When introducing the ‘repugnant conclusion’, Parfit considers that a life barely worth living might be of the “painless but drab” variety, consisting only of “muzak and potatoes”. The mundanity of such a life then gives the repugnant conclusion its repugnance. This is probably the first and only time I will ever say this, but I’m amazed at Parfit’s sloppiness here. A life of just muzak and potatoes isn’t even close to being worth living.
Parfit’s general idea that a life that is barely worth living might be one with no pains and only very minor pleasures seems reasonable enough, but he should have realised that boredom and loneliness are severe pains in themselves. Can anyone honestly tell me that they would choose right now a life of listening to mundane music and eating potatoes with no other pleasures at all, over just being put in a coma? Bear in mind that we currently torture people by putting them in solitary confinement (whilst ensuring they remain fed). I would think the only people who could actually survive muzak and potatoes without going crazy would be buddhist monks who have trained themselves to rid themselves of craving.
Maybe we can remove the boredom and loneliness objections by imagining a life that lasts just a minute and just consists of muzak and potatoes. However that is a bizarre life that differs from any sort of life we can realistically imagine living, so it’s hard to properly judge its quality. If we are going to opine on the repugnance of the repugnant conclusion we need to think up a realistic concept of a life barely worth living. I’m sure such a life is far better than one with just muzak and potatoes.
I agree with this: a lot of the argument (and related things in population ethics) depends on the zero-level of well-being. I would be very interested to see more interest into figuring out what/where this zero-level is.
I take this to be a shortcut Parfit took to conjure an image of a drab existence, rather than what he actually conceived of as the minimum viable positive life.
If you pressed him on this point, I’d guess he would argue that there are actual humans who have lives that are barely worth living. And even if those humans don’t subside only on “muzak and potatoes,” the idea of bland food + a lot of boredom + repetitive days probably hits on some real features of the kind of life Parfit and many others would classify as “just barely worthwhile.”
Caveat: I haven’t read Parfit in a while, and I could easily be forgetting the context of this remark. Maybe he uses the example in such a way that it’s clear he meant it literally?
I am referring to this paper where Parfit says:
Best of all would be Z . This is an enormous population all of whom have lives that are not much above the level where they would cease to be worth living. A life could be like this either because its ecstasies make its agonies seem just worth enduring, or because it is painless but drab. Let us imagine lives in Z to be of this second kind. There is nothing bad in each of these lives; but there is little happiness, and little else that is good. The people in Z never suffer; but all they have is muzak and potatoes. Though there is little happiness in each life in Z , because there are so many of these lives Z is the outcome in which there would be the greatest total sum of happiness.
He refers to muzak and potatoes a few more times in the paper in the same vein.
I realise I have not been charitable enough to Parfit as he does make the assumption that the life of muzak and potatoes would not be characterised by intense boredom and loneliness when he says “never suffer”. In that case he is simply presenting a life with no pains and only very minor pleasures, and saying that that is one example of a life that may be barely worth living.
The problem is that it was counterproductive to make that assumption in the first place because, in reality, very few people could actually live a life of muzak and potatoes without severe pain. This presents an issue when we actually have to imagine vast numbers of people living with just muzak and potatoes, and then make a judgement on how good/bad this is.
To put it another way, people may imagine muzak and potatoes to be boring as hell and think “OK the repugnant conclusion is repugnant then”. But the point is they shouldn’t be imagining it to be as boring as hell, as in this case it is supposed to be a completely painless existence. Therefore I think we need to give people a more realistic conception of a life that is barely worth living to wrap their heads around.
On a charitable reading of Parfit, the ‘muzak and potatoes’ expression is meant to pick out the kind of phenomenal experience associated with the “drab existence” he wants to communicate to the reader. So he is not asking you to imagine a life where you do nothing but listen to muzak and eat potatoes. Instead, he is asking you to consider how it typically feels like to listen to muzak and eat potatoes, and to then imagine a life that feels like that, all the time.
he is asking you to consider how it typically feels like to listen to muzak and eat potatoes
I always found this very confusing. Potatoes are one of my favourite foods!
I was thinking the same! I had to google Muzak, but that also seems like pretty nice music to me.
Very good point!
Ah well fair enough that makes a lot of sense. I think he could have worded it a bit better, although judging by your upvotes I probably just missed the point!
Having said that I still think it’s quite natural to consider a life where it feels like you’re eating muzak and potatoes all the time to be very boring, which of course would be a mistake given that such a life is supposed to be entirely painless.
Indeed I don’t think it helps that Parfit calls it a “drab existence”. “Drab” is a negative word, but Parfit’s “drab existence” is actually supposed to be completely lacking in anything negative.
Therefore I think we need to give people a more realistic conception of a life that is barely worth living to wrap their heads around.
My personal mental image of the Repugnant Conclusion always involved people living more realistic/full lives, with reasonable amounts of boredom being compensated for with just enough good feelings to make the whole thing worthwhile. When I read “muzak and potatoes”, my mind conjured a society of people living together as they consumed those things, rather than people in isolation chambers. But I could be unusual, and I think someone could write up a better example than Parfit’s if they tried.
I think life without pleasure can still be one of wellbeing. If you practise life like buddist monks that is. I think the zero point is reached by having to do work that stops you from being mindful.