The Oxford Handbook of Population Ethics - Interview with the editors

If we can affect how many people will be born in the future, what does that mean for our decisions today? Would it be bad if much fewer people would exist in the future, as an adaption to climate change might need? Given that climate change will cause suffering for future generations, might we harm people by even bringing them into existence? These are some of the questions discussed in the newly published Oxford Handbook of Population Ethics. 

Many different perspectives on the ethics of how we affect future populations are brought together in the newly published Oxford Handbook of Population Ethics (Oxford University Press), an anthology edited by Gustaf Arrhenius, Krister Bykvist, Tim Campbell, and Elizabeth Finneron-Burns, all four working at the Institute for Futures Studies. Many of the featured chapters are also written by researchers at IFFS. 

Gustaf Arrhenius, director of IFFS and one of the editors of the book, describes population ethics as one of the biggest philosophical discoveries of the last 50 years. The question of how “the cake”, meaning the burdens and benefits of society, should be divided among society’s members had been the dominant question within political theory, moral philosophy, and economics up until the 1970’s. However, an underlying assumption for the different theories had always been that the number of people was fixed.  

Gustaf: What we realised was that we can affect how big the population is going to be in the future. So not only do we have this cake that we're going to divide up in the future – depending on what we do, there's going to be more or less people dividing up the cake. But not only can we affect how many people there are going to be in the future, but we can also affect who is going to exist in the future. Depending on what we do, different people are going to meet and have children. And this upsets all the classical theories in moral and political philosophy, and in economics. All our theories we had before were very incomplete because we hadn't thought too much about future generations. We always thought about present people.  

Elizabeth Finneron-Burns, researcher in intergenerational ethics and one of the editors of the handbook, describes one of the central questions of the book as how to value different possible populations. The question doesn’t just concern the number of people, but their quality of life. If we have possible future populations of different sizes and levels of well-being, which do we think are preferable? 

Elizabeth: And the second question is: knowing that information, what should we do about it? So rather than just asking for instance if it’s better to have more people than fewer, we ask what population sizes we should bring about. How should we think about what actions we take? 

One of the most famous problems within population ethics is the Non-Identity Problem. It presents some of the fundamental questions within the field, which concern how we should think about bringing people into existence. For instance, if you can choose between creating a person who will have a difficult life, but still worth-living, or another person with a very easy and happy life, most people would probably say that it is better to create the happy person. But better for whom? Is it better for the person with a difficult life never to exist at all? 

Elizabeth: There's a debate in population ethics about whether bringing somebody into existence with a life that is overall good for them benefits them. Some people think it harms them if some parts of the life are bad, some people think it's neutral, and we have authors in the handbook who defend some of these different positions. But when we make decisions that affect who in particular will exist, it also means that we're leaving some possible people out of existence in a sense. And so, another question in population ethics is whether we should consider those people when we're making our decisions and how we should think about those people.  

One classic theory within philosophy that is disrupted by the Non-Identity Problem is John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle, which says that individuals should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they don’t harm anyone else. 

Gustaf: It sounds like a pretty decent principle, but now consider two possible futures with the same number of people, but in one people have fantastic lives, in the other they have lives barely worth living. Depending on what we choose, the future will be the one or the other. Let's say we were careless, maybe we wasted resources, so the future turned out to be just people with lives barely worth living. We intuitively think we did something very wrong. But did we harm them? Well, there are going to be different people in these two outcomes. So then you have to ask yourself, can you harm somebody by creating them with a life worth living, even though it's just slightly worth living? That sounds absurd. So that means that according to the Harm Principle, we can do whatever we want in this case, and that seems to be the wrong conclusion. So that is an example of well-entrenched moral principles which go awry when you apply them to future generations. 

The subject can be controversial. When Gustaf Arrhenius wrote his doctoral thesis on population ethics, many associated it with the population control policies of repressive regimes such, as China’s one-child policy. 

Gustaf: It’s important to explain that it’s one question to discuss whether it’s better if there are more or fewer people and things like that, and a very different question to talk about the means to get there and reproductive rights. Of course, these are related questions. We actually have chapters about reproductive rights in the book, by Elizabeth Harman and Sarah Conly. 

Elizabeth: There are a couple of other ways I think population ethics can be controversial. So, if you don't think that there's anything wrong with leaving people out of existence and it doesn't harm them if they never exist, and if you also don't think there's necessarily any impersonal value in human lives generally, then you might want to accept that human extinction is permissible. There’s nothing wrong with letting the entire human race go extinct because who is it harming?  

Gustaf: And that’s a rather controversial view. 

