Blackford and Singer both assume 150s have lower average happiness than 75s because of a bit of post-75 age-related decline.  We can stipulate that it's 4.5 in 150, but 5 in 75. Still, the total amount of happiness for a 150 is greater (675 units) than for a 75 (375).  They both think this makes 150 the better life, a claim you could debate, even given those numbers (see Robert Nozick's book The Examined Life for objections), but let's go along with it. If 150 is the better life, isn't it obvious that the researchers should develop the drug?

No, says Singer.  We have to do all the math. Using Blackford's numbers--
75 world:  375 happiness units X 2 billion people = 750 billion
150 world: 675 happiness units X 1 billion people = 675 billion
Singer says we should stick with our 75 world because there's more total happiness.  Blackford says this is misguided, and we should pursue the 150 world.

There's way too much in the article and in the voluminous associated literature to explain the reasoning on both sides, so I'm going to pluck out just one issue.  The lower total in 150 is because of the missing happiness of non-existent people.  Deciding what to do based on totals effectively attaches importance to them.  Blackford thinks their good doesn't matter, since they're merely possible.  Thus, we shouldn't decide what to do based on totals.  (He also makes a rather different argument that turns on Parfit's "repugnant conclusion," but I'm going to sidestep that whole kettle of fish.)

Here's a thought experiment he offers to convince us that the total approach is wrong.  A benevolent (but not all powerful) god must choose between two worlds he could create:
Planet A:  1 billion people each enjoy a total of 6 (out of 10) units of happiness over their lives.  Total: 6 billion units of happiness.
Planet B:   6 billion people enjoy a total of just 1.5 units of happiness over their lives.  Total: 6.5 billion units of happiness.
It would be really daft if the god created planet B, right?  So deciding based on totals must be wrong.  Doing so effectively gives weight to the missing happiness of non-existent people, and that's as misguided as it sounds.

OK, so far it seems like Blackford is right. But is he?  Singer defends the total view in Practical Ethics by noting how it does make sense to give weight to the non-misery of non-existent people.   To see his point, think about that god again.  Now he (she?) is faced with a choice between creating more miserable people or fewer miserable people.
Planet C:  1 billion people all suffer constantly, each experiencing a total of 10 units of misery over their lives. Total: 1 billion units of misery.
Planet D:  2 billion people all suffer constantly, each experiencing a total of 10 units of misery over their lives. Total:  2 billion units of misery.
Clearly the god should create Planet C, just as the total view says.  It's not misguided at all to effectively take into account the missing misery of the people who don't exist on Planet C.

If the total approach where misery is concerned is correct, then how can the total approach where happiness is concerned be wrong?, Singer asks. This strikes me as very good question.

Some of the worry about the total view comes from what I take to be a mistake about what it leads to.  If you take the missing happiness on planet A to be bad, does that mean we all have an obligation to create as many children as we can? Do we have to "rescue" non-existent children and bring them (and their happiness) into existence?

No, because there's nothing that says there aren't better ways for me to increase total happiness.

Take, for example, the very wonderful Paul Farmer, described in Tracy Kidder's very wonderful book Mountains Beyond Mountains.  By working in a Haitian hospital and starting innovative health services around the world, he has saved thousands and thousands of lives.  He has just one child.  It would be daft to think that the total view enjoins us to complain that he didn't have more children.

In our overpopulated world, there's a very real question whether adding more children does increase total happiness.  The child's happiness has to be taken into account along with the impact produced by her coming into existence.  It's really the person who wants to have children, not the person who doesn't, who has to work hard to come up with a justification.

But now suppose we mess up the world terribly, and wind up with an utterly bleak scenario like the one in Cormac McCarthy's book The RoadAll animal life has been wiped out, and there are just small numbers of humans trying to eke out their survival.  So all that is good in sentient lives is at risk of disappearing.  In that world, is there an obligation to make sentient life--like human children, for example?  I don't find it counterintuitive to say so.  And the obligation doesn't seem to really be about perpetuating a particular biological species, as opposed to creating happy individuals.

So--because of the misery argument, and because I don't think the total view leads to absurd claims about who ought to have more children, I'm casting my vote with Singer.

I've sidestepped a lot of other arguments in Blackford--but writing this much is cruel and unusual enough.  Final footnote for the perplexed:  all these issues are relevant to huge numbers of questions in animal ethics, reproductive ethics, and environmental ethics.  Reading Practical Ethics is a pleasant way to find out the relevance, while reading Parfit's Reasons and Persons is a much more toilsome sine qua non.


Faust said...

Planet E: One person who experiences a lifetime of unbelievable torture. Flayed alive, reconstituted via advanced technology, then burned alive, then reconstituted, bamboo under finger nails, etc etc. Utter and complete Hell. Call this 1,000,000,000 units of suffering.

Planet F: 2,000,000,000 people live here. They all have a genetic condition that gives them frequent headaches. They are able to take pain killers to reduce the pain however. Call it 1 unit of suffering each.

By Singer's logic we should create planet E no? Is this not a repugnant conclusion?

Jean Kazez said...

If those are the only choices, it seems like F is the right choice. That doesn't seem counterintuitive. I think when you try to construct a repugnant conclusion with diminishing misery and more people instead of diminishing happiness and more people, it doesn't actually lead to anything repugnant.

Faust said...

If the question is "total ammount of suffering in the system" and suffering can be added up, then you have to choose the lower total no?

Is it that suffering can't be added up the way that hapiness (supposedly) can be?

Jean Kazez said...

Ah, sorry, I misread what you wrote.

What we should be supposing is that there's nothing in these people's lives besides misery, right? That's what I was assuming about worlds C and D.

So the choice is between 2 billion people having mildly miserable lives (F), and 1 person having a horrifically miserable life (E). Going by totals, there's less in E, so E should be chosen.

I shall spend the afternoon thinking about whether I find that repugnant!

amos said...

I agree with Faust's intuition. Let's imagine a world with a million people all of who suffer from athlete's feet, and let's say that the suffering from athlete's feet is one. Total: one million units of suffering.

Let's imagine another world with 999,999 problem-free people and one one-year old child gang-raped and then tortured. Let's say that suffering is 999,999 units of suffering. Then the second world would be superior to the first.

First of all, how do you assign a number to suffering or for that matter, to happiness? Second, it seems obscene that a world where the most serious problem is athlete's foot is worse than a world where a one-year old child is raped and tortured.

Anonymous said...

you say: "If the total approach where misery is concerned is correct, then how can the total approach where happiness is concerned be wrong?, Singer asks. This strikes me as very good question."

Isn't that somehow related to the asymmetry that Benatar bases his argument upon?

Missed happiness is not equivalent to actual suffering. economic "opportunity costs" do not have an equivalent in these scenarios. You are not unhappy because I didn't give you a present today, since you were not expecting any from me.


Jean Kazez said...

Yes, if you accept that there's an asymmetry you risk winding up where Benatar does. Yes missed happiness isn't the same as suffering, but it isn't counted as suffering in the computations about A and B.