More Kids, Please

To continue...

The world has become prosperous.  Population has stabilized at 10 billion.  All is well in every way.  And now scientists are working on a cure for aging, a pill that will increase average life span from 75 to 150.  If people live longer, they will have to produce half as many children (to avoid a drain on resources). But this helps a bit: the pill will have a secondary effect of making fertility last to age 50.  And we are to assume that the super-elderly would retain the abilities and vigor of people in their 60s and 70s.

Should the anti-aging pill be pursued? There are a couple of crucial questions. (1) What's better, a 75/2 life or a 150/1 life?  (2) What of the fact that there are half as many people in 150/1?  Should halving the world's population concern us?

Blackford agrees with Singer that the 150/1 life is better, but disagrees with him about the significance of halving the world's population.  So (2) is where the action is.  Because they answer (2) differently, they come to different conclusions about the whole question. Singer: no anti-aging pill.  Blackford: let's do it.

But let's not rush to (2).  (1) is interesting...and puzzling.

Up to age 75, Blackford says a 75/2 life will be just as happy as a 150/1 life.  No argument, it's just supposed to be obvious.  But how so?   Can it make no difference to happiness whether we have one child or two?

Also there's this: the 150/1 people will have no siblings.  Will that make no difference to happiness? (Happiness isn't really all that counts, as I argue here, but let's pretend it is to keep things simple.)

After age 75, Blackford assumes there will be just a small reduction in average happiness for the 150/1s.  He draws support from positive psychology research that shows that people in their 70s and 80s tend to be quite happy.   But how much can that tell us about what it's like to be 135?

At any rate, both Blackford and Singer assume that average happiness for 150/1s is a little lower than for 75/2s, because of that late life decline.  Maybe it's just 9 for 150/1s and 10 for 75/2s. Yet they both assume 150/1 is the better life.  Do the math, they say:  150 x 9 = 1350.  75 x 10 = 750.

It seems as if they must be using the right formula, but not necessarily. Suppose you are offered a gift of 150 good books (9 points each) or 75 great books (10 points each).  If you multiply, the total value of the first collection seems greater than the total value of the second.  Yet, it might be rational to choose the 75 great books, if that's the only way you're going to get Tolstoy and Dickens.

Likewise, it's perfectly reasonable to want the shorter life, even if it yields less total happiness. Why?  Because just like you want Tolstoy and Dickens, you might want the high highs you'd have with a second child and with siblings. 

I think 75/2 may be the better life.  So I don't have to worry about the conundrum whether a world of 150/1s should be preferred, since it contains better lives but fewer of them. It doesn't necessarily contain better lives.  But "what-me not worry?" (to mangle Alfred E. Neuman).   So (perhaps) more on that later.


Faust said...

On (1) I'll stick with my previous comment: it's a matter of taste.

Jean Kazez said...

To make things interesting, I think we ought to be imagining that everyone will become 150/1 or remain 75/2. That will push us to think as hard as possible about which life is best to produce. Yes, it could still be a matter of taste, but we won't want to leave it at that (unless we have to)...and even if it is, we will still have to decide whether to go ahead with the research.

It might even be ethically required that everyone either has the drug (or doesn't). I'm not sure we could really have a viable society in which there are both 150/1s and 75/2s. Obviously, they couldn't mate--making them (by the normal definition) members of two different species. They would have very different interests, so they'd have a hard time melding into one democratic society.

In any event--let's suppose the researchers are going to either leave us all 75/2s or make us all 150/1s. I certainly think Blackford/Singer are too quick to assume 150/1 is the better life.

Faust said...

I agree once needs to imagine that everyone will be forced to go one way or the other in order to make people think it through. But I simply think whichever way the decision comes down SOME people are going to be fully justified in saying: nope. doesn't work for me. Tyranny of the majority is inevitable here.

When I say "it's a matter of taste," I'm saying that I can't imagine an argument pushing for (1) that isn't ultimately qualitative and subjective. For example, you say:

"Because just like you want Tolstoy and Dickens, you might want the high highs you'd have with a second child and with siblings."

But that's a qualitative distinction that's not reducible to a numerical value. You sort of change the subject in there saying in one breath: "the 75 books are worth 10 points each" but then going on to say that some of them are "Toltstoy and Dickens," which in turn function as exemplars of the concept "great things not reducible to numbers."

Of course CHILDREN, our beloved little people, are paradigmatic examples of "not-reducible-to-numbers" in their value to us. They are unique and (hopefully) beyond and numerical value. (How much money would you take to give your kid away? Answer: GTFO).

