Another question from the studio audience came to me through my web site. The questioner asked about the moral issues relevant to population growth. Among his comments, this reader wrote that it may be immoral to bring another child into this world, given the population problem.
On a desire utilitarian model, I would argue that a universal aversion to having children far too drastic. If this aversion were truly adopted and made universal, it would result in the extinction of the human race.
Think of a common storehouse with a limited amount of food. The village elders adopt a rule. Anybody with a bowl can take as much food out of the warehouse as they would like. However, those without bowls are not permitted to eat. Somebody comes along and says, “I can manufacture bowls for those who are starving, so that they can take food from the storehouse.” The village elders then respond, “We reject that idea. We do not have enough food to go around as it is. The last thing we need is for more people to be taking food out of the warehouse.”
Well, the village would have enough food if the gluttons were not taking it all. And there is enough room on the planet for everybody to have a small number of children, if it were not being overpopulated by people who have children by the dozen.
A better, fairer set of moral principles would be to morally condemn those who have large families. They are creating problems for everybody.
Desires, Fulfillment, and the Raising of Children
I think that it is reasonable to believe that humans evolved a number of natural desires associated with helping a child become a successful adult. There is certainly reason to suspect that evolution has nudged our natural dispositions in ways that favored desires to have a child and raise it to an adult that is capable of raising a grandchild to adulthood. There is reason to suspect that a prohibition (or installing artificial barriers for people) to have a raise a child of their own is far too desire-thwarting to be any good on average.
A law of diminishing returns suggests that, in general, a parent will obtain less desire fulfillment from their fifth or sixth child, than another parent will receive from their first or second – in the same way that a person will get less value from his fifth helping form the common warehouse than a neighbor will receive from his first. So, if we are going to promote desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others, an aversion to large families, like an aversion to gluttony – as well as a desire for more equal distributions – are easily defended. There is no sense in a system that denies that one group of people have any children while others have as many as they want.
The glutton who takes extra food from the common storehouse does not create for me an obligation to quit eating. Instead, he creates a reason for people generally to meet him with condemnation and punishment to promote an overall social aversion to the type of behavior the glutton engages in.
Changing Value of Desires
This gives me an opportunity to mention an important element of desire utilitarianism – the possibility that moral values change over time. They do not change over time at the whim of those who believe them; this turns out to be irrelevant. They change over time in the sense that changes in one’s environment make malleable desires more or less likely to fulfill other desires.
Let me illustrate my point with an example not related to ethics.
Our biological ancestors, living as animals at the mercy of their environment, probably benefited from a taste for high-calorie, high-cholesterol food and a biological tendency to store extra calories consumed at one point of time as fat to consume at another point of time. This allowed our ancestors to survive famine, drought, and blight. Those ancestors who lacked this preference for extra high-calorie food were more likely to end their family line the next time the weather turned against them.
However, we (at least most of those within eyeshot of these words) find ourselves in a different environment where the next meal is nearly guaranteed. We still have a desire to consume extra high-calorie food. Unfortunately, it is everywhere to be found. This leads to obesity. This, in turn, leads to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and a host of other desire-thwarting physical conditions.
The value of the desire to eat large quantities of high-calorie food has changed over time. It has gone from being a good desire, to a bad desire – a desire that we have reason to inhibit if we could. In fact, a large amount of economic activity goes into even crackpot scams claiming to have found a way to inhibit these desires.
The same may well be true in the case of family planning.
In our primitive past, societies may well have had reason to promote a desire to have and raise as many children as possible. Such a village has more men to be warriors to defend the town. It could benefit from more specialization and trade, with craftsmen performing specific jobs to the point that they could become true experts and masters of efficiency. It would allow the community to take advantage of certain economies of scale.
As such, these people may well have had more and stronger ‘reasons for action’ for promoting large families, for encouraging women to value childbirth and child-raising, and for condemning options that did not contribute directly to procreation. Its “desires that tended to fulfill other desires” might well have included a desire to have as many children as possible.
However, that was a time when there was plenty of resources, and peoples’ effect on their environment was small. The addition of one more person to the community provided for more good (brain power, muscle power) than bad (crowding, pollution).
