Monday, 17 July 2017

A philosophical quibble to upend the global order

One thing I like about philosophy is how often I can find real-world applications for it. I guess that’s because it’s so abstract, compared with, say (to pick another of my interests), zoology. It is very unlikely that I will ever find a use for my knowledge that elephants have two distinct charging behaviours, one when they’re charging to threaten and the other when they intend to kill. Cats and dogs and rabbits just aren’t the same. On the other hand, it’s a rare week when I don’t have to think about essentialism, or game theory, or survivorship bias, or some other concept at the intersection of philosophy and mathematics, for some reason or another.

Recently I came across a singularly important philosophical paradox. Oh, its importance isn’t instantly obvious. To be honest, at first glance it looks footling, one of those little quibbles that just go to show philosophers need to get out in the fresh air a bit more. I’ll take you through it first, but let me assure you: the deepest, most fundamental question in global politics for the last thirty years hangs on the resolution to this paradox. But I have to tell you what the paradox is first, before I can explain how. It’s called the Mere Addition Problem, or alternatively the Repugnant Conclusion. Here to explain it is the philosopher Julia Galef (whose work I regret not discovering years ago):

In case you scrolled past that without playing it, the problem is the three contradictory premises, all of which seem reasonable, but which can’t all be true. Galef phrases them as follows:

  1. Creating new people with lives worth living doesn’t make things worse.
  2. Increasing total and average happiness makes things better.
  3. A smaller number of very happy people is preferable to a larger number of unhappy people.

Consider three possible worlds. First, a world with a small number of very, very happy people. Second, a world with that same number of very, very happy people, plus a similar number of other people who are just kind of contented, but not actively unhappy. Third, a world with the same total number of people as the second world, who are all just a little bet less happy than the very-very-happy people but a whole lot happier than the kind-of-contented people. Now according to premise (1), the first world is no better than the second world. According to premise (2), the third world is better than the second world. But that means the third world is also better than the first world – a larger number of less happy people is better than a smaller number of very happy people – which contradicts premise (3). Look, it all makes sense with Galef’s visual aids, I promise.

This is called the Mere Addition Paradox because all you’re doing with premise (1) is “merely adding” people to the world, who just happen not to be as happy as the people already in it. It’s called the Repugnant Conclusion because, if you go through the same reasoning several times over, you end up concluding that a world with a vast population so unhappy they have just one thing keeping them from suicide is better than a world with a tiny population whose lives are healthy, fulfilling, exciting, and blissful. Mind you, given only those premises, it is possible to cheat our way out of the paradox, because there are a couple of additional premises which are necessary for the Repugnant Conclusion to follow:

  1. The law of transitivity applies to goodness.
  2. There is no threshold of happiness (above the zero point of “I’d rather be dead”) at which this logic stops working.

I say “cheat our way out” because, although we can avoid the Repugnant Conclusion if either one of these is false, either way we end up not making much sense. To falsify premise (5), we would not only need to quantify a threshold of happiness below which the logic did stop working; we would also need to specify which of the other premises broke down at that threshold and why. So that gives us a whole lot of extra work figuring out how to quantify happiness, and gets us no closer to a solution than we already were.

Premise (4) looks more promising at first sight. “The law of transitivity” is a jargony, technical sort of term; it looks like it means something complicated and esoteric. Actually all it means is the simple rule that if Thing A is better than Thing B, and Thing C is not better than Thing B, then Thing A must also be better than Thing C – in whatever sense we might be using the word “better”. So, for instance, if democracy is better than absolute monarchy, and military dictatorship is not better than absolute monarchy, it follows that democracy is better than military dictatorship. If solar power is better than gas, and coal is not better than gas, it follows that solar power is better than coal. If Wonder Woman is better than Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad is not better than Batman v. Superman, then Wonder Woman is better than Suicide Squad. If teriyaki beef is better than cheese-on-toast, and baked beans are not better than cheese-on-toast, then teriyaki beef is better than baked beans. Without a rule like that, we’d have to compare every possible pair of alternatives independently to determine which was the better of the two. It would be impossible to generalize about what makes one thing better than another, and hence meaningless to compare hypotheticals like the made-up worlds in the Mere Addition Problem. Any attempt at reasoning about values would boggle. Premise (4) stands.

Let me now clear up a further red herring – an attack on the problem which does make a certain amount of sense but doesn’t remove the Repugnant Conclusion. It goes “I’m not a utilitarian. Morality isn’t the same as maximizing happiness.” I, for instance, think morality is about maximizing trust rather than happiness. The reason this doesn’t work here is that the Mere Addition Problem is about goodness rather than morality. These two concepts are related but not the same. Morality is an intensely practical matter; it poses questions of the form “What shall I do?” If I answer “Earn people’s trust,” well, the way to do that is to consistently do good for other people, so I’m still left asking “What counts as ‘good’?” – which is the question that the Repugnant Conclusion raises problems for.