But such qualitative valuations are radically subjective. My daughter is utterly precious to me. But to others she has the general value of: whatever they place in human children generally.

I DO agree that it's not obvious that 150/1 is better than 75/2 (though I'm not remotely surprised Singer thinks so, it appears I got at least that much right, but maybe not right on what's coming in (2)).

But that lack of obviousness is not going to something I would be willing to convert into a conviction that one or the other is ultimately "objectively" better. That's a bridge too far for a aesthetic relativist like me.

There are too many variables to consider anyway. What would a world with billions of perpetual 60 year olds be like? I don't know if my imagination is good enough to figure that one. I might have to wait till I'm 60.

Jean Kazez said...

I think I can explain the preference for the smaller book collection containing Tolstoy and Dickens while speaking in quantitative terms. I can just say 'tis better to have a collection that contains 10s, simply because they're 10s. There's nothing that says the collection as a whole has to be graded based on total points rather than on the number of high highs. "Best book collection" might just be a question of how many peaks, rather than how much total value.

Same goes for grading lives. Living a good life might be more a matter of peaks than totals, even assuming quantities of happiness are all that matters.

By the way--I kind of like the idea of a sci novel where everyone has to "select" at age 20--you become a 150/1 or stay a 75/2, thereby joining one "species" or the other. I see potential for all sorts of havoc.

rtk said...

Then there's the boredom factor. Been there, done that. Again? The joy of discovery wears thin on the umpteenth occasion. At age 75, it's weird having a 50 year old child; At age 150, your kid is 125? Spare me. At least let's hope mirrors get de-invented.

Jean Kazez said...

Oh come on, aren't your own kids' wrinkles going to be adorable?

Hmm...the mirrors might have to go in 150/1. Yes. I must remember that for my sci-fi novel about this.

Faust said...

"I can just say 'tis better to have a collection that contains 10s, simply because they're 10s. There's nothing that says the collection as a whole has to be graded based on total points rather than on the number of high highs. "Best book collection" might just be a question of how many peaks, rather than how much total value."

True. You can just say that. In particular I agree that "there's nothing that says the collection as a whole has to be graded based on total points rather than on the number of high highs." Precisely my point. There is nothing that says that. There's nothing that says it the other way either.

Some people might want a smaller collection of higher peaks, other might want a whole lot of lower ones. But there is, as you say, nothing that tells you which way to go. Optimally you'd experience both scenarios and then decide which one was more satisfying. Maybe a smaller timeframe experiment could be devised to test this. I'm not sure how though.

Is it better knowing one child for 100 years or knowing 2 children for 50? I have no idea how that question could ever be answered objectively. Wouldn't it depend everyone involved?

Important point: there are plenty of people out there that choose just having one child with things being exactly as they are.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, some people choose one child. Some people also choose none. But most have one and then go on to have more. I would assume that most people get a lot of happiness peaks from one child, and then a lot more from having the next and the next (as long as these children are chosen in a free and fully informed way etc etc). So if researchers decided everyone should become 150/1, there would be a reduction in happiness peaks for a great number of people. There would be just one utterly thrilling experience of the kid getting born, not two or three, etc. etc. etc. Just one "baby's first step" not two, etc. Clearly, some people will not suffer this reduction in peaks--the ones who wanted no kids or just one to begin with. But the majority will.

By the way, I'm focusing on peaks, not higher averages, because the positive psychology research does not in fact show that more children means greater average happiness. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that people have extremely satisfying and indeed euphoric moments as a result of having kids.

I teach a class where we talk about various possible graphs of lifetime happiness. I find that people value the peaks. They'll give up some total life-time happiness to have more of them. Not a scientific survey, but that's what I've found.

s. wallerstein said...

In reality, life cannot be calculated nor can anyone understand the value of an experience while one is living through it. Value is always an afterthought. While I can follow the arguments, on a deeper level, I don't understand what this conversation is about.

Wayne said...

I know I'm undermining the thought experiment here, but longevity doesn't equal long life. So they invent a pill that lets me live to 150. I might still die in a car wreck tomorrow.

I think this >HAS< to be taken into consideration when considering something like this. Now assuming that having siblings really does in fact make people happier (I'm not sure it did for me), it might stand to reason that we take the 75/2 option rather than the 150/1 option simply because on the 150/1 option represents a greater chance of being killed in a car crash (since I live longer). If my life time is going to be 75 anyways, then might as well have two kids running around instead of one.

Faust said...


