Thursday, January 04, 2007

Family Planning

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.

The Storehouse

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding to my message about population growth. I agree that universal acceptance of the idea of non-procreation would lead to human extinction, but as shocking as it sounds, that arguably isn't necessarily a bad thing. For an eloquent and detailed defense of that position on a purely altruistic and moral basis, you can read the website for VHEMT (pronounced "vehement"):

Realistically, I don't expect the VHEMT idea to be universally accepted, and since the "V" is for "voluntary" it rules out the idea of forcing it on anyone (because that would be immoral), but that doesn't mean encouraging non-procreation couldn't be the right thing to do, if you accept certain premises that may or may not be true.

Exotic invaders are non-native species which cause tremendous environmental damage when they are introduced to an area where they have no natural predators and are able to overconsume and drive other species to extinction. Mankind is responsible for most if not all exotic invaders (starlings in North America, rabbits in Australia, rats and deer in New Zealand, to name a few), and it could be argued that humans are the worst exotic invaders of all, causing mass extinctions on every continent we reach, on an order similar to that of a major asteroid impact.

Our population growth has been staggering. We went from .6 billion in 1700 to 1 billion in 1800, to 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6.1 billion in 2000. Now we're already closer to 7 billion. Exponential growth that relys on finite resources is a recipe for disaster.

Ronald Wright wrote: "'Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up.' The collapse of the first civilization on earth, the Sumerian, affected only half a million people. The fall of Rome affected tens of millions. If ours were to fail, it would, of course, bring catastrophe on billions."

If peak oil predictions are correct, then we could soon use up the remaining oil that is needed to plant, harvest, and transport our food supply, not to mention produce the fertilizers and pesticides that are currently required to grow enough food to barely feed the billions on earth today. Without oil, it's possible that the earth could support only about 1 or 2 billion, which would mean a dieoff equivalent to 1000 holocausts.

Speaking of starvation, I think there's a flaw in your analogy between gluttony/not-eating and overbreeding/non-procreation. I can choose (and have chosen) to have no children, but I can still enjoy living out the rest of my life pursuing other desires. My non-existent potential children don't suffer either. Choosing not to eat, on the other hand, would be painful and would severely limit my potential enjoyment of the rest of my life.

If someone honestly believes that we are headed toward an overpopulation disaster which could leave the planet unable to support human life and many other species, wouldn't it be immoral not to try to educate others about the problem?

I'm sure a lot of these ideas sound ridiculous to most people (yes, I read your article about ridicule). That doesn't necessarily mean they are incorrect, though. I would be more than happy if I could see good evidence that contradicts the premises behind this argument, and I'm actively searching for proof one way or the other. In the mean time, I'm glad that I'm not contributing to the potential problems by adding another human being's lifetime of consumption and waste.

I look forward to reading other people's thoughts on this topic. Thanks again for addressing it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

My typical response for those who advocate human extinction is, "Okay, go ahead. You first."

see my posting "The Human Virus" where I discuss

Such a view requires the assumption that non-human nature is intrinsically good and, as a result, humans can only destroy that which is intrinsically good.

Intrinsic value does not exist. This view is no more sensible than dying to please God.

Besides, the Earth will some day become a lifeless planet. The only hope for the species of Earth is that we move off of this planet, and we take some of them with us.

As for the issue that starvation may break the analogy - eating helps prolong individual survival, while procreation provides one with genetic survival. The importance of each to an individual depends on his desires. Value exists only in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

(The person who chooses not to eat need not choose a slow death. He has other options available as well.)

I have argued that overpopulation may argue for the condemnation of those with large families. And even more than 1 child may be considered 'large' depending on the whether the desire for more will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't aware of your earlier article about VHEMT, but I searched your site and found it at: (The link you posted is just to the main page of your blog.)

I'm not sure I agree with all your reasoning, but that article gave me a lot of food for thought, and it helped me understand your concept of desire utilitarianism better.

Let me see if I follow your argument. If the fulfillment of human desires for having babies causes the mass extinction of many animal species, then the only unethical impact is that the last survivor of each animal species is thwarted in their desire for a mate and companionship, because they lack the ability to comprehend the end of their own species? What about all the human-caused animal death and suffering that led up to that last survivor of the species? I suppose if any living humans cared about the species enough to desire their continued survival, then it could be unethical to take actions that end up thwarting that desire.

