Results for “repugnant conclusion”
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Psychic Harm, Repugnant Conclusions and Presumed Consent

Steven Landsburg’s post on psychic harm has created a firestorm of controversy. Many people don’t understand thought experiments and that is part of the problem but it was also a bad idea to combine hypotheticals with a real case involving a real victim. Nevertheless, Landsburg’s post raised important questions about how pure psychic harm (“I don’t like the thought of other people having gay sex.”) differs from a physical transgression without physical harm (rape of someone who is unconscious and which leaves no trace).  The point is not about rape but about whether and why (some?) psychic harms should count in the moral calculus. As David Friedman argues, how we answer this question has deep implications.

Moreover, Landsburg’s stark hypothetical is closer to a real policy question than many might imagine. Consider the issue of presumed consent for organ donation, the policy used by many European countries where someone who dies is presumed to have agreed to be an organ donor barring evidence that they opted out. There are good (not necessarily definitive) arguments for presumed consent, namely that it would save some lives  at low cost. After all, what harm can be said to occur from taking organs from a dead person? The latter point is obvious to me but it’s only obvious because I think the dead can’t be harmed. Other people, think differently  Many religions consider cadaveric organ donation to be a kind of desecration. In fact, some people liken presumed consent to rape of the unconscious. Professor Hugh V McLachlan for example writes:

if someone had sex with an unconscious woman and tried to justify his action by saying that, when she was conscious, she did not indicate that she did not want to have sex, we would not accept this as a reasonable argument. The notion of presumed consent to the use of our organs after our deaths is no more reasonable.

and another commentator on presumed consent in Britain says

The difference between voluntary consent and presumed consent is at least the difference between consensual sex and rape of a drunk person.

Evidently for some people being dead is similar to being unconscious. Thus in both cases physical harms without physical consequence can be wrong because they generate psychic harm, either in expectation or in the afterlife. Clearly, distinguishing which psychic harms are to be counted and which not quickly becomes a question of metaphysics.

My own view is that as far as possible psychic harms should not be counted at all. Instead I would let ethics dictate the assignment of property rights and economics dictate the allocation. In particular, I would assign body ownership to the individual on strong libertarian and autonomy grounds but I would let individuals sell a kidney (or sex).

One of the virtues of markets is that markets make people pay for their preferences, if only in terms of opportunity cost. My suspicion is that the psychic harm from the thought that after death one’s organs might be used by someone else would quickly dissipate once some cash was on the table. Indeed, it’s often the case that the least cost way to avoid a psychic harm is to change one’s mind and, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s easier to get a man to change his mind when his salary depends upon him changing his mind.

Loren Fryxell of Northwestern is a creative thinker

Here is his home page, here is one abstract:

A Theory of Criminal Justice

Abstract: I propose a general framework with which to analyze the optimal response to crime. Each criminal act, detected with some probability, generates a random piece of evidence and a consequent probability of guilt for each citizen. I consider a utilitarian planner with no artificial moral constraints. In particular, I assume no upper bound on punishment—such a bound can only rise endogenously from the utilitarian objective. I consider three types of “pure” responses—deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation—along with general sentences combining any of the three. If citizens are expected utility maximizers, a repugnant conclusion is reached—it is optimal to punish only with the realization of the most incriminating evidence. Allowing for more general behavior yields a weaker but more satisfactory result—optimal punishment is always decreasing in the quality of evidence. (Rehabilitation, incapacitation, and general sentence results coming soon.)

Here is his job market paper:

A Theory of Experienced Utility and Utilitarianism

Abstract: I present a theory of measurement of preference intensity and use this measure as a foundation for utilitarianism. To do this, I suppose each alternative is experienced over time. An individual has preferences over such experiences. I present axioms under which preferences are represented by an experienced utility function equal to the integral of instantaneous preference intensity over time and unique up to a positive scalar. I propose an ethical postulate under which social preferences are utilitarian in experienced utilities.

