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The “Repugnant Conclusion” Is Aptly Described



I don’t have strong feelings about whether it was right for Vox to pull the essay it commissioned from Torbjörn Tännsjö about the “repugnant conclusion.” As a freelancer, I’m inclined to think that when you ask for something you shouldn’t then reject it because it was what you asked for.

On the other hand, as to whether Matthews or Klein is right about the merits of the essay…let me say that is unpersuasive in the extreme. Perhaps the fact that the core premises (we can know that most people are happy, people have an obligation to potentially make themselves significantly less happy out of an obligation to unborn people even when the ongoing existence of the human race is not an issue, etc.) remain begged questions is unavoidable in a brief essay. Presumably his scholarly work deals with these questions in more detail, although I would be shocked if he defended his assumptions convincingly.

But I don’t think he can get a pass for one particular elephant in the room. Klein mentions the issue of reproductive freedom. Tännsjö’s argument does seem to imply that it is immoral to abort a healthy fetus, although it doesn’t necessarily require that abortion be criminalized. But this is only the beginning of the gender equity problems. Pregnancy — even when a pregnant woman has access to decent medical care — cares substantial health risks and imposes substantial discomforts. Moreover, these burdens are not equally distributed. Only people with female reproductive organs can become pregnant; all but a vanishingly small minority of people who get pregnant identify as women. And because women are a historically subordinated class, they generally bear a disproportionate amount of the burdens of childcare as well as bearing the burdens of pregnancy. A claim that there is a moral duty to have as many children as possible entails massive gender inequities.

How does Tännsjö deal with this obvious objection? He doesn’t. At all. Indeed, the essay keeps saying “I” and “we” in the context of having children when the person who will get pregnant is in fact a “she.” And, needless to say, the fact that Tännsjö does not have to bear the health risks and discomforts of pregnancy makes it much easier for him to ignore them entirely when arguing that women have an obligation to maximize their reproductive output. Even in a short essay, to entirely ignore issues of gender equity in this context is, how shall I put this, repugnant.


But the other issue was that the piece was commissioned when we were looking to launch a new section for unusual, provocative arguments. That section, for various reasons, didn’t launch (though maybe we’ll revisit it someday!), and so we didn’t have a place to put this piece where it felt to me like it would make editorial sense.

Whether or not they should have published it having commissioned it — and I’m inclined to think that Klein’s editorial judgment was sound — Tännsjö’s essay is a good illustration of why the idea of publishing “provocative” arguments for the contrarian sake of it should remain dead and buried.

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