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s controversial. Then, there’s also the other idea that if you accepted that you can't harm people by bringing them into existence if they still have lives just barely worth living, then you might also accept that there’s nothing wrong with all sorts of actions that we do. We don't need to mitigate climate change because that's going to create a whole different set of people who would never have existed if we had mitigated climate change. They should be happy, though we did nothing about it, because otherwise they wouldn't exist. That's a pretty controversial position, I think. 

The handbook is divided into three parts. “Part I: Ways Out of the Paradoxes” addresses some of the fundamental problems of population ethics and possible responses to them – classic philosophical problems such as the Non-Identity Problem, the Mere Addition Paradox, and the Repugnant Conclusion. In “Part II: Philosophical and Methodological Assumptions”, the problems and paradoxes of part one are scrutinized by looking at the underlying premises.  

Gustaf: Usually what you mean by a paradox is that you have these reasonable moral beliefs that you consider all to be true. But when you put them together, they contradict each other, so they can’t all be true. It shows that our most fundamental moral beliefs are inconsistent, which means that at least one of them must be false. This is very disturbing because a kind of dominant methodology in moral and political philosophy is that you try to find principles that are coherent. Then, of course, the sensible thing is that you should revise your beliefs, but the problem is that we don't want to give up any one of these beliefs.  

“Part III: Applications” is devoted to applying the theories and arguments to real life questions. For instance, in the chapter “Overpopulation and Individual Responsibility” Sarah Conly argues that states can be warranted in taking certain measures that prevent people from having a lot of children. Even though no individual child will be the cause of the damages of overpopulation, we all have a collective responsibility to prevent these damages. 

Elizabeth: But sometimes applied philosophy is not even making an argument for a particular policy, or even just saying what the pros and cons are. Sometimes the point is just showing that these questions in population ethics have an impact on these particular topics. Like for example Julia Mosquera's chapter “Disability and Population Ethics”. Some people may not have thought about how the Non-Identity problem affects what we think about disabled people and the wrongfulness of bringing them into existence and that sort of thing. So some chapters are just saying, you know, “here are some implications" without explicitly endorsing any particular policy one way or the other. 

The relevance of population ethics to political decisions is made evident by climate change in many ways. An issue related to Conly’s text is how we should think about individual emissions in relation to future generations.  

Elizabeth: There are some climate scientists that say that there's just nothing you can do to compensate for having a child, you're always going to be over your carbon budget if you have one. But then there's an interesting question of how we allocate emissions. I'm responsible for my emissions now, but to what extent am I responsible for my son’s emissions? And then if he's going to have kids, do I have to include them in my budget? And so on, and so forth down the line. These future people don't exist, and most possible people will never exist. So, leaving them out of existence, should we take that into consideration when we're talking about climate budget allocations, and distributing those rights and duties among existing people?  

The topic of whether or not to have children in light of climate change, and the moral implications of procreating when the consequences of global warming will affect and be affected by future generations, has made its way into the public debate in recent years. For anyone who is interested in knowing more about population ethics, Gustaf and Elizabeth recommend starting with the classics. 

Gustaf: The locus classicus is part four of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons from 1984. I still think it’s a very good introduction to the field. 

Elizabeth: And Parfit writes so clearly too. You don't need to have any background in the subject whatsoever to read part four and completely understand what he's talking about. But as far as I know, there is nothing like our handbook out there at all. There is no other volume that brings together all these different views. Not everybody in the book is even a population ethicist per se, some of them are just using population ethics ideas and applying them to common, urgent, practical problems.  

Gustaf: It's also published by Oxford University Press, which is the leading press in philosophy in the world. And that's because they felt they wanted to have something like this. And of course, since this is an anthology, it’s not going to be a coherent message. You get a lot of different people thinking in different ways about this. I would say, if you really want to know what population ethics is about, you should read part four of Reasons and Persons and then come to this anthology and you will get the frontiers of research. 

While the Oxford Handbook of Future Generations is an academic book, Gustaf and Elizabeth think that many of the texts can be read by people who are new to the field of population ethics. 

Gustaf: The introduction is excellent because it gives an overview or the whole field. 

Elizabeth: Yeah, that's what I was going to say. If you really don't know anything about population ethics, reading the introduction gives you a good lay of the land. I think a lot of the chapters are accessible to anybody, especially several chapters towards the end. Getting your feet wet with some chapters in part three is a good idea, and then you can deep dive. 

The Oxford Handbook of Population Ethics is edited by Gustaf Arrhenius, Krister Bykvist, Tim Campbell and Elizabeth Finneron-Burns, and published by Oxford University Press.