Population Puzzles

While I was away, Peter Singer had an interesting essay about the most basic of questions at The Stone.  Should we make new people?  The question has harder, harder, and hardest versions.

Hard.  Are there already too many people?  Have we already exceeded earth's "carrying capacity"?  What's going to happen as we get to be a population of 9 billion in 2050?  (I've been reading Matt Ridley's new book, The Rational Optimist, and he--surprisingly--says "nothing awful.")

Harder.  Whats costs and benefits to ourselves and others should we pay attention to when we decide whether or not to have children?  Take, for example, Japan's effort to encourage reproduction by paying people to have more kids.  Presumably, the reason behind the policy is that new people are needed to support an aging population. Would it be bad if the financial incentive entered into someone's decision to have a child? Should reproductive decisions be purer than that?  

Hardest.  Do you (typically) "do good" by making a child--directly, with respect to the child?  Singer summarized David Benatar's anti-natalist reasoning but didn't embrace it.  (Benatar says you don't do good, and in fact you do bad.)

Here's a little thought experiment that's plaguing me.  Suppose there's a remote and bounteous island.  Just 100 people live there, though it has a carrying capacity of 1000.  They can (1) not reproduce, so die out, or (2) reproduce so as to replace themselves, or (3) reproduce so as to increase their population. 

When they ask the hard question, they see no obstacle to any of the options.  When they ask the harder question, they see no obstacles either.  Their desire for children has nothing to do with kids being good at climbing trees, and providing them with coconuts, as it might be.

But they ask the hardest question too.  They want to be sure that by making children they are doing good, not bad--directly, with respect to the child. A simple soul says--we 100 are thrilled with life, despite our occasional problems.  Yes, we occasionally step on a sea urchin or get a sunburn, but the good by far outweighs the bad.  Collectively our existence is A Good Thing to the tune of X units.  If we double our population, the new population's existence will be an even better thing--to the tune of 2X, to be exact.

Their reasoning seems impeccable.  It certainly seems to show that option (3) is permissible.  The trouble is that it seems to show more than that. It seems to show that (3) is obligatory (and (2) "next best"). There's the rub (and this rub is pivotal in Benatar's anti-natalist argument).  Is there any way to stop the slide from (3) being permissible to (3) being obligatory?  If not, is it so bad to think (3) is obligatory?


Unknown said...

Their logic may be sound, but only if they do so without consideration of the bigger picture--the need for resources, the effects on other species and the ecosystem, and so on. In addition, they are assuming that every aspect of life at they know it as a small population will be replicated exactly as the population grows. Even on a small island (but especially over all of the Earth), this is certainly not to be taken for granted. Just recall Lord of the Flies and how a small population divided into inter-warring clans struggling for power, control, resources...

Given we have seen what an unsustainable growth in population can do in the case of homo sapiens, and the terrible tolls this inflicts on all life, I also feel pretty confident saying that no matter how sound their reasoning may be in the vacuum of logic, in the practical sense, in the real world, they are in for a lot of trouble if they just go at it like rabbits...or like humans, I should say.

By the way, I really love your blog, Jean. I came across it recently...I appreciate your concern for animals and philosopher's approach to this and other issues.

Ed said...

The problem with (3) being obligatory is that it seems to require us to produce as many children as biologically possible. If it is morally obligatory to double my household population isn't it thereby obligatory to triple it if I can, or quaduple it? How about 12-fold it?

And as Justin indicates, once the carrying capacity of our island is reached, further increases may eventually result in a situation where a larger population actually decreases the overall good.

Jean Kazez said...

Justin--Glad you have discovered and like the blog.

Re: having more and more and more kids. We're to assume the islanders DO think about the carrying capacity of their island. So at most they're going to think they're obligated to fill it to capacity--which means the total population should reach 1000. It seems like the reasoning which shows they're permitted to do that also shows they're obligated...which is certainly odd and puzzling. I don't think that reasoning is going to show they should keep on going after that, having as many kids as the possibly can.

Unknown said...

Jean, you make a good point, if the islanders know and stop at their limit. But while the a priori assumption that life is "good" is fine in itself, in reality that can turn out to be very wrong. What if a person ends up being miserable, islanders turn out to be horrible parents, etc. Or what if some folks just do not want kids--folks like me who have no desire whatsoever to reproduce. Would obligatory reproduction then not be a decrease in my quality of life?

