Population Ethics for the Development Topic

Population ethics is the main branch of moral philosophy that addresses questions concerning future generations. The literature in population ethics is important for the Jan/Feb 2014 topic, because some of the most important impacts of environmental protection vs. resource extraction are on future generations. In this post, I’ll outline two of the key issues in population ethics and suggest some sources for cards. 

The Non-Identity Problem

Many of our choices make people better or worse off than they otherwise would’ve been. But some morally important choices do not affect individuals in this way, because the people they affect might not have existed otherwise. In a classic example due to Derek Parfit, a 14-year-old girl chooses to have a child. Most of us would think that choice is a bad idea—largely because of how the child’s life will go. Many of us would say that the girl should have waited until she was an adult before having a child. But notice this important fact: if she had waited until she was an adult before having a child, then her child would have been a different person. So it’s not the case that the 14-year-old girl’s decision to have a child was wrong because it made the child worse off than he would’ve been if she had waited. This is because the child wouldn’t have existed if the girl had waited. This is a non-identity case because the child affected by the 14-year-old girl’s choice is not identical to the child in the counterfactual scenario where she waits until she is an adult. 

The 14-year-old girl may seem like an isolated case, but in fact non-identity cases are extremely common when dealing with future generations. Parfit considers cases that bear directly on the Jan/Feb 2014 resolution. (see the Risky Policy and Conservation vs. Depletion cases). In a debate on this resolution, suppose the aff wins that prioritizing resource extraction over environmental protection would make people’s lives much worse in the future, but the neg wins that prioritizing resource extraction would make currently existing people much better off. Which impact is more important? The non-identity problem forces us to realize that when we compare different policies undertaken by developing countries, these worlds may differ with respect to which people marry, when they have children, etc., so the future populations of these countries may be comprised of different people. So the impact scenario in the resolution may be a non-identity case. This feature may be significant for how we weigh impacts: should we care more about making people happy, or making happy people? Do these countries harm people or do something unjust if they do not make people worse off than they otherwise would have been? Philosophers have discussed these questions a lot over the past thirty years, and some economists have applied it very specifically to environmental ethics and the ethics of development. 

The Repugnant Conclusion

Here is one of Parfit’s statements of the Repugnant Conclusion:

Compared with the existence of many people who would all have some very high quality of life, there is some much larger number of people whose existence would be better, even though these people would all have lives that were barely worth living. 

This conclusion (which many people think we ought to reject) is implied by any version of utilitarianism on which a greater sum of happiness is always better than a lesser sum of happiness. But one finding in the literature on population ethics is that many other views imply the Repugnant Conclusion, and much of the literature is a search for plausible principles that do not imply the Repugnant Conclusion. Many principles have been proposed, but few have many supporters. 

How is the Repugnant Conclusion relevant to the development topic? Return to the impact weighing debate mentioned earlier, in which we are comparing the worse lives of future people to the better lives of present people. Suppose the aff reads evidence that a world in which developing countries prioritize resource extraction will also be overpopulated, so there will be many more people living lives of a lower quality. If our best theory of population ethics implies the Repugnant Conclusion, then that is actually a good thing: the neg can win on an impact turn. The aff needs to maintain that we should reject the Repugnant Conclusion in order to defeat the impact turn. So it would be a good idea for the aff to have a theory that does not imply the Repugnant Conclusion and can explain why the Repugnant Conclusion is false (and, ideally, repugnant). For example, some critical-level utilitarians think that it can be in itself bad to add more people to the world, even if these people have lives worth living, because their lives are below some critical level. Alternatively, proponents of a diminishing marginal value view believe that added lives of positive value are like dollars: that they become less valuable once you have a lot of them. 

Conclusion

The problems of population ethics are very difficult, but they are also very rewarding for debaters who are willing to invest time into researching them. The literature is large and growing, and it has attracted many philosophers who are worth reading for debate. The literature will help you navigate debates not only on this topic’s framework issues, but also on impact weighing debates in general, and there are a lot of authors applying these issues to other topics. 

If you have questions about these issues, or if you want to discuss population ethics in the context of the Jan/Feb topic… 

post on the vb3 thread

Read first

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (ch. 16 and 17)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the non-identity problem

SEP entry on the repugnant conclusion

Read next

Blackorby, Bossert, and Donaldson. (2005). Population issues in social choice theory, welfare economics, and ethics. Cambridge University Press. 

Broome, J. (2004). Weighing Lives. Oxford University Press.

Broome, J. (2012). Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World (Amnesty International Global Ethics Series). W. W. Norton.

Hare, C. (2007). Voices from Another World: Must We Respect the Interests of People Who Do Not, and Will Never, Exist?*. Ethics.

Harman, E. (2004). Can we harm and benefit in creating? Philosophical Perspectives, 18(1), 89–113.

McMahan, J. (2012). Causing People to Exist and Saving People’s Lives. The Journal of Ethics. 

Meyer, L., & Roser, D. (2006). Distributive justice and climate change: the allocation of emission rights. Analyse Und Kritik-Zeitschrift Fur ….

Miller, D. (2008). Global Justice and Climate Change. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

Temkin, L. (2012). Rethinking the Good: Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning. Oxford University Press.