Today’s philosophical challenge: resolve the contradiction. (re post)

Let 10 represent the greatest possible happiness for a human to experience, and let 0 represent the minimal amount of happiness for a human life to be worth living, with a smooth gradation along the intervening numbers. 

Now, suppose that there are three futures we could guarantee for the year 2200:

Future A — there are a billion people, all living lives at 7.
Future B — there are two billion people, all living lives at 6.
Future C — there are two billion people, with one billion living lives at 7 and the second billion living lives at 3.5.

Problem: as I will argue if need be in the discussion that follows (should there be one!), A is all-things-considered better than B; B is all-things-considered better than C; and C is all-things-considered better than A.

How can this paradox be resolved?

*Note: I have deliberately excluded external matters like how we can get to these futures and what will happen in the aftermath of these futures. I did that deliberately in order to make clear that, even without those externalities, there seems to be a paradox in these outcomes _themselves_. So no digressions away from the comparisons between the three outcomes in themselves, please! Not fair, and not helpful! Thanks.

6 thoughts on “Today’s philosophical challenge: resolve the contradiction. (re post)

  1. Cool thought experiment, but like so many thought experiments it doesn’t move me! (or perhaps a kind of movement is produced). My guess is that it is aimed at utilitarianism to show that a strict utilitarian principle leads to problems. But didn’t Mill introduce a distinction (quality/quantity) that would help solve the seeming puzzle? I don’t think it possible to measure human happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 or any scale – that is completely arbitrary and complex beyond measure.


    • It’s not a thought experiment yet — just a question about which outcomes are better than others!

      If it’s completely arbitrary which outcomes are better than others, then some very odd results follow! For instance: suppose that two fires on a gulf island arise simultaneously. One threatens to consume a single home and kill four people, and the other threatens to consume fifty homes and kill two hundred people. There’s only one fire department on the island, and there’s only one fire truck, and the two fires are equidistant from the fire department but in opposite directions. The fire department doesn’t know anything at all about who the people are in the fires.

      The fire department has four choices, let’s say:
      1) Put out the bigger fire and save 200 lives, letting the other 4 die.
      2) Put out the smaller fire and save 4 lives, letting the other 200 die.
      3) Do nothing and let all 204 die.
      4) Go in a completely different direction and douse a completely different house (not on fire) with water, then chop down the front door, take out the people and furniture, and throw them all into a lake (meanwhile letting the 204 people die).

      Suppose the fire chief opts for 4). At a future town council meeting, he is taken to task for doing this when 1) was a clearly better option. Do you defend him on the grounds that there’s no coherent sense in which any option is better than any other? Or do you agree that he should have done better? I suspect the latter, but perhaps I’m wrong!

      I’m not sure how Mill’s discussion about quantity and quality solves the problem, but I’m all ears! Which of the three options does it show is best?


    • That, all things considered, Future A seems to be better than Future B; Future B seems to be better than Future C; and that Future C seems to be better than Future A. And since ‘all things considered better than’ appears to be a transitive relation, this should be impossible.


Please join the discussion!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s