If you don’t make the subtle distinction between goodness and morality, you might think you had found another way to disarm the Repugnant Conclusion: “Creating worlds and manipulating people’s happiness by way of experiment is deeply immoral anyway.” I’d be inclined to agree. You, the Manipulator of Worlds, might personally know that you would never intentionally use your power to create misery, but you can’t reasonably expect your subjects – who live or die, rejoice or suffer, at your merest whim – to have the same certainty. By holding that power at all you create a situation in which you cannot be trusted. But the Repugnant Conclusion doesn’t in fact depend on the supposition that you (or anyone) are responsible for the existence of the world, its people, or their happiness. The unfortunate language used, of “creating” worlds and “adding” people to them, is not necessary to the Problem. As long as the posited worlds and people could conceivably exist, we’re still faced with the question “Which one would be better?”

So we’re back to Galef’s three premises. Which one is wrong? I’m going to eliminate premise (3) from the get-go. If the words “good” and “better” mean anything at all, then a world with a small happy population is better than a world with a large miserable population. Premise (3) is true. The Repugnant Conclusion is false. To call misery better than happiness is to talk nonsense. If that’s goodness, give me evil.

There remain premises (1) and (2), and this is where things begin to get political. I maintain, and will demonstrate, that the great global political question of my lifetime comes down to which one of these premises is false. I believe that policy-makers have chosen the wrong one, and that the disasters of recent decades – global warming, the financial crisis, Donald Trump – are all partly, and some entirely, consequences of that choice. So let’s see which one is in fact false, and then we can move on to the politics.

Seeing as we’ve been examining our premises in reverse order so far, I’ll pick up with premise (2). As phrased, there’s a bit of a hole in it. Remember, one problem we had with falsifying premise (5) was that we didn’t have a way to quantify happiness. That being the case, how does it make sense to talk about “total” happiness or “average” happiness? Happiness might not be a quantitative variable at all – something you can meaningfully measure or count and so determine things like totals and averages. It looks more like an ordinal variable – something which you can rank in order from highest to lowest, but not do statistics operations on. (You can sort words into alphabetical order, but it would be nonsensical to aggregate them and calculate their “average alphabeticality”.) Indeed, when lecturers have to explain the concept of ordinal data to their students, their examples are usually surveys asking subjective questions like “How much pain are you feeling right now?” or “How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following?” Happiness is surely in the same category.

But does this help banish the Repugnant Conclusion? I’m afraid not. We might not be able to put numbers on it exactly, but I think we can agree that there’s a difference between becoming “a little bit happier” and becoming “a whole lot happier”. That’s still compatible with happiness being ordinal rather than quantitative. (It’s not meaningless to say that D comes a little way, and Q a long way, after B in the alphabet.) We can restate premise (2) without the quantitative language of totals and averages:

  1. If unhappy people get a lot happier, while very happy people only get a little bit less happy, that’s a better world.

How does the reworded premise fare? Well, it’s certainly a better world for the formerly unhappy people. Does that improvement outweigh the slight deterioration in the very happy people’s condition? I think the default presumption must be that it does, since the change in happiness is smaller. To argue that it’s not a better world, you’d have to defend a principle like “If the happiest person in the world gets less happy, it’s a worse world no matter what happens to anybody else.” Then we would have to conclude that a world where billions live in abject misery but there is just one person enjoying perpetual orgasmic bliss is better than a world where everybody is just a whisker short of that level of bliss. That’s very nearly the Repugnant Conclusion all over again, and meets the same objection. For my money, premise (2) stands.

By elimination, then, the false premise can only be premise (1). Creating new people with lives worth living does make things worse, if those lives are not as happy as the lives of the people already existing. If that clashes with your intuition, I suggest rephrasing the statement. Remember, the Repugnant Conclusion doesn’t depend on our having the power to create worlds or create new people in them. It’s just a comparison of the hypothetical worlds themselves. So we can reword our false premise (1) as

  1. A world with some very happy people and some merely mildly contented people is not worse than a world where everyone is very happy.

and our proposed true premise then must be

  • A world with some very happy people and some merely mildly contented people is worse than a world where everyone is very happy.

which might become even more intuitively obvious if we flip it around and say

  • A world where everyone is very happy is better than a world where not everyone is very happy.

—even if the people who aren’t very happy are still, you know, getting on OK. There we go. We’ve solved the Mere Addition Problem. We’ve refuted the Repugnant Conclusion. That’s our answer.

