The Repugnant Conclusion

May 14, 2010

Many years ago, Derek Parfit described a state of affairs that he dubbed the “Repugnant Conclusion.” He noted that for “any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.” He wasn’t actually advocating for population policies that encouraged growth so as to improve global happiness, no matter a single individual’s quality of life. He found such a conclusion repugnant.

Though not exactly parallel, today’s insensitive comments by Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, remind me a bit of that conclusion. “Hey,” says Hayward, cheer up. This spill of oil in the gulf is “relatively tiny” compared to the enormity of the ocean.

He might as well extend his comments temporally across geologic time. Not only is this spill relatively tiny compared to the enormity of the ocean, but in the grand cosmic scheme of things, this is a very small bit of oil. Several decades from now, the ocean will clean itself up, the plants will return, and the losses will be largely unnoticeable to all but the most astute marine biologists, paleontologists and archeologists. The world will find a new balance.


  1. I followed the link to Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion and had to admit that it clarified a lot of real-world attitudes viv-a-vis population size on the parts of certain groups, i.e. the Catholic Church’s attitude towards birth control. Although I don’t think that the Church’s thinkers (or, perhaps, any other proliferationist group) followed this logic explicitly. It does sound like something Augustine would have said (albeit a bit more brutally) – any portion of her fertile years not spent pregnant by a fertile woman is time and opportunity wasted. I guess that the only effective counter-argument is the reductio ad absurdam – what do you think, Ben? You’re the ethicist here. Parfit’s right, the conlusion is repugnant, but I hate to think of any comfort or justification given to those who would turn the world into an ant-hill.

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