Whole World Goodness

Some people are using their February 29th to do something exotic--maybe hot air ballooning in the desert or visiting sea turtles on the black sand beaches of Hawaii or ... well, dream on. I'm spending it scratching my head about population puzzles. 

Suppose the world had a small, happy population--10,000 people perhaps. Generation after generation, they replace themselves. Their way of life is sustainable into the far future.  All's well, right?  But suppose they could have been much more numerous, and equally happy.  Another 10,000 could have existed, just as happy as the first.  That would have been better ... maybe. 

Derek Parfit's famous "repugnant conclusion" envisions something even more perplexing.  If these people had been twice as numerous, but a little less happy, that would have been better ... surely. 20,000 of the slightly less happy would contain more good than 10,000 of the very happy.  But then, 40,000 of the still less happy would contain even more good.  A gigantic number of the just slightly happy would contain more good than the initial 10,000. Is a world stuffed with tons of slightly happy people really a better world?

Better world, worse world.   It occurs to me to wonder if the world as a whole is even up for evaluation.  Somebody or other once said "the world is all that is the case."  Actually, someone specific--Wittgenstein. If the world is simply all that is the case, it's not the kind of thing that can be good or bad.

Then again, maybe it can be good or bad, but the goodness or badness is in the eye of the beholder. Although it's intrinsic to a headache to be bad, it's not really intrinsic to an awful world to be bad.  In any event, it does seem a tad strange to get into the world-evaluating business.

If you do, things get strange pretty fast.  The world is a bit like a collection of books, as opposed to the books themselves, or an art collection, as opposed to the paintings.  If you add another Picasso to an art collection, the amount of aesthetic good has to go up, but the collection doesn't necessarily get any better. It might just get Picasso-heavy.  If you add another happy person to the world, the amount of good goes up, but the world--the "collection"--doesn't necessarily get any better.  Likewise, the repugnant conclusion might be seen as presenting us with a bigger pile of good, but a no better world.  The reason being that worlds are evaluated in a more diffuse, pluralistic way than piles of people.

But then, what are we thinking about, when we have these reactions to different worlds? I have the feeling our reactions to worlds straddle ethics and aesthetics and sheer personal preference in a problematic way.


faust said...

Your post is kind of brain-stormy: so I'll offer my quick and dirty gut reaction to "world evaluation."

I suspect that something like the following might be true:

Rule: The only place that the "total experience" of a sum of people exists is in the mind of the evaluator. When tallying "the pain" of 10,000 people where does that cumulative effect reside? Only one place: in the mind of the evaluator. WHERE else does it accumulate? "In the world." The world doesn't contain any pain, except "in" the individual pain experiencing entities. So the only thing we can evaluate is OUR sense of that cumulative effect.

So to practically apply this:

There is no difference between a world with one person in agony, and a world with 10,000 people in agony. They are equally bad.

This seems a strange conclusion, but I find it oddly attractive.

See also Karamazov, Ivan.

faust said...

Quick addendum: The world with one person in agony and the world with 10,000 people in agony are only equivalent IF in the 10,000 person world, none of them know about each other. Otherwise you get intuitions about cumulative effects (i.e. they suffer more because of their awareness of each others suffering).

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, That actually makes sense--the point about there being nowhere for the agony of 10,000 people to "accumulate." Ponder, ponder ...

But then, maybe it's a question of multiplication rather than addition. The sum of their agony is nowhere, but the same thing is happening 10,000 times over. That's worse than it happening just once. You might think about it that way ....

ɤɚɑɻɬɐɕʊʮʧɪɴʈɓʛʂʪɜʢɿ said...

hmm, so 10000 in agony = 1 in agony. I suppose it works with happiness too then. 10000 in ecstasy = 1 in ecstasy.

And what about a world where there's one person in agony and one in ecstasy? It is equivalent to a world with one (or 10000) person(s) in what state?

It doesn't seem like a viable model to me ...

(BTW, I'm reading Mulgans' "Future People" now)

greg byshenk said...

I,also, don't think that Faust's model works. After all, in a group of ten people, almost everyone would agree (I think) that it is "worse" if five are in pain than if only one is.

I would suggest that what is happening here is that the thought experiment is outrunning the intuitions that it is supposed to illuminate.