Job candidates with ideas can be difficult to come by, so I wanted to highlight his work…

The Sharks Get Stung

On Friday, Shark Tank, the investment television show, featured two nice ladies from Minnesota and their product Bee Free Honee, honee made from apples. Is cheap, vegan honee a good idea? Perhaps but I was less than convinced by one of the arguments the ladies made for their honee–it will save bees! The ladies argued that reducing the demand for honey will encourage bee farmers to not work the bees so hard thus increasing their numbers.

bee jobI was expecting the acerbic Kevin O’Leary to have a field day with this economic fallacy. Or maybe, I thought, Mark Cuban will throw a dash of common sense into the tank. But no, all the Sharks cooed about this mad scheme. So it is up to me.

Reducing the demand for honey, reduces the demand for honey bees. A cheap, high-quality substitute for honey doesn’t mean a world of bees gently pollinating flowers in an idyllic landscape it means a beepocolypse. Bee free honee will save bees the same way the internal combustion engine saved horses.

Addendum 1You may be concerned about colony collapse disorder. Well, the commercial beekeepers are even more concerned and they have been adapting to CCD and maintaining honey production and pollination services. In fact, there are more bee colonies in the United States today (latest data) than there have been anytime in the last 20 years. CCD is still a problem but it’s the demand for honey and pollination services that incentivizes solutions to the problem. Remember, without honey it’s only a hobby.

Addendum 2:Perhaps the ladies have a sophisticated position on the repugnant conclusion but I doubt it.

Hat tip: Max.

Nick Beckstead’s conversation with Tyler Cowen

Nick is a philosopher at Oxford and he has worked with Larry Temkin and Nick Bostrom.  He typed up his version of our conversation (pdf), it starts with this:

Purpose of the conversation: I contacted Tyler to learn about his perspectives on existential risk and other long-run issues for humanity, the long-run consequences of economic growth, and the effective altruism movement.

Here are a few excerpts:

Tyler is optimistic about growth in the coming decades, but he doesn’t think we’ll become uploads or survive for a million years. Some considerations in favor of his views were:

1. The Fermi paradox is some evidence that humans will not colonize the stars.
2. Almost all species go extinct.
3. Natural disasters—even a supervolcano—could destroy humanity.
4. Normally, it’s easier to destroy than to build. And, in the future, it will probably become increasingly possible for smaller groups to cause severe global damage (along the lines suggested by Martin Rees).

The most optimistic view that Tyler would entertain—though he doubts it—is that humans would survive at subsistence level for a very long time; that’s what we’ve had for most of human history.


People doing philosophical work to try to reduce existential risk are largely wasting their time. Tyler doesn’t think it’s a serious effort, though it may be good publicity for something that will pay off later. A serious effort looks more like the parts of the US government that trained people to infiltrate the post-collapse Soviet Union and then locate and neutralize nuclear weapons. There was also a serious effort by the people who set up hotlines between leaders to be used to quickly communicate about nuclear attacks (e.g., to help quickly convince a leader in country A that a fishy object on their radar isn’t an incoming nuclear attack).This has been fixed in other countries (e.g. US and China), but it hasn’t been fixed in other cases (e.g. Israel and Iran). There is more that we could do in this area. In contrast, the philosophical side of this seems like ineffective posturing.

Tyler wouldn’t necessarily recommend that these people switch to other areas of focus because people[‘s] motivation and personal interests are major constraints on getting anywhere. For Tyler, his own interest in these issues is a form of consumption, though one he values highly.


Tyler thinks about the future and philosophical issues from a historicist perspective. When considering the future of humanity, this makes him focus on war, conquest, plagues, and the environment, rather than future technology.

He acquired this perspective by reading a lot of history and spending a lot of time around people in poor countries, including in rural areas. Spending time with people in poor countries shaped Tyler’s views a lot. It made him see rational choice ethics as more contingent. People in rural areas care most about things like fights with local villages over watermelon patches. And that’s how we are, but we’re living in a fog about it.


The truths of literature and what you might call “the Straussian truths of the great books”—what you get from Homer or Plato—are at least as important rational choice ethics. But the people who do rational choice ethics don’t think that. If the two perspectives aren’t integrated, it leads to absurdities—problems like fanaticism, the Repugnant Conclusion, and so on. Right now though, rational choice ethics is the best we have—the problems of, e.g., Kantian ethics seem much, much worse.

