Totalism without Repugnance

In Jeff McMahan, Tim Campbell, James Goodrich & Ketan Ramakrishnan (eds.), Ethics and Existence: The Legacy of Derek Parfit. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 200-231 (2022)
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Totalism is the view that one distribution of well-being is better than another just in case the one contains a greater sum of well-being than the other. Many philosophers, following Parfit, reject totalism on the grounds that it entails the repugnant conclusion: that, for any number of excellent lives, there is some number of lives that are barely worth living whose existence would be better. This paper develops a theory of welfare aggregation—the lexical-threshold view—that allows totalism to avoid the repugnant conclusion, as well as its analogues involving suffering populations and the lengths of individual lives. The theory is grounded in some independently plausible views about the structure of well-being, identifies a new source of incommensurability in population ethics, and avoids some of the implausibly extreme consequences of other lexical views, without violating the intuitive separability of lives.

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Jake Nebel
Princeton University


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