New Articles on Utilitarianism.net: Population Ethics and Theories of Well-Being
Utilitarianism.net is an introductory online textbook on utilitarianism, co-created by William MacAskill, Richard Yetter-Chappell, James Aung, and me. It was launched in March 2020 and is still under active development.
We recently published two major articles that may be of interest to many EAs:
We believe that each article is the best available introductory online resource on the respective topic. The population ethics article is particularly valuable in our view due to (i) the topic’s general importance and (ii) the lack of other good introductory online resources on the topic.
We encourage including both articles (and other utilitarianism.net articles) as teaching resources in relevant contexts, such as university courses and EA fellowships.
The following are reproductions of the introduction sections of the two new articles.
Utilitarians agree that if the number of people that were ever to exist is held constant, we should promote the sum total of well-being in that fixed population. But in reality, the population is not fixed. We have the option of bringing more people into existence, such as by having children. If these additional people would have good lives, is that a way of making the world better? This question falls in the domain of population ethics, which deals with the moral problems that arise when our actions affect who and how many people are born and at what quality of life.
Population ethics is not just an academic exercise. It is relevant to many important practical questions, such as how many children we ought to have, if any; how much we should invest in climate change mitigation; and how much we should worry about near-term risks of human extinction.
This article will survey five major approaches to population ethics:
The total view that evaluates populations according to the total amount of well-being that they contain.
The average view that instead focuses on the average well-being level in the population.
Variable value theories that take both factors into account, approximating the total view for smaller populations and the average view for larger populations.
Critical level (and critical range) theories that tweak the total view to only count positive well-being above a critical baseline level (or range).
Person-affecting views that deny we have (non-instrumental) reason to add happy lives to the world.
Theories of Well-Being
A core element of utilitarianism is welfarism—the view that only the welfare (also called well-being) of individuals determines how good a particular state of the world is. While consequentialists claim that what is right is to promote the amount of good in the world, welfarists specifically equate the good to be promoted with well-being.
The term well-being is used in philosophy to describe everything that is in itself good for a person—so-called intrinsic or basic welfare goods—as opposed to things that are only instrumentally good. For example, happiness is intrinsically good for you; it directly increases your well-being. In contrast, money can buy many useful things and is thus instrumentally good for you, but does not directly, in itself, contribute to your well-being. (We can similarly speak of things that are intrinsically bad for you, like misery, as “welfare bads”.)
However, there is widespread disagreement about what constitutes well-being. What things are in themselves good for a person? The diverging answers to this question give rise to a variety of theories of well-being, each of which regards different things as the components of well-being. The three main theories of well-being are hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories. The differences between these theories are of primarily theoretical interest; they overlap sufficiently in practice that the practical implications of utilitarianism are unlikely to depend upon which of these turns out to be the correct view.