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Intransitivity and Future Generations: Debunking Parfit's Mere Addition Paradox

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Duties to future persons contribute critically to many important contemporaneous ethical dilemmas, such as environmental protection, contraception, abortion, and population policy. Yet this area of ethics is mired in paradoxes. It appeared that any principle for dealing with future persons encountered Kavka's paradox of future individuals, Parfit's repugnant conclusion, or an indefensible asymmetry. In 1976, Singer proposed a utilitarian solution that seemed to avoid the above trio of obstacles, but Parfit so successfully demonstrated the unacceptability of this position that Singer abandoned it. Indeed, the apparently intransitivity of Singer's solution contributed to Temkin's argument that the notion of “all things considered better than” may be intransitive. In this paper, I demonstrate that a time-extended view of Singer's solution avoids the intransitivity that allows Parfit's mere addition paradox to lead to the repugnant conclusion.

However, the heart of the mere addition paradox remains: the time-extended view still yields intransitive judgments. I discuss a general theory for dealing with intransitivity (Transitivity by Transformation) that was inspired by Temkin's sports analogy, and demonstrate that such a solution is more palatable than Temkin suspected. When a pair-wise comparison also requires consideration of a small number of relevant external alternatives, we can avoid intransitivity and the mere addition paradox without infinite comparisons or rejecting the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives Principle
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Stanford University, Stanford, CA USA

Publication date: 2003-10-01

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