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Feldman's Desert-Adjusted Utilitarianism and Population Ethics

  • Gustaf Arrhenius (a1)

Fred Feldman has proposed a desert-adjusted version of utilitarianism, ‘justicism’, as a plausible population axiology. Among other things, he claims that justicism avoids Derek Parfit's ‘repugnant conclusion’. This paper explains the theory and tries to straighten out some of its ambiguities. Moreover, it is shown that it is not clear whether justicism avoids the repugnant conclusion and that it is has other counter-intuitive implications. It is concluded that justicism is not convincing as a population axiology.

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1 Feldman Fred, ‘Adjusting Utility for Justice: a Consequentialist Reply to the Objection from Justice’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, lv (1995); Justice, Desert, and the Repugnant Conclusion’, Utilitas, vii (1995); repr. in Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert: Essays in Moral Philosophy, Cambridge, 1997.

2 Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert, p. 195.

3 See Carlson Erik, ‘Consequentialism, Distribution and Desert’, Utilitas, ix (1997); Persson Ingmar, ‘Ambiguities in Feldman's Desert-adjusted Values’, Utilitas, ix (1997); and Vallentyne Peter, ‘Taking Justice Too Seriously’, Utilitas, vii (1995).

4 Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert, pp. 162 f., emphasis in original. Feldman formulates justicism as a version of classical hedonism mainly for pedagogical reasons. It could equally well have been stated in terms of Feldman's propositional theory of pleasure or in terms of some other theory of welfare. See ibid., p. 152.

5 Ibid., pp. 161 f, 202 f.

6 Ibid., pp. 163–9.

7 Ibid., pp. 206, 163.

8 Carlson, 315, makes the same point.

9 Persson.

10 Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert, p. 165. Feldman also discusses the possibility that mitigations yield that pain is intrinsically good (ibid., p. 167). I shall return to this idea in section IV.

11 In personal communication, Feldman has confirmed that the original formulation (M3 and M6) was confused and that his view on neutral desert is as in F4 and F5. Feldman also claims (ibid., p. 168) that ‘it is not so good for a person who deserves pain to get either more or less pain than he deserves. This corresponds to the intuition that punishment must be proportional to the crime’. This idea is compatible with M5 (F6) but I would suggest reformulating this principle in terms of deserved pain since it seems odd, from the perspective of proportional justice, that negative desert mitigates the intrinsic badness of very under-deserved pain, that is, pain that goes far beyond the deserved pain. I shall not pursue this matter further here, however.

12 Feldman writes (ibid., p. 169): ‘The intrinsic value of a whole consequence is the sum of the justice-adjusted intrinsic value of the episodes of pleasure and pain that occur in that consequence.’ On p. 208 he says that ‘the relevant … value of a world … is the sum of the values of the lives lived there, adjusted for desert’.

13 See Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, 1984, p. 388. My formulation is more general than Parfit's and he does not demand that the people with very high welfare are equally well off.

14 See ibid., p. 388 and Derek Parfit, ‘Overpopulation and the Quality of Life’, Applied Ethics ed. P. Singer, Oxford, 1986, p. 148. In my Future Generations: A Challenge for Moral Theory, Uppsala, 2000, I discuss different interpretations of the Repugnant Conclusion in some detail.

15 Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert, p. 194.

16 Ibid., pp. 206, 209.

17 Given the assumption that positive desert cannot yield transvaluation of the intrinsic goodness of under-deserved pleasure.

18 Blackorby C., Bossert W., and Donaldson D., ‘Critical-Level Utilitarianism and the Population-Ethics Dilemma’, Economics and Philosophy, xiii (1997).

19 Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert, p. 138.

20 Feldman Fred, ‘Basic Intrinsic Value’, Philosophical Studies, ic (2000) and personal communication with Feldman.

21 Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert, p. 212.

22 We are assuming here that the functions involved are continuous which Feldman also seems to assume (ibid., pp.205 f.). Again, it should be clear how the argument could proceed without this assumption. Even if no individual could have neutral desert value, we could put together groups of lives with aggregate neutral desert value since their negative and positive desert value would cancel each other out.

23 Ibid., p. 212.

24 Ibid., p. 212.

25 Ibid., p. 212.

26 Hobbes Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Oakeshott M., New York, 1962, p. 100.

27 Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert, pp 167 f.

28 Feldman made a similar suggestion in personal communication.

29 Ibid., p. 167.

30 Feldman's choice of numerical representation is, according to himself, ‘somewhat arbitrary’ but since the value of a person who deserves 100 units of pleasure and receives nothing is -50, and positive desert enhances the intrinsic badness of pain (see M4 and F5 above), a person who deserves 100 units of pleasure and receives pain must have negative intrinsic value below -50. See ibid., p. 206.

31 Ibid., p. 167. At p. 165, Feldman also suggests that the value of a person with negative desert but positive welfare is zero rather than negative.

32 I would like to thank John Broome, Krister Bykvist, Erik Carlson, Sven Danielsson, David Donaldson, Fred Feldman, Tom Hurka, Adeze Igboemeka, Jan Osterberg, Wlodzimierz Rabinowicz, Howard Sobel, and Wayne Sumner for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, and Erik Arrhenius for his help in practical matters. Financial support from the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) is gratefully acknowledged.

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