Repugnant Conclusion Challenges Population Ethics


Derek Parfit’s (1984) original creation of the Repugnant Conclusion states 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.” His Repugnant Conclusion brings forward a problem in the field of ethics that is now termed population ethics. The previous decades have seen a growing philosophical debate about questions like “How Many People Should there be?” “Are people morally obliged to have children?” The main issue in this regard has been to establish a sufficient theory concerning the moral value of the conditions where people’s quality of life (Their well-being or lifetime), their number, as well as their identity, differ. Therefore, any rational moral theory must take such aspects of the people’s states of affairs into consideration when looking for the normal state of things. As the name suggests, Parfit (2004) found the Repugnant Conclusion to be unacceptable as did and still does many philosophers. Nevertheless, it is still surprisingly challenging to find a single theory which avoids this Repugnant Conclusion without suggesting equally counterintuitive ends or conclusions. Therefore, the question on how to deal with the Repugnant Conclusion and what it portrays regarding the nature or status of ethics has made it a cardinal challenge of contemporary ethics.


How Many People Should There Be?

The question that arises when considering this question is that is it better to have many people who live relatively a low standard of life? Or is it better to have a few people who live a relatively high life quality? For instance, if a government official has to decide between two legislations which will cause different and drastic population outcomes as follows:

Legislation 1 will create population A where there are a smaller number of individuals, all who live very quality or high standards of living. Legislation 2 will create a different population Z where the number of people is high while each individual lives a very low standard/quality of life but a positive quality. The two different populations are shown in the figure below (Arrhenius, Ryberg, and Tännsjö, 2006):

Global Railway versus Air

Between the legislation (1 and 2), which one should the official choose if they want to have a better outcome? According to Arrhenius, Ryberg, and Tännsjö (2006), most individuals believe that legislation 1 should be chosen because they believe that the existence of population A is much better as compared to that of Z. However, Arrhenius, Ryberg, and Tännsjö (2006) present some compelling arguments which support the opposite conclusion, that the official should choose legislation 2 as the existence of population Z is much better as compared to that of population A as shown in the argument below:

The Argument

The argument which supports the conclusion that the official should choose legislation 2 is started by first comparing two populations: population A and population A+. As stated above, population A has a few people where everybody has a high standard or quality life. On the other hand, A+ is comprised of two groups of individuals where each of them is the same size as population A.

Every person in the first of the groups, such as each individual in A, has a very high life quality whereas everybody in the second of the groups has a low life quality but worth living. The two populations A and A+ are shown in the figure below (Hurka, 1983):

Global Railway versus Air

The question that follows is that which population’s presence or existence would be much better, A+’s or A’s? A+’s existence is better as compared to that of A’s because it has more people with lives worth living and therefore should be accepted. (P1) Population A+ is better as compared to A (Hurka, 1983).

Next, A+ is compared to a third and different population known as Divided B. Similar to population A+, this population (Divided B) comprises two groups of individuals where each group is the same size as population A. However, unlike population A+, every person in Divided B equally lives a good life, but the quality or standard is slightly better as compared to the average life quality in population A+. The populations Divided B and A+ are shown in the figure below (Locke, 1987):

Global Railway versus Air

The question that arises is which of the two populations’ (Divided B or A+) existence would be much better? Intuitively, the argument brought forward is that the Divided B population would have a better existence as compared to A+ even though it does not have anybody that is well off like those in A+. Divided B has a higher average life quality as compared to A+, a larger quantity of the things which make their life worthy as compared to A+, as well as less inequality unlike A. Therefore, it should be accepted (P2) that the population (Divided B) is better as compared to A+.

Finally, population Divided B is compared to another population B. Divided B and B are similar or identical, but B is undivided. The two populations are shown below (Narveson, 1967)

Global Railway versus Air

Of the two populations, therefore, whose existence would be much better, B’s or Divided B’s? Intuitively, the argument is that Divided B’s is as good as B’s thus it should be accepted that (P3) Divided B is as good as B. Therefore, if B and Divided B are both as good, which one is better than population A+? Which one is also better than population A.? Therefore, B is much better than population A, and it should be concluded that (C1), B is better as compared to A.