What about human-caused extinctions that end up making the planet unfit for human life? For example, if the pesticides required to feed the billions of humans on the planet end up killing off the beneficial insects, bacteria, and other organisms that make the soil fertile, then the result of overpopulation could be involuntary human extinction, or at least a massive dieoff with a great deal of human (and non-human) suffering.

You didn't really respond to my questions about whether it's unethical to contribute to overpopulation if you honestly believe it will lead to a catastrophic collapse of civilization. Or is it ethical to just shrug our shoulders, ignore evidence we don't like, and proceed to produce descendents who are doomed to suffer that fate after we're gone, just because we have a strong desire to raise a child with DNA similar to our own? (By the way, I'm strongly in favor of adoption if possible, for those who want to raise children.)

I think we have a responsibilty to educate ourselves about these issues, even if it means changing our plans to have children, because blindly procreating could cause a great deal of suffering. Wouldn't it be epistemically wreckless to form your opinion of overpopulation in such a way as to rationalize your preconceived (so to speak) notion that it must be okay to have one or two children?

There are two categories of members of VHEMT, "supporters" and "volunteers". The volunteers agree that humans are incompatible with other life on earth and the population of humans should be reduced to zero, while the supporters feel that we could possibly live sustainably at a greatly reduced population, but that the addition of even one more human being cannot be justified at this time. I can see that your ethics based on desire utilitarianism would exclude you from becoming a volunteer and encouraging others to do the same, but I don't see why desire utilitarianism couldn't lead a person to become a VHEMT "supporter" for the sake of the human race.

If you agree that "overpopulation may argue for the condemnation of those with large families. And even more than 1 child may be considered 'large' depending on the whether the desire for more will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires.", then if the problems caused by overpopulation are severe enough, and you know that many other people will continue to breed regardless of those problems, then the ethical thing to do would be to have zero (more) children yourself, and encourage others to do the same. Isn't it just a matter of the scale of the problem at this point?

Again, I look forward to your response.

beepbeepitsme said...

Great post, ty.

Moby Dick said...

Obese Children are becoming an epidemic! Where are the parents?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I would not argue that there is no obligation to have children. Indeed, I have no children. The decision to have children is a matter of moral permission, not one of obligation.

Furthermore, desire utilitarianism is a theory that abhors moral absolutes. Certainly, there are situations where it would be morally impermissible to have a child. Imagine, an interstellar craft that takes generations to reach the next star system. Occupants have discovered a bug in the program whereby, if the population should reach 25,000 people, the ship will self-destruct. Such a society would have reason to promote desires that keep the population a safe distance below this number.

A person who believes that the Earth itself is such a spaceship, and that it is approaching a point of self-destruction (or even a milder 'collapse' that involves extreme suffering without total destruction) would be as justified in asserting limits to growth as his belief that the planet is facing such limits.

There is a possible situation in which desire utilitarianism could argue for human extinction. If, for example, each child born spent eternity in something like the classic conception of hell, desire utilitarianism would argue for desires that brought about the extinction of humans.

In theory, desire utilitarianism may lead to these types of conclusions. However, it does rule out some arguments that may be used to try to defend these conclusions - such as the intrinsic value of nature (which does not exist, and provides no real-world reason to do anything).

Remove these intrinsic-value arguments, and base decisions on desires, it seems reasonable most probable that there should be some set if desires compatible with a sustainable, optimal population on Earth. (This is actually a tautology, since an 'optimal' population is one that, itself, is most desire-fulfilling. The point being that 'optimal' is more than 0 and less than 50 trillion.)

Also, I intentionally spoke of the population on earth.

If one were to take the asteroids, mulch them up and make space stations out of them, we could create the living-space equivalent (by some estimates) of 50,000 earths. The material in the various moons of the solar system, kupyer belt, and oort cloud, add significantly more living area. We have room to grow, if we choose to make use of it.

And none of this involves the destruction of any forms of life. If Mars has life, we can leave it alone. If not, we can break it into chunks as well and create even more living space.

This suggests ways in which even the human population on earth may be able to reach extremely high numbers without catastrophy. If the asteroids can hold a population of 50,000 (unmodified) earths, what can one earth hold?

So, yes, in theory desire utilitarianism may suggest that the human race become extinct - but not on any reasonable set of real-world assumptions. It may argue for population reduction, even on real-world assumptions.

In theory.

In fact, I do not think that those assumptions are true (yet).