If rational choice ethics were integrated with the “Straussian truths of the great books,” would it lead to different decisions? Maybe not—maybe it would lead to the same decisions with a different attitude. We might come to see rational choice ethics as an imperfect construct, a flawed bubble of meaning that we created for ourselves, and shouldn’t expect to keep working in unusual circumstances.

I’m on a plane for much of today, so you are getting Nick’s version of me, for a while at least.  You will find Nick’s other conversations here.

*On What Matters, vol. I*, review of Derek Parfit

Derek Parfit is one of my favorite philosophers, and favorite writers at that, so for many years I have been looking forward to his next book, which is now out.  The main argument is that rule consequentialism, properly understood Kantianism, and contractualism all can be understood as a broadly consistent moral theory, all climbing up the same mountain from different sides.

The text is recognizably Parfit, but I am not convinced by its major arguments, and I also believe the Parfitian method — any reader of him will understand this reference — does not succeed in all of the new areas under consideration.

The philosophical patron saints of the book are Kant and Sidgwick, and I would suggest also Bloomsbury.  Parfit is an extreme rationalist and he thinks (hopes?) we can find, and agree upon, the right answers to moral questions.  (At the same time he deeply fears that we cannot, and he is a philosophic conservative as Keynes was.)  What’s missing is Hume, not the Hume of is-ought worries but the Hume who came to terms with the tensions between the arguments of philosophy and the experience of everyday human life.

My favorite features of the Parfit book include the early comparison of Kant and Sidgwick and the general concern with the frequency and intensity of moral disagreement.

Parfit at great length discusses optimific principles, namely which specifications of rule consequentialism and Kantian obligations can succeed, given strategic behavior, collective action problems, non-linearities, and other tricks of the trade.  The Kantian might feel that the turf is already making too many concessions to the consequentialists, but my concern differs.  I am frustrated with this very long and very central part of the book, which cries out for formalization or at the very least citations to formalized game theory.

If you’re analyzing a claim such as — “It is wrong to act in some way unless everyone could rationally will it to be true that everyone believes such acts to be morally permitted” (p.20)  — words cannot bring you very far, and I write this as a not-very-mathematically-formal economist.

Parfit is operating in the territory of solution concepts and game-theoretic equilibrium refinements, but with nary a nod in their direction.  By the end of his lengthy and indeed exhausting discussions, I do not feel I am up to where game theory was in 1990.

I read the standard game-theoretic results as implying that ethics is a far more indeterminate enterprise than Parfit might like to see.  Any particular specification of rule consequentialism tends to require increasingly baroque refinements to cover all the different possible kinds of situations.  At the end we’re not left with much in the way of a rule at all, other than a general injunction to tell people to do something good and then to rejigger the rule itself, or complicate it with more contingencies, to cover the required ground.

To pose a simple example: “maximize your marginal impact” won’t as an injunction address a lot of environmental problems.  “Maximize your average impact” fails in cases where you are truly decisive.  What might other more complex rules be, and what are the expectations those rules are making about the behavior of others, what you infer from their behavior, what they infer from your inference, and so on.  The path out of these boxes takes us very far away from a rules concept that say Sidgwick might have found intuitive.

Hume has been locked out of the room and he is not allowed to re-enter in the form of Parfit having a dialogue with Cho and Kreps.

Now maybe, just maybe, that game-theoretic messiness does not have to be fatal for rule-consequentialism.  Still, I propose a rewrite.  Cut or severely limit the hundreds of pages on this topic, start with what game theory already is showing, describe that mess in philosophic, conceptual terms, and then consider whether that mess is compatible with the analogous messes found in Kantianism and contractualism,  Maybe it can be shown that they are (broadly) the same mess.  Nonetheless, such a collection of messes may be surrounding the same mountain but they will not scale it and Parfit would have to gaze once again into the abyss of, what is to him, ethical nihilism.  (Cut back to David Hume for a different attitude.  Perhaps Parfit’s very strong philosophic and personal desire to succeed and solve the whole problem draws him from the path that will get us up the mountain some small degree.)