I would say this is mostly an exploration of the kinds of intutiions we have about what makes people happy. Arguably it is radically oversimplifiying an extremely complex set of variables. That is in part my position, that this is not something we could reasonably settle.


"So if researchers decided everyone should become 150/1"...

This seems a key passage, and it's precisely what I protest. What? Are these researches going to come and tell me that what I really want after all is to live in 75/2? Conversely, would all the multi-children types be happy if the researchers promoted 150/1?

No matter which way you slice it significant numbers of people are not going to be happy with the outcome (of course the scientists will present them with all sorts of data showing them why this really is best for everyone after all).

I think your idea that we are dealing with "two different species" is the right way to go here. The notion that 150/1 or 75/2 is going to be the right option for everyone is not possible to demonstrate.

I absolutely think we can riff off interesting arguments for both being "good." But nothing that would show things should definitely go one way or the other.

One reason to go 150/1. What kinds of utterly facinating insights might we get when great minds are able to continue to accumulate vast ammounts of information. Example: If such a scenario came to pass we would still (likely, Wayne is correct that accidents could still happen) have Einstein with us. Not to mention all sorts of other facinating and intersting people. What would our knowledge base be like if our best minds were able to continue to accumulate knowledge over what are by current standards not just one but multiple lifetimes? (since for most people the first 15-30 years are just "warming up."

I have no idea but I'm inclined to think that such individuals might be able to experience new kinds of peak experiences that we can't even imagine.

rtk said...

No, JK, the first 15-30 years are not warming up for the greatest scientists; age 24 is often the peak year. By 100+ even Einstein would be a slobbering idiot, not even able to respond to a blog.

Looking ahead to 150 is a soft view based on fuzzy vision. How about a hard look back at what we know. If we could have 2 children and kick the bucket at age 37.5 or have one mere brat and make it to 75, what would we do. Easy.

Jean Kazez said...

I am reminded of whales. Bowhead whales can live to 150--maybe they wind up with vast, exciting memories, but they also wind up with lots of barnacles and scars. At some point it may just be better (from a God's eye view) to start over with a new whale. :-) No offense intended to any elderly whales who may be reading.

Faust said...

No, JK, the first 15-30 years are not warming up for the greatest scientists; age 24 is often the peak year. By 100+ even Einstein would be a slobbering idiot, not even able to respond to a blog."

I'm pretty sure I put in enough variables to cover this. I said "most people," and "15-30" allows that some people are "all warmed up" by age 15. So some people will be warmed up earlier or later (example of later: Jean Genet). I'm well aware that mathematical genius is primarily an early life phenomenon. Literary genius can be too. Have you read Sartre's diary entries at the tender age of 9? Sheesh. No wonder he had problems with nausea!

But I suppose your real point is that "genius fades" for mathematicans. That they "blow their wad" so to speak, and then they are done. This might be true for mathematical revolutions, i.e. they come up with the next pradigm shift and then they are done. But there are plenty of examples of cumulative knowledge as well, especially on the literary front. It's not like late Shakespeare is worse than early Shakespeare.

In any case "drooling idiot by 100" is ruled out by hypothesis. We are talking healthy and hale 60 year olds here. Plenty of brain power still available.

I'm thinking Einstein, regardless of his subsequent contributions to science, would experience some pretty intense pleasure seeing data come in on stuff like dark matter, black holes, and the general confirmation of his theoretical ideas over time. And total hapiness seems to be the criterion under discussion.

Other than that I like the way you slice through the gordian knot. 37.5/2 or 75/1? A no brainer.

rtk said...

Yes, wisdom comes with age as agility goes with youth. So the composer gets more profound as the musician becomes more clumsy. The author has more to write about and the physicist often gets rusty. But none of that would influence my decision to hang around. Fun is what I want. If I thought I'd have more of that with increasing age, I'd be all for it. But once the bus (even the short one)leaves without me, I've had it.

Kids are only a major part of the bargain for 18 years, so they're less significant as the age span increases.

s. wallerstein said...

Rtk: I'm 63, almost 64, and I had a lot more fun when I was 18.
Illusions are a good part of the fun, and as the illusions and the great expectations fade, the fun does too. By the way, if they invent a pill which allows you to live to 150, please please can it preserve me as I was at age 45 or age 50, not at age 63, with high blood pressure, chronic back problems, bad eye sight, lowered sex drive, swollen prostate gland, lowered sex drive, etc.

s. wallerstein said...

The fact that I wrote "lowered sex drive" twice is a Freudian error.
Smart fellow, Freud.

Jean Kazez said...

