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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Population ethical intuitions

Caviola, L., Althaus, D., Mogensen, A., 
& Goodwin, G. (2021, April 1). 


We investigated lay people’s population ethical intuitions (N = 4,374), i.e., their moral evaluations of populations that differ in size and composition. First, we found that people place greater relative weight on, and are more sensitive to, suffering compared to happiness. Participants, on average, believed that more happy people are needed to outweigh a given amount of unhappy people in a population (Studies 1a-c). Second, we found that—in contrast to so-called person-affecting views—people do not consider the creation of new people as morally neutral. Participants considered it good to create a new happy person and bad to create a new unhappy person (Study 2). Third, we found that people take into account both the average level (averagism) and the total level (totalism) of happiness when evaluating populations. Participants preferred populations with greater total happiness levels when the average level remained constant (Study 3) and populations with greater average happiness levels when the total level remained constant (Study 4). When the two principles were in conflict, participants’ preferences lay in between the recommendations of the two principles, suggesting that both are applied simultaneously (Study 5). In certain cases, participants even showed averagist preferences when averagism disfavors adding more happy people and favors adding more unhappy people to a population (Study 6). However, when participants were prompted to reflect as opposed to rely on their intuitions, their preferences became more totalist (Studies 5-6). Our findings have implications for moral psychology, philosophy and policy making.

From the Discussion

Suffering is more bad than than happiness is good

We found that people weigh suffering more than happiness when they evaluate the goodness of populations consisting of both happy and unhappy people. Thus, people are neither following strict negative utilitarianism (minimizing suffering, giving no weight to maximizing happiness at all) nor strict classical utilitarianism (minimizing suffering and maximizing happiness, weighing both equally). Instead, the average person’s intuitions seem to track a mixture of these two theories. In Studies 1a-c, participants on average believed that approximately 1.5-3 times more happy people are required to outweigh a given amount of unhappy people. The precise trade ratio between happiness and suffering depended on the intensity levels of happiness and suffering. (In additional preliminary studies, we found that the trade ratio can also heavily depend on the framing of the question.) Study 1c clarified that, on average, participants continued to believe that more happiness was needed to outweigh suffering even when the happiness and suffering units were exactly equally intense. This suggests that people generally weigh suffering more than happiness in their moral assessments above and beyond perceiving suffering to be more intense than happiness. However, our studies also made clear that there are individual differences and that a substantial proportion of participants weighed happiness and suffering equally strongly, in line with classical utilitarianism.