On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics

Contemporary Buddhism 11 (1):103-113 (2010)
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Most discussion in population ethics has concentrated how to order populations by the relations “is better than” and “is as good as”. The topic is characterized by paradoxes which show that our considered beliefs are inconsistent in cases where the number of people and their welfare varies. The best known and most discussed example shattering our intuitions is Parfit’s Mere Addition Paradox. But why are paradoxes prevalent in population ethics? Can the analysis of Buddhist intuitions contribute to answer this question? The comparison of classical utilitarian and Buddhist intuitions demonstrates the close tie between intuitions and interests. The perplexing Buddhist intuition about non-existence can be explained (except for metaphysical reasons) by a radically different priority given to survival. The method of measuring the quality of life is not decisive for the existence of paradoxes. The Buddhist axiology changes but doesn’t remove counter-intuitive combinations. If the conflict of interest (quantity versus quality) is described within a two-parameter model, it causes conflicting intuitions. In axiologies which favour quantity (utilitarianism) or quality (perfectionism) the conflicting intuitions inevitably lead to paradoxes. In order to find a compromise, one would have to find a universal interest and a corresponding universal intuition. The obvious candidate to meet this request is sympathy. But since there is no universal consensus on the desirable degree of sympathy, the normative force of such an approach is limited. Breaking out of the two-parameter model and accepting the incommensurability of certain qualities threatens the normative claim of population ethics.

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