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Often times we come across conundrums and other dilemmas that veer into a volatile territory, where it is imperative to be nuanced and tactful in your observations. The topic of population ethics would probably be a prime example of such a topic that we need to tread lightly with. While some may surmise that my caution is unfounded and a byproduct of the slippery slope fallacy of logic. However, it is important to be responsible with our assertions and to gingerly navigate and address potential ramifications. While I believe we should be cautious of the dangers of overpopulating the Earth, we cannot let such apprehensions should not be manifested in public policy. That would be a catastrophic failure as a free western democracy to do as such. In regards to procreative quotas and limitations that should never be dictated by the state, but ascertained by private individuals. Abhorrent policies such as the former One-Child policy of China, which was relinquished in 2015, not only inhibits personal freedom but also leads to a plethora of other moralistic and social issues. Such as issues in regards to child abandonment and litany of other problems [1].


While China’s past attempts of implementing draconian population control measures are harrowing, does that mean that the topic of population ethics should be evaded at all costs?  Treading down the slippery edge of that treacherous slope, it is really easy to speculate the horrid policies that could be justified and implemented for the sake of population control. One particularly grisly example would potentially be enacting policies that would advocate euthanasia of marginalized populations. This may be a bit of stretch, however, it is our duty to consider the worst possible scenario prior to purporting any claims. For the record, I want to state that, the government should not put any restrictions on the number of children an individual can have. However, I would personally strongly encourage everyone to consider the adverse consequences of overpopulation. We live in environments that only have a finite amount of resources and space to live comfortably and save lives. The planet’s resources are at this time in human history, non-sustainable. If we do not have enough resources to sustain the current human populace is continuing to have more progeny the ethical thing to do? When planning our families, should be contemplating the potential quality of the futures of our unborn children? Potentially, if there aren’t enough resources to go around, their mere existence and attempts to meet their basic survival needs would be undue suffering in of itself. While rash and serve policy is certainly not the answer, we certainly should not shutter away for this topic either.


One of the core paradigms for addressing such ethical considerations is known as the “Repugnant Question”. Moral philosopher Derek Parfit came to the assertion that:

“For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living” (Parfit 1984)” [2]


Parfit’s observation illustrates the core issue that I am grappling with, how to do we address the abject misery of those who have the “lives that are barely worth living”. I do not take a fixed position on the moralistic aspects of the Pro-life versus Pro-choice dichotomy, as I find both sides to have very compelling points. However, for the stanch dyed-in-the-wool Pro-lifers, I really want to seriously question the notation that all life is worthwhile or is a blessing. If you are subjected to the atrocity that is death by starvation due to a lack of resources, is that form of existence really the divine blessing that it seems to be? That is an abominably painful and horrific way to die. How can you consider that a blessing in any way? I am not advocating abortion, however, what I am saying is that for those who live horrifically terrible lives due to lack of planetary resources, what do we do for these people? Also if there are individuals that are suffering in this manner due to for example food storage, can we just start a family? While we as Americans may not be directly suffering from such conditions now, our consumption of resources is only exacerbating the issue.  It could be said that under such circumstances it may be morally base and irresponsible to have children, considering the harm it is inflicting upon others.



Just a little bit of background in regards to the source of the article, reassurance that the information provided came from an academic source versus a conspiracy theorist. The Population Ethics: Theory and Practice project is one that is being conducted by the philosophy faculty at  Oxford University.  From what I can surmise from their website the goal is to bridge the gap from the moral concerns to potential solutions for addressing the very real and pressing issues of overpopulation. With proper nuance for the complex and multifaceted nature of this leviathan of an issue. Essentially the below excerpt from their website details their key objectives for this project.

“Many believe that the world is currently overpopulated. The thought is that the planet’s capacity to provide food, water, energy, materials, and simple living space, in addition to current artificial infrastructure, is being stretched far beyond optimum usage by the sheer number of people currently alive, with detrimental consequences both for the long-term capacity of the planet to sustain life and for the quality of life of those who are expected to live in the meantime. This is so to such an extent, the thought continues, that it would be better, all things considered, to reduce world population.

This view has been common in the public sphere since at least the publication of Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb.  But it raises deep and difficult philosophical issues: which population size is optimal depends not only on the empirical facts concerning the impact of population size on quality of life, but also on the right way to trade off the intrinsic value (if any) of adding new people to the population against the impact on existing people. Making such trade-offs requires, more generally, the identification of the correct population axiology: a ranking of states of affairs in terms of goodness, where the states of affairs in question differ not only in the quality of life that people enjoy but also in the number of people who will ever exist.

The two most obvious population axiologies are averagism and totalism, according to which the goodness of a state of affairs is represented by, respectively, the average or the total well-being of those who exist in that state of affairs. Dissatisfaction with these theories has led to a vast proliferation of alternative axiologies, but no consensus has emerged.

The motivations for the project are threefold. First: in light of several impossibility theorems – mathematical results that seem to show, for a variety of collections of intuitively compelling assumptions, that no population axiology can satisfy all of those assumptions – the time is ripe for reassessing the absolute and comparative merits of the various candidate axiologies. Secondly: there are many discussions in practical ethics and public policy that are crucially affected by underlying axiological assumptions, but the assumptions are usually unexamined. Thirdly: the practical stakes are high. It is impossible to take a stance on such important problems as climate policy or healthcare prioritisation without making controversial assumptions in population axiology. ” [3]





I would strongly suggest that all of my readers more interested in learning more about the topic of population ethics to visit their website: http://www.populationethics.org. Personally, I feel that this project is an excellent attempt to find a reasonable resolution to the challenges of population ethics. However, we are far from even coming close to a solid solution. Due to all of the potential contingencies and variables that it would entail to completely unravel this conundrum, the odds we will never have a complete solution. If we could find a solution to address one aspect of this massive undertaking it could be considered a major on-road. Such a Herculean task would be overwhelming futile if we take on as a whole. Due to the number of considerations, taking it on as a whole would neglect the subtleties and sensitivities related to the topic.


However, I would like to stress that I would never recommend or suggest that a government at any level should enact policy that places quotas or other prohibitions on the number of children an individual can have. So while the state cannot dictate to us, however, we need to be more mindful of the role we play in regard to the deficits of planetary resources. While the planetary population is only one of the many variables putting stress on our resources as a whole, it certainly is a contributing factor. Contemplating the ethical consideration of having children and the way it could potentially impact this problem, you are taking steps towards being more responsible.  Through thinking about the impact our individual actions have on other complex systems we embark upon the road of taking more responsibility.

2 thoughts on “Population Ethics

  1. Reblogged this on Opher's World and commented:
    Overpopulation is, in my opinion, the biggest problem facing mankind. It lies behind many of our other problems – environmental devastation, mass extinctions, world poverty, unemployment, mass migration, terrorism, drought, climate change and war.
    It is time that we looked into ethical ways of controlling it and put aside this ridiculous mantra of growth at all costs. Putting profit before common sense is not intelligent.

    Liked by 2 people

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