And even if they stop at 1000, that is still not to say that a larger population size will be a good in itself. As we know, real life is so interdependent and interconnected that, as the saying goes, one bad apple can spoil the bunch. What if one of those obligatory children is another Hitler?

Wayne said...

Well there are some practical implications of 2... When we hit our population cap, who gets to reproduce to replace the dead? Its easy to think that we can always keep a population of 1000 in a thought experiment, but the how of this would seem to violate some sort right that the people on the island have (reproductive rights, or the principle of equality will need to be violated. If X can reproduce, and there is nothing that qualifies X to be the reproducer over me, then I should also have X's right to reproduce).

But to 3... Why is something being good, make it obligatory? Surely, there are things that are supererogatory. Judith Jarvis Thompson, discussing abortion, suggests that having children is exactly that, supererogatory.... If it is supererogatory, then we can just say that it would be really great for us to do, but those who choose not to do it, are not doing anything bad.

Faust said...

I was thinking what Wayne said.

Aeolus said...

Perhaps there's a fallacy in thinking that twice as many people leading good lives is twice as good a thing. Perhaps it's not any better at all. That's because, barring God or a Master of the Matrix, there's no one who can experience more than one person's life. Yes, the sum total of good experience is double, but actual experience can only be of one life.

So, with a nod to Tom Regan, let me propose the "better-off principle":
"Special considerations aside, when we must decide to bring into existence many or few, and when the good experienced by any of the few would make them better-off than any of the many would be, then we ought to bring into existence the few."

Suppose that we can bring into existence a litter of puppies or a normal human baby. Indeed, let the number of potential puppies be a million. If it comes to a choice, we should choose the one normal human baby, even if the aggregate good experienced by the dogs would exceed the good experienced by the human.

Although I have yet to work this up into a Major Philosophical Treatise (I'm too busy watching the World Cup), I think it also follows from the better-off principle that, other things being equal, 1,000 good human lives are no more of a good thing than 100 good human lives.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, If there's no obligation to do good, not only is utilitarianism false, but so is a more pluralistic view that says that among our multiple duties is a duty of beneficence. You might want to say there's only an obligation to prevent bad, that among our duties is only a duty of non-maleficence, but it seems weird to treat "good" and "bad" so differently.

Aeolus, But wait, even if you reject aggregation, once you say that creating one baby is doing something good, shouldn't you say that the more times that happens, the better? So the islanders are under some pressure to make not 0 or 1 or 100, but 200, etc?

As to the "better off principle"--we're assuming here that life on this island is wonderful, and will be wonderful for 100, 200, or 1000 people. You only start getting decreases in wonderfulness once there are 1001 people, because they start running lower on resources. Then your better off principle could kick in and explain why the islanders should limit themselves to 1000. (But how intuitive is that? Must I really have just one child, if I know that second and third children are always just a tad less well off?)


Re: world cup. Aeolus, I thought of your post about baseball when there was that bad call in the England game yesterday. Interesting question--the goalkeeper must have known England had scored. Did he have a moral obligation to say so?

Aeolus said...

Was the German goalkeeper facing the right way to see the ball before it bounced back out to him? (I've checked on YouTube and it's not clear to me.) But Thierry Henri of France knew he had handled the ball that resulted in a goal that eliminated Ireland from qualifying for the World Cup. He said nothing until it was too late. There are numerous cases of baseball, football, or tennis players saying nothing when an official makes a bad call in their favour. I think that's wrong. I suppose if you look upon your sport primarily as a commercial enterprise, you may feel your first duty is to the shareholders and the teammates who may suffer financially if you lose the match. But then you'd be engaging in a shady business practice, and cheating your opponents out of what is rightfully theirs.

The United States were the victims of a bad call that denied them a goal. Not only did the referee not apologize later, but my understanding is that he refused even to say what the alleged infraction was! By contrast, the umpire in that baseball game apologized to the pitcher as soon as he became aware of his mistake. Soccer and baseball both take the interesting position that gross errors of officiating should not be corrected because to do so would be to take the human element out of the game. To err is human, therefore...

chigio said...