Ha--I read it as deliberate humor and thought it was funny. OK, let's tell the researchers we want to be preserved at 50, not at 60/70. Point well taken.

s. wallerstein said...

They made a big mistake wanting to preserve us in our 60's and 70's.
I don't know anyone over 60, who hasn't remarked: I've had so many strained muscles before, but this time it just wouldn't heal or
every winter I get the flu, but this time it wouldn't go away. By the way, the 60's is when you, who used to amaze people with your memory, begin to have that guy's last name on the tip of your tongue and you know it begins with "p", but you can't dig it out anymore.

Russell Blackford said...

Hi, Jean - thanks for blogging about this.

Re your latest post (the one after this one), I can't see how the 75-year life can possibly be better, as in more choice-worthy, than the 75-year-life with the same level of happiness PLUS another 75 years that are also happy (though not quite as happy as the first 75 years). No bizarre total view utilitarianism is required to prefer the second life. It's not like choosing between one Tolstoy novel and two novels by Swift. It's choosing between the Tolstoy novel by itself and both Anna Karenina AND Gulliver's Travels. Anna Karenina may be great, but I'd rather have Gulliver's Travels as well, than have only Anna Karenina.

So something odd seems to be going on when you have an intuition that the shorter life is better: I suspect it's some kind of socialisation to be averse to the "yucky" idea of radical life-extension.

Be that as it may, I really came here to make a point about the arithmetic. As I understand/recall it, it's not that you have to choose between one child and two. One child each will produce a shrinking population and eventual species extension, no matter how long people live. The choice is whether we double the ages at which women, on average, have children.

If the average, across the world, is now 20 years, it will have to become 40 years. Two (or so) children for each woman born will stabilise the population no matter how long people live. The point isn't to produce a smaller population at a given time in the 150-year scenario than in the 75-year scenario. It's to ensure that the total number of people born over a block of time is half the number in the 150-year scenario as in the 75-year scenario (since each person uses twice the resources). You do this by doubling the space from birth to child-bearing as well as the space between birth and death.

So if an average woman in one scenario has one child at 19 and another one at 21, the average woman in the other will have a child at 38 and one at 42. If she has one at 26 and one at 28, she now has one at 53 and one at 55. It's stipulated in the thought experiment that the technology will allow this.

I agree that this could itself have an effect on happiness, but it's not at all clear why the effect should be a negative one. It's not even clear to me that people who have two children are happier than people who have one, or those who are childless by choice. Lots of people think that having children will make them happy, but there's no evidence of this - it seems to be a socialised expectation from a pro-natalist culture. Indeed, there's some evidence that having children actually has the opposite effect. It brings joys and fascination, but these are outweighed by the anxieties, responsibility, and loss of previously-enjoyed freedom. People are happiest before they have children and after their children leave the nest.

Nor am I convinced that having children, or more children, produces more peaks of happiness. The anxieties, etc., have costs in opportunities to do other things that produce such peaks.

However, any evidence either way about any of this is weak, so it's better to factor out any assumptions about whether any kind of changed child-bearing patterns will themselves have an effect on happiness. Singer factors it out, and I follow his lead.

It's also necessary to factor out double counting - no use adding in factors that Singer has already taken into account such as the alleged "loss of freshness". Some of the other comments seems to involve double counting.

The Mark Walker article that I cite in my own article goes more into the empirical possibilities. Walker argues, pretty persuasively, that people would not actually end up being unhappier in the second half of their lives. They might be happier. However, I analyse the situation on the assumption that he is wrong and that Singer's assumptions about the situation are approximately right.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, I misunderstood. I thought the stuff about how we will "need to cut the number of births" meant births per woman. You write "it will be necessary to devise an appropriate policy to ensure that only half as many people are born." If people are already having 2 kids per couple (on average), there won't actually have to be any new policy, right? The infertile second 75 years will take care of halving the population. (Well, naturally infertile for women anyway).

So darn! We don't get fun issues about whether it's worth having half as many kids in order to have twice as many years of life. I was finding that awfully fun to think about.

It was entirely because I assumed people would have half as many kids that I assumed there'd be fewer peaks in the first 75 years. So that gets rid of one of my worries about the long life.

I do still worry about decreasing happiness in the second half. It seems to be there's something similar to "the repugnant conclusion" that arises when you total up happiness to asses a life. You wind up having to say a gigantically long life is better, even if the daily amount of happiness is tiny. So wondering whether a second (somewhat worse) 75 years is necessarily a good thing isn't merely a product of the "yuck" factor.