Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Whole World Goodness
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.