I'm under the impression that utilitarianism is not compatible with the idea of supererogatory acts. If something is better, then you ought to do it. Utilitarianism always requires the best.

So if doing something is good, then not doing it is bad. I think this is the root of Benatar's paradox (but I still haven't read his book), because it clashes with our moral intuition about procreation.

So, I can see three possibilities

1) utilitarianism is wrong

2) utilitarianism is actually compatible with supererogatory acts

3) benatar is correct

I'm sure Singer has many better ideas, and it would be interesting to see him really attack the problem (that article was pretty weak I think).

Having said that, I don't think that treatment captures the problem of having kids.

Life can be great or miserable, and very likely a combination of both, and its outcome depends on a multitude of variables that no parent can control.

Even if I think my life is great I believe other people have the right to think their life is miserable, and I don't see why I should impose my view on other human beings.

Having kids is then, at best, a benevolent gamble with other people's life. Even if there are good odds of winning (under whatever criteria), what right do we have to gamble with this?

I'm still of the opinion that if I'm responsible for A and I know that A causes B with 100% probabily, then I'm also responsible for B.

Since life causes death with complete certainty, I think that being responsible for the creation of a new life also means being responsible for his/her death. In this sense I think parents are responsible for the death of their children. Sounds very harsh, doesn't it? But I think it sounds harsh only because we have some innate optimistic bias towards these things (and there are good evolutionary reasons for that!), and we fail to accept life in its entirety.

chigio said...

and in case you missed it, here's Singer's follow-up to his own article


Faust said...

Re: Chigio's comments:

It doesn't sound harsh, it sounds wrong. Life CAUSES death? I'm not sure I can pull anything coherent out of that assertion. For one thing, I'm not clear what "life" is. Also, I would like to know how "life" causes death.

I can see the court case documents now: The subject was pushed out a 5 story window. Cause of death? Birth.

That's not to say that there is nothing in the suggestion that parents, by having children, knowingly initiate the creation a being that will one day cease to be, but to say that parents cause the death of their children seems a missuse of language.

Wayne said...

Hmmm.... It doesn't have to violate the duty of beneficence if it requires of us an awful lot (this point is debatable). Having children completely alters our entire life and life plan. Children being supererogatory is consistent with non-maleficence.

I really have to finish Reasons and persons.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, You asked "why does something being good make it obligatory?" I was just saying you'd better not throw that out entirely, or you'd have to reject not only utilitarianism but any theory that recognizes a duty of beneficence.

Will read all the other comments tomorrow!

Aeolus said...

"Birth, I decided, is not pleasant. It is worse than death; you can philosophize about death – and you probably will: everyone else has. But birth! There is no philosophizing, no easing of the condition. And the prognosis is terrible: all your actions and deeds and thoughts will only embroil you in living the more deeply."
-- Philip K. Dick, We Can Build You

chigio said...

@Faust: on the "life causing death" issue. The life of a human being is a biological process that ends with the death of the individual.

When such process is set in motion death is, as far as we know, an inescapable consequence.

As the bullet leaving the gun is causually connected to me pulling the trigger, so is my child's death is causally connected to me bringing him into this world.

(actually guns might not work, but we all die).

They're both end points of the process I set in motion. The actuals details of how the bullet is propelled (chemical energy transformed into pressure ...) and how the person dies (cancer, pushed out of a window, "old age") are not really important. We can always break down physical processes into an almost infinite series of concauses, and there is a difference between saying that something is a cause and that something is the *only* cause. So your fictional "court case" is really not useful here.

The fact that firing and death might be unintended/undesired consequences or side effects (maybe I just have an insatiable desire for pulling triggers, I don't really care about shooting) does not shield me from my responsibilities.

Unknown said...

@chigio: Life "causes" death in more ways than just because it is the inevitable termination of life, or because someone fires a gun and kills another being...though it might be more accurate to say that life requires death, just as death requires life. All life lives upon, or at least involves, death in some way--from the bacteria and microbes we kill in our bodies (immune systems) or the animals and plants we eat, to the fact that living things naturally die and then become food (as decomposed organic matter) for other living things like plants. In addition, if life were not balanced by death, that would violate the second law of thermodynamics--since life is an ordered state of low entropy (which to be maintained has to take in, consume, other forms of energy).