For these reasons I see the biggest and most central part of the book as a failure, possibly wrong but more worryingly “not even wrong” and simply missing the questions defined by where the frontier — choice theory and not just philosophic ethics — has been for some time.

On other points, the criticisms of subjective and desire-based theories are good, but I view Parfit’s conclusions as already having been established.

The talk of Kantian dignity, and of “treating people as a mere means” I do not think can be well-defined.  I kept on wanting to see the Marginal Revolution (the real one, the 1871 one) inform this discussion.

I very much agree with Parfit’s argument that no one — not even evil people — should deserve to suffer.  I also agree with Parfit’s notion of the irreducibly normative.

Until the material on consequentialism is nailed, I don’t think the integration with contractualism can work.

I would describe the Parfitian method as “the postulation of bold, minimalist claims, explored by the use of brilliant hypotheticals and counterexamples.”  In Reasons and Persons the Parfitian method works because the potential for philosophic vagueness is limited by the vividness of the counterfactual (or real world) examples.  Most readers of that book are still thinking about split brains, the Repugnant Conclusion, and Future Tuesday Indifference, among numerous other examples.  You could question whether all of the terms were pinned down rigorously, but you still knew that the thought experiment was making you rethink some of your priors.  In the subject areas of On What Matters the semantics are too slack, too open to multiple interpretation, and too many of the central concepts cry out for formalization.  There are not compelling new metaphors and examples to pin down the discourse.  Parfit’s greatest strength is as an imaginer, often outside of traditional philosophic dimensions, and yet here he is so concerned with justifying his disagreements with his peers and colleagues.  Their ghosts and comments and discourses are shackling him, and if you visit the best pages of Reasons and Persons you will see they hardly mention the names of other philosophers at all, much less current philosophers.

I do not wish to put you off Parfit.  He is a philosopher of major importance and, non-trivially, one of the most philosophical philosophers, perhaps ever.  He lives, thinks, feels, breathes, and exudes philosophy in a way which is, in and of itself, a major contribution to human thought and being.  Reading him is an unforgettable and illuminating experience.  His best arguments have great real world import.

It is stunning to read the last three pages of the preface, which list everybody who gave him comments.  It’s a long list, but I’m not sure it was the right list to have chosen.

Addendum: Here is Peter Singer’s review.  Here is a review from Constantine Sandis.

More on Arrow’s theorem

Dirk writes:

I vote that this post deserves a follow up post with more clarification. If anyone is against this please express your vote with inaction. Us laymen would like to understand this a little better. For the record, the reason I got on a tangent about the law of large numbers was that I watched Boudreaux's lecture and understood it in terms of 3 parties but kept thinking if there were 3000 parties it was unlikely that exactly 1000 would have preference A, 1000 preference B, and 1000 preference C. I guess I'm used to thinking in terms of run-off elections and not the sort in the example. That is why I couldn't grasp why things should "collapse" back to an island situation where n = 2 or 3.

Arnold Kling comments as well and not everyone is happy.  

Return to the oft-neglected difference between intra-profile and inter-profile versions of the theorem.  Most commentators and expositors have in mind an intra-profile version of the theorem.  They set up an example of people and preferences and show how cycling or some other paradox of choice or voting is possible.  Observers then wonder whether this cycling is likely as the number of people increases, or as preferences change, and indeed sometimes it is not, as Gordon Tullock pointed out long ago and as Dirk above wonders.

That's interesting stuff, but those fun and practical-sounding expositions are not Arrow's theorem as Arrow wrote it up.  Think of Arrow's theorem as modal in nature: "Maybe there is no paradox with current preferences, but there exist possible preferences where everything goes screwy, under any decision rule satisfying a few criteria."  Arrow showed that claim is related to something like: "if we apply a specified decision-making procedure across all possible preference configurations, consistent application means the same person gets her way each time."

