About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bailey on the life extension debate

Over at reason.com, Ronald Bailey discusses two recent papers on the ethics of radical life extension, one by me and the other by John Davis, a philosopher at the University of Tennessee.

The first objection one hears when one advocates radical life extension is that it will produce a Malthusian Hell of overpopulation and resource depletion. Objectors clearly believe it would be immoral to make it possible for lots of people to live to be, say, 150 years old. But is that so? Two newish papers from two controversial philosophers take on that reasoning, and tear it apart—with the help of their pocket calculators.

As described by Bailey, the paper by Davis comes to conclusions that sound wildly counterintuitive (to me, at least).

“So far as the total net good for humans is concerned, the most justified social policy is the one that satisfies preferences over the greatest number of life-years, all else being equal,” argues Davis. One implication of total utilitarianism is that “we should create as many people as possible in order to maximize the total amount of desirable experiences.” Total utilitarianism might result in Malthusian consequences because a large, relatively miserable population might well have a greater total amount of utility than a smaller, happier population.

To be fair, however, I should read the entire paper.

My own paper is described in quite a sympathetic way. E.g., the following is a nice para by Bailey that sums up part of my argument:

To counter the total utility logic, Blackford offers another thought experiment in which a benevolent, but not omnipotent deity has the choice between creating a world with 1 billion happy people (6 hedonic units on average out of 10 possible) versus another world with 6 billion fairly miserable inhabitants (1.5 hedonic units on average). Total average happiness on the second miserable planet would exceed that of the first by a ratio of 3 to 2 over time (9 billion units versus 6 billion units in any given year). Singer, if he followed the logic of his argument, would advise the deity to create the second world rather than the first. Blackford counters, “We expect a benevolent god to be concerned about how well lives go, rather than about the sheer number of them.” The upshot of this analysis, according to Blackford, is that “what we value…is that whatever actual lives come into existence should go well.”

I see that Bailey's piece has attracted well over 100 comments. Do feel free to comment either there or here.


ColinGavaghan said...

Haven't got around to reading your paper yet, Russell - though I will, I will - but as you know, this sort of question is of considerable interest to me.

I very much share your rejection of any sort of impersonal, aggregate utilitarianism. Our proper concern is with the actual or predictable interests of actual (in the David Heyd sense) people/ sentient beings. Stuffing the world to bursting with minimally happy people may be the logical conclusion of impersonal maximising consequentialism, but that's all the more reason to reject that model.

Owen said...

It's ridiculous of me to comment without reading the article quoted, and worse, I'm not even sure my memory of Singer is correct. But I'm going to comment anyway, 'cos that's how I roll.

Singer [...] would advise the deity to create the second world rather than the first.

As I recall, Singer is a preference utilitarian. When deciding what sort of world to create, no-one actually exists yet, and so there are no preferences to satisfy. As a result, I imagine Singer would agree with you, as quoted:

“what we value…is that whatever actual lives come into existence should go well.”

Upshot being, I suspect he'd prefer the first world over the second.

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