There is room for dispute as to the severity of the population problem. Yet, large segments of the population now limit their birth rate, either voluntarily (the United States and Europe) or under compulsion (China). It is at least prima facie reasonable to assert that we would face some tough times if the whole population of Earth was still producing children as rapidly as it used to.
We now have ‘reasons for action’ for promoting smaller families. Desires that we once had ‘reason for action’ to encourage with praise, we now have reason to treat with condemnation for the parents’ selfishness and disregard for the problems that they are contributing to. This ‘aversion for large families’ can be promoted in part by encouraging women in particular to find value in other activities – in work, in politics, in engineering, in chemistry, in writing, and in other activities. We now have ‘reason for action’ to say that there is nothing wrong with the woman who wants no child, or one or two.
It is not reasonable to expect that we have the power, or sufficient ‘reasons for action’ to inhibit the desire for sex itself. It makes more sense to promote a desire for safe sex and an aversion to forms of sex that result in unwanted pregnancy and disease. We have a far stronger ‘reason for action’ to promote a desire for intimacy with birth control than to promote an aversion to intimacy itself.
As our environment changes, the desires we have ‘reasons for action’ to promote or to discourage also change.
Here, I need to make a careful distinction between two different ways in which our moral attitudes may change. In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how increased information can help us to realize that things that we once thought were permissible (we once thought we had ‘reasons for action’ to promote) such as capital punishment may be things that we have ‘reasons for action’ to inhibit. In these cases, morality does not change, but our understanding of the real world changes our understanding of what we have ‘reasons for action’ to do.
In today’s post, I am talking about morality (not our understanding of it) actually changing – of desires that we have ‘reasons for action’ to promote in one environment come to be desires that we have ‘reasons for action’ to inhibit as the environment changes. In this case, it is not our understanding of morality that changed, but morality itself.
An objective morality does not require that moral principles be unchanging over time, any more than an objective physics requires that the speed of an object remain unchanging over time.
Another Problem with Religious Ethics
In nature, the malleability of our desires has provided us with a useful benefit. With it, we are easily adaptable to different environments. As the environment changes, we are capable of acquiring new desires that fit our behavior to that environment.
If you mold a square peg out of metal, then it can only fit in a square hole. If there is no square hole of the appropriate size for it to fit into, then it is to be discarded.
If you mold your peg out of some flexible material capable of taking many shapes, then it can fit in many different holes. The odds that it will find a fit (and not thereby be discarded) is much greater.
It is not unreasonable to hold that this explains why humans have evolved to have malleable brains – with the shape of our beliefs and our desires molded by our interactions with our environment.
Morality that is made dependent on scripture robs us of this advantage. In theory, scriptural morality was perfectly correct when it was created, and its principles are supposed to be valid in all cases. Scriptural morality seeks to turn morality into the iron peg.
That peg was designed and carved by people who were substantially ignorant of the world around them. They designed their morality with an understanding of psychology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, optics, biology, climatology, weather, mathematics, logic, engineering, fluid dynamics, and pre-history worse than that of many grade school students today. They carved their morality pegs with only fragmentary knowledge (some of it wrong) of the holes that it must fit into.
Yet, even if we assume that, at the time, they managed to carve a perfect fit between the morality pegs and the environment in which they lived (an assumption that is laughably absurd), it is still the case that the last think we need is a set of rigid morality pegs that does not recognize the fact that our environment changes over time. With change, the tendency of different desires to fulfill or thwart other desires also changes.
Morality based on scripture is much like a traveler, with only the most crude map of the territory from Los Angeles to New York, writing down the precise directions of his road trip. Those directions describe how far he will travel, in what direction, when he will turn, his new heading, his speed, and all other elements. Then, he paints the windows of his car black, and he starts the trip. He refuses to look out the window and study the real-world situation he is driving through, because he insists that the original directions written in substantial ignorance must be flawlessly without error.
This is an insane way to proceed from Los Angeles to New York. In terms of ethics, it is an insane form of moral philosophy, to hold that the principles laid down by primitive tribesmen must be without error and will work equally well in an over-crowded, technology-driven modern society as in the loose collection of herdsmen where it originated.