That's called Arrovian dicatorship, but it does not have to be either harmful or unjust or not even necessarily undemocratic.  It just means that one person — the same person — is always getting her first choice, across these modal worlds with differing preference configurations.

This more metaphysical and more originally Arrovian version of the theorem is perhaps why Arnold Kling finds it difficult to apply the theorem to practical problems.  It is not about the likelihood or relevance of cycling (though it is a jumping-off point for those analyses).  It is instead a deep result about the implications of consistency, combined with limited information about the value of ordinally ranked outcomes.

The intra-profile versions are still important.  For intra-profile versions of Arrow, start with Kemp and Ng (1976).  Here is a good summary article on that literature.  Samuelson, by the way, remained somewhat recalcitrant when it came to the theorem.

Allowing in even limited amounts of interpersonal comparability defuses the paradox, as shown by Kevin Roberts (ReStud, 1980) and Amartya Sen (see the essays in Choice, Measurement, and Welfare).  That said, interpersonability can lead to other paradoxes, as shown by Derek Parfit and his Repugnant Conclusion.  Paradoxes everywhere, and you must choose which ones to live with. 

I take the practical upshot of Arrow's interprofile theorem to be this: when you make a judgment, it is our assessment of the interpersonal comparisons (or intersport importance comparisons, for scoring a decathlon) which is doing all the work.  Be very careful with those. 

Neither Tullock nor Samuelson was happy with Arrow's theorem, especially when it came to practical implications, so it is fine if you wish to add your name to that list.  But I also think they each missed Arrow's point a bit and that of the major economists of his time he was probably the deepest thinker, albeit not the best practical thinker.

The economics of Terri Schiavo?

Steve Landsburg weighs in on Terri Schiavo:

I have less understanding of why Schiavo’s parents want to keep feeding her. And insofar as they want others to keep feeding her–through Medicare, etc.–I think we can safely ignore their preferences. But provided they and their supporters are willing to bear those costs, I infer that this is something they want very much and there’s not much reason to stop them.

I doubt that a "willingness to pay" standard accurately values human life in such instances (in fairness to Landsburg there is more to his position, read his entire post).  Often it picks up a mere ability to spend money, rather than any relevant notion of human welfare.  Whether the husband can outbid the parents may simply depend on whether he has gone bankrupt from his previous involvement in her care.   

Nor do I think that family decisions — whatever your view in the Schiavo case — should be decided by a real or hypothetical societal auction.  If there is any "protected sphere" for human decision-making, surely it is here.  The problem is that we don’t agree on how to define the guardian of the sphere — is it "Terry" or "husband as guardian of a no-longer-living Terry"?

This case will only grow in symbolic importance.  Keep in mind, the care of Terriy Schiavo has been financed by the state of Florida and Medicaid for the last several years.  According to one AP story, it costs $80,000 a year to keep her alive.  Note that "a judge approves all expenditures, from attorneys’ fees to the woman’s haircuts."

Therein we see the problem for the future.  Say you take a "pro-life" stance on this case.  What will happen when we can maintain, say, 30 percent of the "dying" population in this kind of state for decades?  Such technologies are probably only a matter of time.

Say you take a "pro-husband" stance.  Presumably you cite evidence for Terri’s severely impaired mental facilities.  What will happen when we can keep, say, 30 percent of the "dying" population in a somewhat less impaired state for decades?  Such technologies are probably only a matter of time.  Was her vegetative state really the issue, or was it just cost?  Our views will be tested, sooner or later.

I don’t see much guidance here from economics, political philosophy, or virtue ethics.  My instincts are to "look toward the future," but I don’t have a good argument that avoids all possible repugnant conclusions.  (I will never forget Julie Margolis, asking me in my job interview at UC Irvine, why we do not value human life at replacement cost.  That would be no more than a few thousand dollars, given that some women stand right on the verge of wanting another baby.  I didn’t have a good answer, although they hired me anyway.)

As Medicare grows as a percentage of the federal budget, this issue will become increasingly important.  And as technology advances, no one will be left with a comfortable intellectual position.