I think there’s a cognitive hurdle to cross here. Logically, if A is better than B then B is worse than A. It’s the same proposition, merely worded differently. Yet somehow it feels different. Somehow “Today was better than yesterday, but I wouldn’t say yesterday was worse,” feels like a sensible thing to say, even though it is in fact self-contradictory and therefore nonsense. Now this is me just pondering, I don’t have any psychology studies to back this up, but I think basically the human mind treats goodness and badness as two distinct substances. “Today is better” sounds like we’re saying today has goodness (and that’s the meaning we wanted); “Yesterday was worse” sounds like we’re saying yesterday had badness (and we didn’t mean that at all). Thus, when we pose premise (1) in terms of additional people “making the world worse”, it feels like we’re accusing them of contaminating the world with badness, and since that’s unfair we recoil from it. But this is a cognitive illusion, not a problem with the logic.

There is one major objection to the solution I’ve just proposed, and I think it’s a reaction to the entanglement between this “badness” misperception and the framing of the problem as “adding people”. When we feel that unfamiliar people have entered our world and contaminated it with badness, the human mind gravitates to a very ugly response, and those of us who are morally decent have learned to recoil from such proposals. As I’ve seen it phrased online, “So you think it’s better to kill them?!” And that, folks, is why I’m not a utilitarian. Killing them would snuff out all trust like a candle, and would for that reason be an atrocity. I have to point out that there is another solution to the problem; you just have to step outside the “adding people” framework. If you’re allowed to create people and manipulate worlds, you’re also allowed to make the unhappy people happier.

Not seeing the political connection yet? Consider the moral conclusion we must now draw. If premise (1) had turned out to be true and premise (2) false, we would have to say

  • We must not take any happiness from those who have a lot of it, even if the less fortunate people end up with substantially more happiness than before. However, we can accept a world where some people have a lot of happiness and others only a little, provided that little is enough for them to be content with their lot.

Since however premise (1) is false and premise (2) is true, what we have to say is

  • We must not accept a world where some people have a lot of happiness and others only a little, even if that little is enough for them to be content with their lot. However, we can take a little happiness from those who have a lot of it, provided the less fortunate people end up with substantially more happiness than before.

Still not seeing it? Replace the word “happiness” in those two formulations with “wealth”.

We must not accept a world where some people have a lot of wealth and others only a little, even if that little is enough for them to be content with their lot. However, we can take a little wealth from those who have a lot of it, provided the less fortunate people end up with substantially more wealth than before.

I’m tempted to drop the mic there and call it a day, but I know some people will dispute the validity of that last inference. Wealth, after all, is not the same thing as happiness. Wealth is quantitative. Total wealth and average wealth are not nonsensical concepts. Wealth can be created or destroyed, but if you transfer some from a small group of people to a larger group, the amount that each person in the second group gains is less than the amount that each person in the first group loses. That’s not the case with happiness; one person can easily make many other people happier without giving up any of their own happiness at all. That’s why premise (2) makes sense when it’s about happiness. We haven’t yet proved that it would work for wealth.

So let’s do that now. Here’s the thing: there’s another way wealth and happiness are different. Getting wealthier does usually make a person happier, but not proportionately. If you have very little wealth, a little bit more can make a huge difference to your happiness; if you have a huge amount of wealth, a largish chunk taken out will only make a small difference to your happiness. And with that, we can answer the previous point. If you transfer wealth from a small group of very, very rich people to a large group of very, very poor people, each poor person will get less wealth than each rich person lost, but the happiness they gain from their new wealth may very well be greater than the happiness each rich person loses with it. A billionaire might spend $1000 on a whim, whereas for a homeless person a $1000 lottery win would be life-changing. In economic jargon, the same $1000 has greater utility for the homeless person. Premise (2) does make sense for wealth, as long as we take utility into account.

You would think economists would have figured this out by now, wouldn’t you? You would think that, when they plan to enhance what they call “welfare”, they’d be trying to maximize the total utility generated by economic transactions across society. But they’re not. Economists measure “welfare” as the total wealth generated by economic transactions across society, utility be damned. They then can demonstrate convincingly that the best way to maximize this definition of “welfare” is with an unregulated, unrestricted, perfectly competitive free market. I’m not being sarcastic. I don’t disbelieve them. But I think they’ve got their priorities wrong.

