Tag Archives: population ethics

John Broome

Total and average utilitarianism are very different theories, and where they differ most is over extinction. If global warming extinguishes humanity, according to total utilitarianism, that would be an inconceivably bad disaster. The loss would be all the future wellbeing of all the people who would otherwise have lived. On the other hand, according to at least some versions of average utilitarianism, extinction might not be a very bad thing at all; it might not much affect the average wellbeing of the people who do live. So the difference between these theories makes a vast difference to the attitude we should take to global warming. According to total utilitarianism, although the chance of extinction is slight, the harm extinction would do is so enormous that it may well be the dominant consideration when we think about global warming. According to average utilitarianism, the chance of extinction may well be negligible.

John Broome, Counting the Cost of Global Warming, Cambridge, 1992, p. 121

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek & Peter Singer

Even if we think the prior existence view is more plausible than the total view, we should recognize that we could be mistaken about this and therefore give some value to the life of a possible future—let’s say, for example, 10 per cent of the value we give to the similar life of a presently existing being. The number of human beings who will come into existence only if we can avoid extinction is so huge that even with that relatively low value, reducing the risk of human extinction will often be a highly cost-effective strategy for maximizing utility, as long as we have some understanding of what will reduce that risk.

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek & Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, Oxford, 2014, pp. 376-377

Nick Beckstead

[E]ven if average future periods were only about equally as good as the current period, the whole of the future would be about a trillion times more important, in itself, than everything that has happened in the last 100 years.

Nick Beckstead, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future, doctoral dissertation, University of Rutgers, New Brunswick, 2013, p. 67

John Broome

A few extra people now means some extra people in each generation through the future. There does not appear to be a stabilizing mechanism in human demography that, after some change, returns the population to what it would have been had the change not occurred.

John Broome, ‘Should We Value Population?’, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 13, no. 4 (December, 2005), pp. 402-403

C. D. Broad

Among the things which we can to some extent influence by our actions is the number of minds which shall exist, or, to be more cautious, which shall be embodied at a given time. It would be possible to increase the total amount of happiness in a community by increasing the numbers of that community even though one thereby reduced the total happiness of each member of it. If Utilitarianism be true it would be one’s duty to try to increase the numbers of a community, even though one reduced the average total happiness of the members, so long as the total happiness in the community would be in the least increased. It seems perfectly plain to me that this kind of action, so far from being a duty, would quite certainly be wrong.

C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory, London, 1930, pp. 249-250

Yew-Kwang Ng

[T]he real per capita income of the world now is about 7-8 times that of a century ago. If we proceed along an environmentally responsible path of growth, our great grandchildren in a century will have a real per capita income 5-6 times higher than our level now. Is it worth the risk of environmental disaster to disregard environmental protection now to try to grow a little faster? If this faster growth could be sustained, our great grandchildren would enjoy a real per capita income 7-8 times (instead of 5-6 times) higher than our level now. However, they may live in an environmentally horrible world or may well not have a chance to be born at all! The correct choice is obvious.

Yew-Kwang Ng, ‘Happiness Studies: Ways to Improve Comparability and Some Public Policy Implications’, The Economic Record, vol. 84, no. 265 (June, 2008), pp. 261-262

Carl Sagan :Carl Sagan:human extinction:population ethics:

Some have argued that the difference between the deaths of several hundred million people in a nuclear war (as has been thought until recently to be a reasonable upper limit) and the death of every person on Earth (as now seems possible) is only a matter of one order of magnitude. For me, the difference is considerably greater. Restricting our attention only to those who die as a consequence of the war conceals its full impact.

If we are required to calibrate extinction in numerical terms, I would be sure to include the number of people in future generations who would not be born. A nuclear war imperils all of our descendants, for as long as there will be humans. Even if the population remains static, with an average lifetime of the order of 100 years, over a typical time period ofor the biological evolution of a successful species (roughly ten million years), we are talking about some 500 trillion people yet to come. By this criterion, the stakes are one million times greater for extinction that for the more modest nuclear wars that kill “only” hundreds of millions of people.

There are many other possible measures of the potential loss—including culture and science, the evolutionary history of the planet, and the significance of the lives of all of our ancestors who contributed to the future of their descendants. Extinction is the undoing of the human enterprise.

Carl Sagan, ‘Nuclear War and Climatic Catastrophe: Some Policy Implications’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 62, no. 2 (Winter 1983), p. 275

Jan Narveson

Some people should not have been born; and as there are other people whose existence is a good thing, we may say of the that they, in the same sense, “should have been born”; though of course they were, and it is not a point of much practical importance so far as it concerns the individual the desirability of whose birth is in question. Hitler should not have been born, Churchill should have been born, and there are other cases where it is debatable—though I admit that all such questions, are, as we say, “merely theoretical”. What I am claiming is that, if we regard ‘Hitler’ and ‘Churchill’ as proper names, Hitler’s mother and Churchill’s mother could not have presented themselves, prior to their conception, with sensible questions of the form, “ought we to give birth to Hitler?”, “Ought we to give birth to Churchill?” The latter appear to be parallel to, “ought I to spank Adolph?”, “Ought I to spank Winston?”; but they plainly are not.

Jan Narveson, ‘Utilitarianism and Future Generations’, Mind, vol. 76, no. 301 (January, 1967), p. 64