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Why We Ought to Accept the Repugnant Conclusion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2009

Torbjorn Tannsjo
Stockholm University


Derek Parfit has famously pointed out that ‘total’ utilitarian views, such as classical hedonistic utilitarianism, lead to the conclusion that, to each population of quite happy persons there corresponds a more extensive population with people living lives just worth living, which is (on the whole) better. In particular, 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. This world is better if the sum total of well-being is great enough, and it is great enough if only enough sentient beings inhabit it. This conclusion has been considered by Parfit and others to be ‘repugnant’.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2002

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1 From the point of view of hedonistic utilitarianism, the repugnant conclusion should really be stated in terms of sentient beings, not in terms of people. It is quite possible, from the point of view of hedonistic utilitarianism, that we should prefer a world with many sentient non-human animals who lead lives just worth living to a world with very happy, though not so many, people.

2 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, 1984, p. 388Google Scholar.

3 Parfit's own comment on his terminology is: ‘As my choice of name suggests, I find this conclusion very hard to accept’ Ibid. And he does take it to be a strong desideratum that a moral principle (X) be found which, when applied to problems of population ethics, does not imply it.

4 In A Set of Solutions to Parfit's ProblemsNous, xxxv (2001), 232Google Scholar, Stuart Rachels cites Sikora, Anglin, Ng, Attfield, Ryberg, Norcross, and Foton as philosophers who, in addition to the present writer, have accepted the repugnant conclusion. This list could easily be made longer.

5 Who are the Beneficiaries?Bioethics, vi (1992)Google Scholar.

6 Munthe, Christian, Livets slut i livets början (The End of Life at Life's Beginning), Stockholm, 1992Google Scholar, ch. 5.

7 Topics on Population Ethics, Copenhagen, 1996Google Scholar. See also his Is the Repugnant Conclusion Repugnant?Philosophical Papers, xxv (1996)Google Scholar.

8 Even if, on my view, ‘the repugnant conclusion’ is a misnomer I will, for the sake of simplicity, use it. I feel free do so since this manner of speaking can hardly be considered biased in favour of the thesis I want to defend.

9 Cf. my Hedonistic Utilitarianism, ch. 5. The term ‘the ultra-repugnant conclusion' was suggested to me by Derek Parfit.

10 This is not the place to defend this claim in detail. I do so, however, in ch. 2 of my Hedonistic Utilitarianism as well as in In Defense of Theory in EthicsCanadian Journal of Philosophy, xxv (1995)Google Scholar.

11 Reasons and Persons, p. 392.

12 Ragnar Francén and Niklas Juth have both objected to the probability distribution here suggested. They find the distribution quite arbitrary. I tend to believe that the suggested distribution does reflect our intuitions about justice as fairness. However, even if I am wrong about this, and if my critics are right when they insist that the prob-ability distribution is arbitrary, my crucial observation is still correct: we must not focus on the question: ‘In which world would I like to live?’

13 I owe this objection to Stuart Rachels.

14 I owe this answer to the objection to Nils Holtug.

15 ‘Parfit's Population Paradox’ in Persons and Values, Oxford, 1985, p. 246Google Scholar. Hans Mathlein has recently drawn my attention to this rarely discussed paper by Mackie.

16 Review of T. Tännsjö, Hedonistic Utilitarianism, Theoria (forthcoming).

17 I owe this example to Wlodek Rabinowicz who has stated it in conversation.

18 David Benatar and an anonymous reviewer for Utilitias have both made this very helpful comment.

19 Arrhenius, Gustaf, Future Generations: A Challenge for Moral Theory, Uppsala, 2000, p. 49Google Scholar.

20 This has been suggested in correspondence by Stuart Rachels.

21 Arrhenius, Gustaf. Population Ethics and Variable Value Theories, mimeo, University of Toronto, 1995, p. 55Google Scholar.

22 Ibid., p. 430.

23 Not all philosophers have sought to avoid the moral symmetry. Many have been prepared to accept it. And Nils Holtug has argued convincingly that we ought to accept it. Cf. for example his Utility, Priority, and Possible PeopleUtilitas, xi (1999)Google Scholar, and ‘On the Value of Coming into Existence’ Journal of Ethics (forthcoming).

24 The argument draws on pp. 433–41 of Reasons and Persons. However, in Parfit's statement of the argument, the first step (from A to B) is omitted; hence he speaks of the argument as leading to a ‘new’ repugnant conclusion. The argument supports the original conclusion as well, however. The argument has rarely been discussed, mainly because it is presented in a very complicated manner by Parfit himself. However, the argument is discussed by Rachels, Stuart, in his ‘A Set of Solutions to Parfit's ProblemsNous, xxxv (2001), 227–9Google Scholar. In order to resist the argument Rachels jettisons the idea that ‘better than’ is a transitive relation, a price too high for anyone who, like the present author, believes that, if one state of affairs is better than another state of affairs, then this is so because there are definite amounts of value in the two states and more of value in the former than in the latter.

25 Many people have given helpful comments on this paper. I owe special thanks to Ragnar Francén, Nils Holtug, Niklas Juth, Hans Mathlein, Stuart Rachels, and Folke Tersman.