The Repugnant Conclusion Isn't

There is nothing bad in each of these lives; but there is little happiness, and little else that is good. The people in Z never suffer; but all they have is muzak and potatoes.

– Derek Parfit, Overpopulation and the Quality of Life

The image of World Z provokes an unsettling cognitive dissonance. It forces us to confront the possibility that any degree of happiness, no matter how magnificent, can be outweighed by arbitrarily small pleasures multiplied across a sufficiently large population. Imagining this kind of mediocrity, we can hardly endorse it over a small yet ecstatic utopia.

And yet, I feel strongly that this perceived tension is due entirely to a failure of the imagination. When Parfit says “muzak and potatoes”, perhaps you conjure up the image of a medieval European peasant, covered in mud, living in squalor, only just barely getting by.

But read again more carefully: “There is nothing bad in each of these lives”.

Although it sounds mundane, I contend that this is nearly incomprehensible. Can you actually imagine what it would be like to never have anything bad happen to you? We don’t describe such a as mediocre, we describe it as “charmed” or “overwhelmingly privileged”.

After all, each of our lives are absolutely filled with bad things. Some of these are obvious (injury, illness, the loss of a loved one), but mostly they just exist as a kind of dull background pain we’ve grown to accept. The bad things are, as Simone Weil put it, the “countless horrors which lie beyond tears”.

In stark contrast, consider Parfit’s vision of World Z both seriously and literally.

These are lives with no pain, no loneliness or depression, no loss or fear, no anxiety, no aging, no disease, nor decay. Not ever a single moment of sorrow. These are lives free entirely from every minor ache and cramp, from desire, from jealousy, from greed, and from every other sin that poisons the heart. Free from the million ills that plague and poke at ordinary people.

It is thus less the world of peasants, and closer to that of subdued paradise. The closest analog we can imagine is perhaps a Buddhist sanctuary, each member so permanently, universally and profoundly enlightened that they no longer experience suffering of any kind.

And that’s not all! Parfit further tells us that their lives are net positive. And so in addition to never experiencing any unpleasantness of any degree, they also experience simple pleasures. A “little happiness”, small nearly to the point of nothingness, yet enough to tip the scales. Perhaps the warmth of basking under a beam of sun, the gentle nourishment of simple meals, or just the low-level background satisfaction of a slow Sunday morning.

Properly construed, that is the world Parfit would have us imagine. Not a mediocre world of “muzak and potatoes”, but a kind of tranquil nirvana beyond pain. And that is a world I have no problem endorsing.

Coda and part II