Sunday, October 21, 2012

The dilemma of population ethics

What's population ethics?

A while back I read through this excellent introduction to population ethics:

Popluation Ethics is about how to make ethical decisions that affect a whole population.

For example, if we introduce contraception to a starving country and this raises millions out of poverty by preventing the conception of millions of children, is that good or bad?

As the above link points out, we don't have a good answer to that question.  I've been trying to answer it for several months now, and haven't gotten very far, even after cornering half a dozen philosophy grads.

One standard approach to population ethics, adding up all the utility (or happiness) of all the people in the population, suggests that the population would be better without contraception -- even though they're still miserable, there are more of them, so their combined small utility outweighs the greater happiness of the much smaller population they'd have with contraception.  In fact, by this rule, a billion absolutely miserable people would be considered better off than a million happy, healthy people.

The opposite standard approach, of using average happiness instead of sum total happiness, favors contraception, since we divide total happiness by the number of people.  So the smaller nation full of happy people is considered better off.  But this too fails -- this rule would hold that a single, utterly ecstatic person would be better than a million happy people.

Population as a single organism?

But I think I've finally come across a useful approach: model the population as a single organism.  This opens the door to a lot of metaphorical reasoning using the tools we use for ethical questions about a single person.  (Of course, as always, we still have to check whether the conclusion still makes sense for the population, but at least it gives us a place to start reasoning).

Instead, what if we consider the population as a single organism?  We don't consider a 500 pound person healthier than a person of ideal weight, nor do we amputate a leg just because you have a weak knee (thus raising the average health of your remaining limbs).  

So far, that's pretty promising -- it looks like we can avoid the huge+miserable and the tiny+ecstatic problems the standard two approaches have.  So how should we answer the contraception question?

Well, how do we normally evaluate the health and value of an organism?

  • Life expectancy
  • Degree of impairment or illness
  • Interaction with its environment
These seem relevant to our contraception question:
  • Life expectancy: Does the smaller, wealthier country with contraception have a better chance of surviving in the long term than the larger poor country?  Probably, if they don't go overboard and stop having kids entirely.
  • Impairment/illness: This seems like the best approximation to poverty and hunger.  It's better to be small and healthy than huge and sick.
  • Environment: It's easy to miss this with the standard approaches, which tend to focus on the happiness of the individual.  But we immediately see the problem of a big elephant in a small cage, or a lion in with the lambs.
My favorite aspect of this approach is that it favors moderation: populations that have good prospects of long, healthy life.  Too big creates environmental and health problems, while too small makes you more likely to get eaten or stepped on.


I like this idea, but we should probably also consider the drawbacks.  The biggest ones I can think of are that the approach could tend toward fascism, and that it could be used to excuse genocide.  

Fascism is a risk because we don't normally worry about the rights of individual cells in our bodies; the whole is what's important, not the parts.  This is a real risk, and we saw it go badly for the countries that have tried it.  In a more general sense, though, most countries espouse the notion of eminent domain and other principles that allow the state to override the desires of an individual.  And we kill or sequester individuals who pose a threat to the well being of others.  So perhaps fascism is the same risk to a population that blind hedonism is to an individual -- in some sense the organism is seeking its own good, but damage to the pieces that make up the whole is deadly in the long run.

The risk of justifying genocide is related: the idea that if your right hand offends you, cut it off for the good of the whole.  Here again I think the problem lies in theory vs. practice.  Proponents of genocide in history always claim that the targeted population is hopelessly corrupt and dangerous, which has always been untrue.  But the more abstract principle, that certain people or groups are too deadly to be left alone (whether these are invading armies or serial killers running free), seems generally accepted.


I never thought I'd be the kind of guy to say "What we really need here is a philosopher!"  But it's really true; real, practical problems like how to handle foreign aid and what kinds of charity to support are rooted in population ethics.  I'm not sure how well my approach will hold up in the long run, but I like that it's something that doesn't immediately lead to absurdities.

What do you think?

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