Non-Additive Axiologies in Large Worlds

Abstract

Is the overall value of a world just the sum of values contributed by each value-bearing entity in that world? Additively separable axiologies (like total utilitarianism, prioritarianism, and critical level views) say 'yes', but non-additive axiologies (like average utilitarianism, rank-discounted utilitarianism, and variable value views) say 'no'. This distinction is practically important: additive axiologies support 'arguments from astronomical scale' which suggest (among other things) that it is overwhelmingly important for humanity to avoid premature extinction and ensure the existence of a large future population, while non-additive axiologies need not. We show, however, that when there is a large enough 'background population' unaffected by our choices, a wide range of non-additive axiologies converge in their implications with some additive axiology -- for instance, average utilitarianism converges to critical-level utilitarianism and various egalitarian theories converge to prioritiarianism. We further argue that real-world background populations may be large enough to make these limit results practically significant. This means that arguments from astronomical scale, and other arguments in practical ethics that seem to presuppose additive separability, may be truth-preserving in practice whether or not we accept additive separability as a basic axiological principle.

Author Profiles

Christian Tarsney
University of Texas at Austin
Teruji Thomas
Oxford University

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2020-10-14

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