From my email, on bioethicists

Hi Tyler. I had a brief career as an ethicist. I realized quickly that the incentives are all wrong if what we want is people who will think hard about humanity’s pressing ethical dilemmas and who will suggest intuitively appealing solutions.

Since almost all ethicists are academics, they have to publish, and in order to publish you have to be novel, and since the basic principles of ethics are little changed for millennia the incentives to do thorough homework on the basis of principles which are widely understood and accepted is not great.

Furthermore, if you decide to be a utilitarian, then basically all ethical issues will boil down to cost/benefit analyses which you have to outsource to technocrats, so your unique expertise as an ethicist will be worth little.

For whatever it’s worth, one could justify most of the widespread opinions of bioethicists and other ethicists who reach conclusions quite repugnant to utilitarians on the basis of “care ethics”. The result is not important and even the rule is not important, what is important is the amount of personal concern you project to specific human beings. Most people would prefer not to expose their close family members to mortal danger so adopting a policy deliberately exposing strangers to such danger appears un-caring.

If ethicists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.

The name of the author has been anonymized to protect the innocent.

The Philosophical Cow

Suppose that you are a cow philosopher contemplating the welfare of cows.  In the world today there are about 1.3 billion of your compatriots.  It would be a fine thing for cows if all cows were well treated and if none were slaughtered for food.  Nevertheless, being a clever cow, you understand that it's the demand for beef that brings cows to life.  How do you regard such a trade off?

If each cow brought to life adds even some small bit of cow utility to the grand total of cow welfare must not beef eaters be lauded, at least if they are hungry enough?  Or is the pro beef-eater argument simply repugnant

Should a cow behind a haystack of ignorance choose the world with the highest expectation of utility?  In which case, a world of many cows each destined for slaughter could well be preferable to one with many fewer but happier cows.

Or is it wrong to compare the zero of non-existence with existence?  Should a cow philosopher focus on making cows happy or on making happy cows?  If the former, would one (or two) supremely happy cows not be best?

I think these questions are important both for thinking about cows and animal rights and for human beings.  Tyler has thought a lot about these issues (e.g. here, here and elsewhere).  Some people, however, think that cow philosophy is just a bunch of bull.

Michael Shermer’s Mind of the Market

This book is the latest attempt to justify freedom and the market economy by reference to the knowledge of science and biology.  Here is my review, in Washington Post Book World.  Excerpt:

I’m sympathetic to Shermer’s conclusions, but I fear his standard of evaluation is too blunt an instrument. If the options are capitalism and the Khmer Rouge, no doubt capitalism wins hands down. But to what extent should we restrain capitalism to fund a social safety net? Should our government place heavy taxes on beer and potato chips to fund the National Science Foundation at higher levels? Most broadly, to what extent is it morally permissible to interfere with freedom, or can we even use freedom as a concept in a world where we do social science by hooking people up to brain scanners?

Shermer is famous for founding the Skeptics Society and editing the magazine Skeptic, which debunks claims of the supernatural. His monthly column for Scientific American is a regular plea that reason should govern human affairs. But his book raises very real questions about just how far skepticism should extend. Should we also be skeptical about using moral judgments of right and wrong to address the tough questions of politics? For instance, can we make normative judgments about who deserves to pay how much of the tax burden to finance the U.S. government, or as to whether somebody’s job should be protected from foreign trade?
Shermer either needs to dismiss moral philosophy as an illusion and a mere byproduct of human evolution, and thus display skepticism, or he needs to grant it credence and take his own moral stance. Descriptive science doesn’t tell us whether it is fair to allow kidneys to be bought and sold, even if it helps explain why some people find the practice repugnant. Judgments of right and wrong cannot be avoided, and thus we tread away from the realm of familiar natural science.
There are really two books within "The Mind of the Market." The science book is finished and polished, yet it does not present fundamentally new results. The book on capitalism discusses important questions, yet it is unfinished and unpolished. Shermer does promise us an entire new book to fill in the missing pieces here. He already has earned the right to our attention; the next question is whether he will give his philosophic and romantic side the greater rein that it deserves and requires. This East African plains ape is optimistic.