And I still am not convinced that #3 is morally obligatory, nor that it proves utilitarianism completely false. My main problem with it, leaving the topic of individual rights of conscience aside, is that it assumes the theoretical conditions of a perfect happy state will hold in practice, which is an unreliable assertion. There is no definitive way to say what conditions will be like, and what unexpected factors will arise, over time and as population increases. Instead, I would say that the 1000 "happy" number should at most be an upper limit for population size, beyond which--if conditions hold as population grows (or not) on its own--the people will not go. That way, there is no moral obligation other than to avoid surpassing a maximum and does not paint the society into a corner if conditions change while they race to 1000.

chigio said...

@Justin: I agree completely, but you're not really tackling my point (assuming that's what you wanted to do). I will say the obvious, but the death of my son is not necessary. It is contigent to his being born. Once you are born then you will die, but your existence is not a necessity.

So if you decide to have a kid, you decide that this unnecessary death is ok, and (from an utilitarian perspective) that it will be balanced by the good in his life.

The problem is that while we can all be sure there will be death and some amount of suffering in our lives, we cannot be sure there will be enough good to offset that.

We can make an educated guess about the probability of a war/ecological collapse/etc. happening in the next 70 years, but those are things incredibly difficult to predict, and that's why I said that having a kid is, in the best case, a benevolent gamble with someone's else life.

We can also question if we can use in such estimate a "most likely" scenario, or a "reasonable worst case". I am under the impression that when I make choices for myself it makes sense to use a "most likely" scenario to evaluate pros and cons of my choices, but that when I'm forcing my decision unto another person (or maybe just a "possible" person?) I am required to use a more stringent "reasonable worst case" scenario, kind of a Hippocratic "First, do no harm" principle.

This might be similar to Regan's "worse-off principle", where the miserable life of one child is not compensated by the happy life of 50 others.

I admit I'm not completely convinced of the above, and I will need to read Parfit one of these days, but I think the reasoning makes sense and I would like to see someone clearly discuss those issues.

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus--I thought the goalkeeper was facing the right way but I could be wrong. I think coming clean would have added a noble element to the game!

Chigio--I would also like to see Singer really attack the problem, and agree he didn't (which may be the reason the comments were such a mess).

Faust said...


As you say, the central concern is that by creating a life, "we can all be sure there will be death and some amount of suffering in our lives, we cannot be sure there will be enough good to offset that."

So the problems are: DEATH and SUFFERING, insufficiently balanced by good.

Leaving aside issues of causality, which I remain uncertain about but I think that would get deep in the weeds, I realize that my issue is that death is being portrayed as a negative.

But I do not think there is anything particularly positive or negative about death qua death. The issue is that when we think of death, we think of suffering: the suffering of anxiety in the face of death, the fact that death often occurs under conditions of violence, and if not violence, then pain.

So really the ONLY issue is suffering, since it is not clear that death presents any problems in and of itself, but only to the degree that it frequently occurs under conditions of suffering.

It seems fair for example, to say that some people "die happy." Having fulfilled their obligations/projects, die in little pain, and so forth. But that many many more die in terror, or pain or what have you.

So it comes down not so much to death per se, but the uncertainty of whether or not the suffering in a life will be outbalanced by the good in a life. If correct, then the question of death is a bit of a red herring, though most of your argument/concerns remain intact since clearly suffering is a predictable problem.

Though perhaps not admissible to Jean's thought experiment.

Unknown said...

Faust, you make some great points, all of which I agree with. Even if one lives a "good life," there will be suffering; the question is in the ratio of suffering to happiness, I guess. Death is always there.

But to return to the thought experiment specifically, one aspect that has not been addressed so much is the welfare of others besides the population. While hitting 1000 may be super for them, that will inevitably increase the suffering of the other inhabitants on the island, as well as the ecosystem and natural resources. Say the people eat tree sloths as their main staple...well, the more people there are, the more tree sloths are going to be killed and eaten. They surely would have something to say about that! I suppose a society of vegans would avoid the suffering of other sentient beings but not escape the resource question. And sorry if this is changing the subject!

chigio said...

eh, I wonder if my points were complete rubbish and people were kind enough to remain silent ...