You can see how, on the other hand, a free market would not maximize utility. In an unrestricted market, wealth is power. Those whose wealth is already greatest are those best placed to gain even more. Yes, I know that violates the condition of perfect competitiveness, but perfect competitiveness is an unstable condition in real systems; any perturbation away from it is likely to get bigger and bigger – anyone who dominates the market a little thereby gets the opportunity to dominate it more and more. But those whose wealth, and hence power, is greatest are precisely those who gain the least utility by adding to it. The poor and disadvantaged who gain the most utility from the smallest increments of wealth are those least able to actually glean any.

Since my early childhood, global economic policy has been dominated by an ideology known (formerly to its adherents, and still to its opponents) as “neoliberalism”. Neoliberalism has two basic tenets distinguishing it from old liberalism. First, equality can wait. Redistribution is something to think about doing when you’ve grown the economy enough – “the economy” being measured as wealth, not utility, and “enough” being, after over thirty years, still undefined. “We want to grow the whole pie,” they say, “before we start fretting about who gets what share of it.” Second, leave the rich alone. Wealth in the economy as a whole seeps out of the piles where it is accumulated by individuals or corporations, so you want to make sure those piles stay well-stocked. (The rich cannot afford to pay a cent more in wages than they already do, so if you ask anything more of them they will take your job away and it will be your fault.) This is called “supply-side economics” or, popularly, “the trickle-down theory”. Neoliberal politicians have coined the phrase “the politics of envy” to dismiss public discontent with these two tenets.

Those tenets are sorely lacking in empirical support, as I and others have pointed out many a time and oft. But right now I want to draw your attention to how they sit with the premises of the Repugnant Conclusion. “Equality can wait” is more or less premise (1); “Leave the rich alone” is a negation of premise (2) as applied to wealth. We’ve seen that this is exactly the wrong way around. Premise (1) is false and premise (2) is true. Equality can’t wait, and the rich can stand to start paying their dues. If I’ve got the logic right here, that’s not just a political opinion but a necessary corollary of being sensible and consistent about what happiness has to do with goodness.

I’m going to claim that neoliberalism is a factor in most if not all of today’s political and economic crises. I don’t want to be misunderstood: I don’t think that everything was paradisal before neoliberalism screwed it up, or that any other system we might have chosen would have been problem-free from the get-go. But I do think that if we’d chosen a different system we’d be facing different problems, and that if we’d chosen progressive social democracy with an evidence-based environmental approach we’d be facing smaller problems.

The global financial crisis of 2008 was pretty much purely a crisis of neoliberalism. Under the “Leave the rich alone” tenet, the world’s regulatory bodies allowed investors to develop all kinds of financial instruments (called “derivatives”) for, basically, betting on other people’s debts. Because of the “Equality can wait” tenet, the fact that these instruments were making a few people very rich indeed without spreading the benefits to society as a whole was not seen as a reason to rein them in. Then a bunch of debtors defaulted on their debts, triggering a cascade of failures through the derivative markets, and, well, the rest is history. Global warming is of course a consequence of fossil-fuel-based industry, which began to expand long before neoliberalism took hold. But neoliberalism has imposed an unconscionable drag on the process of counteracting it. “How can we cut global carbon emissions?” is a question easily answered; “How can we cut global carbon emissions without taxing the rich or restraining industry?” is not.

The Donald Trump presidency is happening because multiple different groups of people made bad choices; I don’t think trying to pin it on any one of those groups above the others is helpful. If the Democrats hadn’t nominated Hillary Clinton – if her leftward critics hadn’t sat the election out – if the rural poor hadn’t been fooled by Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric – if rich people in poor states hadn’t banked on a Republican win keeping labour costs low – if progressives had actually won the cultural debate over race and gender and sexual orientation instead of shutting it down – any one of those things might have been enough to turn the tide. Or then again it might not. But there’s a theme emerging amongst the various attributed causes, one presaged in the Brexit referendum a year ago and echoed in the British Parliamentary election last month. Ordinary people are sick of the status quo. The neoliberal consensus is no longer serving us. The promised jobs are not materializing. And it’s become clear that jobs were never the point anyway.

Neoliberalism has always been sold as the “rational” option. Those of us who have been trying to inject a little compassion into policy have been smirked at for our unreason for decades. Recently a movement has arisen which combines a gung-ho form of neoliberalism with essentialistic views of race, gender, and sexuality; members can be recognised by their ostentatious self-identification as “logical” (and their fedora hats). I must add that Left thinkers during the neoliberal ascension had the ghastly habit of attacking rationality instead of defending their positions rationally, which I can’t help thinking is a major reason why the neoliberal ascension lasted so long. Well, here is a rational refutation of the basic neoliberal thesis. If there’s a flaw in my logic, please feel most free to point it out in the comments.


  1. I have a bit of a critique of this that was to long to publish here. A link to my tumblr.

    1. I have responded to it on my own Tumblr here.