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The Repugnant Conclusion is an implication of some approaches to population ethics. It states, in Derek Parfit's original formulation,
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. (Parfit 1984: 388)
This article surveys the debate over the social discount rate. The focus is on the economics rather than the philosophy literature, but the survey emphasizes foundations in ethical theory rather than highly technical details. I begin by locating the standard approach to discounting within the overall landscape of ethical theory. The article then covers the Ramsey equation and its relationship to observed interest rates, arguments for and against a positive rate of pure time preference, the consumption elasticity of utility, and the effect of various sorts of uncertainty on the discount rate. Climate change is discussed as an application.
Harsanyi claimed that his Aggregation and Impartial Observer Theorems provide a justification for utilitarianism. This claim has been strongly resisted, notably by Sen and Weymark, who argue that while Harsanyi has perhaps shown that overall good is a linear sum of individuals’ von Neumann–Morgenstern utilities, he has done nothing to establish any connection between the notion of von Neumann–Morgenstern utility and that of well-being, and hence that utilitarianism does not follow.
The present article defends Harsanyi against the Sen–Weymark critique. I argue that, far from being a term with precise and independent quantitative content whose relationship to von Neumann–Morgenstern utility is then a substantive question, terms such as ‘well-being’ suffer (or suffered) from indeterminacy regarding precisely which quantity they refer to. If so, then (on the issue that this article focuses on) Harsanyi has gone as far towards defending ‘utilitarianism in the original sense’ as could coherently be asked.
Prioritarianism is supposed to be a theory of the overall good that captures the common intuition of ‘priority to the worse off’. But it is difficult to give precise content to the prioritarian claim. Over the past few decades, prioritarians have increasingly responded to this ‘content problem’ by formulating prioritarianism not in terms of an alleged primitive notion of quantity of well-being, but instead in terms of von Neumann–Morgenstern utility. The resulting two forms of prioritarianism (respectively, ‘Primitivist’ and ‘Technical’ prioritarianism) are not mere variants on a theme, but are entirely distinct theories, amenable to different motivating arguments and open to different objections. This article argues that the basic intuition of ‘priority to the worse off’ provides no support for Technical Prioritarianism: qua attempt to capture that intuition, the turn to von Neumann–Morgenstern utility is a retrograde step.
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