Population ethics drives us into the most perplexing philosophical paradoxes. The “Repugnant Conclusion” is one of those mindboggling issues: How can we avoid the claim that we shouldn’t aim at creating a population of, say, 200 billion people with lives that are barely worth living (call that state Z) rather than a population of 5 billion with lives well worth living (call that state A) – without presupposing premises that stand in contradiction to some deeply held intuitions? A precise and thorough account of the “Repugnant Conclusion” can be found here.
After the literature has come up with innumerable ingenious but unsuccessful attempts to solve the theoretical paradoxes in this area, I would like to suggest a sketch of a further solution – a theistic solution to the paradoxes surrounding the Repugnant Conclusion. Two caveats in advance: Firstly, this post is for those who have some familiarity with the Repugnant Conclusion. Secondly, others in the literature might have suggested the same as I do here but I haven’t been able to find that on the quick.
The basic idea of the theistic solution is this.
Yes: state A and state Z can be compared in terms of how valuable they are.
No: How valuable these states are does not matter for human choices between these two states of affairs (at least not directly). It’s simply not our responsibility as little human beings to make the world a better place by creating more (or less) of us human beings.
Yes: How valuable these states of affairs are does matter for divine choice between these two states of affairs (which is then, possibly, commanded to humans subsequently). It is God’s responsibility to decide on population size and to take into account the value difference between state A and Z.
The value of these two states is not the only factor that matters to the divine choice. There are further factors that matter for God’s choice between state A and Z. These further factors might well be inscrutable to the human mind. For example, God might have in mind to bring about certain specific individuals. Or s/he might have in mind to bring about a certain number of human counterparts for himself/herself. (I leave it open whether these further factors are whims of the divine mind – i.e. merely arbitrary preferences – or whether God has good reasons to give weight to these further factors).
Some further exposition about what this “solution” does solve and doesn’t solve.
In my view, the hardest problem about the Repugnant Conclusion doesn’t have to do with claims about value. In my view, state Z (i.e. 200 billion people with lives barely worth living) might well be more valuable than State A (i.e. 5 billion people with lives well worth living). There is no reason why we should expect our commonsense intuition (which resists the claim that state Z is more valuable than state A) to be reliable in such questions.
In my view, the hardest problem about the Repugnant Conclusion has to do with the fact that certain obligations follow from these claims about value. The SEP entry on the Repugnant Conclusion makes the point very well: “It might be tempting for people who have little sympathy with utilitarian thought to try to set the problems raised by the Repugnant Conclusion to one side, thinking that it constitutes a problem only for utilitarians. However, most people tend to believe that we have some obligation to make the world a better place (…).”
What the theistic solution to the Repugnant Conclusion does is the following. It agrees that, generally, there is some obligation to make the world a better place and it agrees that adding further people might well make the world a better place. While the theistic solution agrees that value differences between different states of affairs affect obligations in most cases (for example in the case where a child can be saved from drowning in a pond), it does not agree that value differences between states affect obligations for humans in those cases where the value difference is rooted in differences of population size. In those cases where the world can be made a better place by creating more people, only God has obligations derived directly from the betterness of the existence of more people (these obligations could then, of course, be transferred to humans via commandments). Population size is singled out as a special case — and moral responsibility for this specific area of choice is in God’s hands rather than in human hands.
This leads to the upshot that humans can acknowledge that (i) it might well be more valuable to have more people and (ii) that, in general, value does matter for our human choices but that (iii) the specific value of having more people does not matter for our human choices about population and procreation (except indirectly via divine commandments). Humans can therefore make their choices in politics and personal life in a two-step-procedure: Firstly, they can decide on population size and procreation on the basis of a limited set of reasons (including reasons such as the fact that adding people will affect the welfare of existing people and including reasons such as God’s commandments about population size and procreation). Secondly, given these decisions about population and procreation, they can then decide on further issues in life on the basis of the usual, comprehensive set of reasons (such as general consequentialist, deontological, and religious reasons).
What reasons might God have to keep the choice of population size for himself/herself? Here are two reasons. Firstly, some of the deepest moral problems seem inscrutable to the human mind similarly to how some of the deepest scientific and mathematical problems seem inscrutable to the human mind. It is no surprise then that God might step in for us little humans and solve these hard tasks (such as paradoxes in population ethics) for us and communicate the solution of these hard tasks to us without informing us about the rationale for the solution. A second and important reason for God to keep this area to himself is this: The decision about which humans and how many humans ought to exist seems to be a decision for which God as the creator and counterpart of humans – and as the “Ground of Being” – is the right person. Making up his/her mind about such things is his/her core business. If s/he had reasons to want, create, and love humanity in the first place, s/he might as well have reasons for wanting a certain number of humans.
In my view, the “theistic solution” presents a coherent picture that takes the sting out of the hardest aspect of the Repugnant Conclusion. In other words: It denies – and it does so in a coherent way – that we have at least some reason to create a huge population of people with lives barely worth living. However, the theistic solution of course presupposes a certain premise: God. If anything, that is the “theistic solution’s” Achilles’ Heel.
One might object that the “theistic solution” is ad hoc. It “solves” the Repugnant Conclusion by simply positing a God who mysteriously solves the Repugnant Conclusion in a way that humans cannot understand. That’s a bit too easy, isn’t it?
Well – if a solution is easy, that doesn’t really speak against it. Neither do I think that the solution is ad hoc. I actually gave some reasons why God (if s/he should exist) might keep the task of solving the Repugnant Conclusion to herself/himself (firstly because it is so difficult for humans and secondly because it has to do with creating individuals which is his/her business anyway). It’s not arbitrary to reserve exactly this moral problem for God to figure out.
One might think that any argument in science or philosophy that posits God just takes the “God of the Gaps” track. The “God of the Gaps” objection is roughly the following: “If we cannot understand how something works, it’s wrong to escape our lack of understanding by simply putting God into the equation. S/he should not serve as the ‘joker’ who rounds off the blanks in any unfinished theory. As time goes by, s/he will be needed as an explanation for less and less scientific and philosophical problems.”
To this I answer that the “God of the Gaps” objection is, when taken in general terms, an unsound objection anyway. If a certain entity explains something well, this gives us at least some reason to posit that entity. If God explains certain facts about the world or morality well, then that is a reason to posit God’s existence.
The real objection to the “theistic solution” must be that there are good (and independent) reasons to believe that there is no God.