When a fifth population known as C is introduced where it consists of twice the number of people found in B and in which everybody’s life quality is better greater than half as good as each person’s life quality in B, is much better as compared to B and A. Populations A, B, C are shown in the figure below (Rachels, 2001):

Global Railway versus Air

Therefore, as we move through the populations, the conclusion that is arrived at is that population Z is better than population Y and thus A. This is the same line of thought which leads to C1 where the conclusion is that B is better than population A which also leads to the belief that Z is better as compared to A and that the legislation that should be chosen is legislation 2 over 1.

The Repugnant Conclusion

The above argument demonstrates that a bigger population whose people’s lives are worthy is better as compared to a smaller population as long as the extent to which the population is larger is more than the level to which their life quality is worse. Parfit (1984) concluded that for a possible population of not less than 10,000 people where each person has a high life quality, there is a much larger population that its existence when other things remain equal, would be much better although its members’ lives are hardly worth living (Tannsjo, 2002). Perfit (1984) termed this argument, the repugnant conclusion. The name repugnant conclusion is coined from the idea that it is not easy to accept because even though an individual can imagine a 10 billion people population where everybody’s life is high quality, one cannot imagine a different population where people’s lives are hardly worth living is better as compared to the former no matter the number of people in the latter population.

Another approach to solving population ethics problems according to Roberts (2011) has been the suggestion that a problem’s crux is found in impersonal morality that population ethics problems can be solved by shifting towards “person-affecting morality.” This move is particularly popular in the area of medical ethics in which many population ethics problems are actualized for instance abortion. According to Temkin (1993), the notion behind this approach is the argument which is occasionally known as the “slogan” or “the person-affecting restriction” where a result can be worse or better than another only if it is worse or better for someone. If a relatively strict explanation of restriction is used together with the idea that existence and non-existence cannot be compared in a person’s value, comparativism is derived. Bykvist (1998) says that the welfare of people who are uniquely realizable should be disregarded, that is, those people who exist only in one of the compared results or outcomes.

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The repugnant conclusion is not easy to accept. Feldman (1995) says that even Parfit tried to resist the repugnant conclusion by stating that it is unsound or that similar lines of argument cannot fully lead us to the repugnant conclusion. Huemer (2008) says that other philosophers contest that these types of arguments are meant to fail and when they are right then people are forced to accept or agree with the repugnant conclusion.


  • Arrhenius, G., Ryberg, J. and Tännsjö, T., 2006. The repugnant conclusion.
  • Bykvist, K., 1998. Changing preferences: A study in preferentialism (Doctoral dissertation, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis).
  • Feldman, F., 1995. Justice, desert, and the repugnant conclusion. Utilitas, 7(2), pp.189-206.
  • Huemer, M., 2008. In defence of repugnance. Mind, 117(468), pp.899-933.
  • Hurka, T., 1983. Value and population size. Ethics, 93(3), pp.496-507.
  • Locke, D., 1987. The Parfit population problem. Philosophy, 62(240), pp.131-157.
  • Narveson, J., 1967. Utilitarianism and new generations. Mind, 76(301), pp.62-72.
  • Parfit, D., 1984. Reasons and persons. OUP Oxford.
  • Parfit, D., 2004. Overpopulation and the Quality of Life. In The repugnant conclusion (pp. 7-22). Springer, Dordrecht.
  • Rachels, S., 2001. A set of solutions to Parfit's problems. Noûs, 35(2), pp.214-238.
  • Roberts, M.A., 2011. An asymmetry in the ethics of procreation. Philosophy Compass, 6(11), pp.765-776.
  • Tannsjo, T., 2002. Why we ought to accept the repugnant conclusion. Utilitas, 14(3), pp.339-359.
  • Temkin, L.S., 1993. Inequality. Oxford University Press.

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