PY 4826, Life and Death

Population Ethics


The non-identity problem


Which particular future people will exist is dependent on when the procreation takes place.


It follows that the following actions and policies do not make anyone worse off: teenage pregnancies, the women with condition K who conceive a child with a handicap, depletion of resources.


The people born as a result of these actions or policies would not have been born at all, if an alternative action or policy had been adopted. Therefore, assuming they have lives worth living, they are not harmed by the policies.


Parfitıs conclusion:

We should reject the view that an outcome can only be worse if it is worse for someone, and that we only act wrongly by making a particular existing person worse off.


We should instead adopt the following principle: ³If in either of two possible outcomes the same number of people would ever live, it will be worse if those who live are worse off, or have a lower quality of life, than those who would have lived² (p.360).


Two possible utilitarian explanations of this alternative principle:


i. Impersonal: we have an obligation to do what would maximise net happiness.


ii. We retain a person-affecting view of morality, according to which all our obligations are obligations towards particular persons, but accept the claim that people can be benefited by being born. We weigh up the potential benefits to different actual and possible people, and choose the act that benefits people most. We can reject the problematic policies on the ground that the alternative policies (postponing pregnancy, and conservation) would benefit people more.


Kavkaıs explanation:


iii. An obligation not to do what would lead to restricted lives.


iv. An obligation not to misuse oneıs reproductive powers.


Are persons benefited by being born?


A first line of difficulty is revealed by arguing that all benefits are implicitly comparative:


            To be benefited by getting G is to be made better off by getting G.


            Better off than what? Better off than you would have been had you not received

            G (while everything else remained equal).


            But had I not been created, I would not have existed.


            Therefore, there is no state of me, had I not been created, to compare with how

            Well off I am, given that I have been created.


            So it doesnıt make sense to say that I am better off than I would have been had I

            not been created.


            So it canıt make sense to say that I am benefited by having been created.


A non-comparative view:


The most straightforward reply to this is to deny that the only way to make sense of what it is for me to be benefited by receiving G is by comparing the state I am in when I have G with the state I would be in if I lacked G.


Instead we can just say this:


If I receive G, and G is good, then I am benefited by receiving G.


There is a strong case for thinking that life is good for most of us.


Therefore, on the non-comparative view, there is no problem in saying that we are benefited by having been created.


What is required for receiving a good?


Or is there? The talk here is of receiving a good.


But a good can only be received if there is a receiver of the good who exists independently of it, and who is available to receive it.


But before I have been created, I donıt exist.


So there is no person available to receive the good of being created,


Therefore, being created still cannot be a benefit.


The Simplest View:


So is looks as though, if we are going to avoid this problem, we had better avoid talking about receiving a benefit.


            But there is a simple alternative. Why not just say this? ­


            If I have G, and G is good, then I am benefited by G.


            Now we have no problems with my non-existence before I was created.


            At every time I am alive, I have the property of having been created.


            If my life is good, then having been created is good.


            Therefore, I am benefited by having been created.



Parfitıs ³Same Number Quality Claim² seems to give us a sensible principle for guiding our decisions between different future outcomes in which the same number of people would live.


But what about decisions between outcomes in which different numbers of people would live?


In particular, what about decisions in circumstances where we know that having more people will mean that they have a lower quality of life than the people in an alternative outcome in which there are fewer people?


How do we trade off quantity against quality?



The total welfare principle:


If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which there would be the greatest quantity of whatever makes life worth living.


The Repugnant Conclusion:


The impersonal total principle implies that for any given population, every member of which has a very high level of well-being, there will be some much larger number of people such that their existence with lives barely worth living would be better.


The average welfare principle:


If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which there is the highest average quantity of whatever makes life worth living.


The Adam and Eve example:


            The average principle could imply that it was bad that Adam and Eve had children.


The lexical view:


            There is discontinuity in value between a flourishing life and a life barely worth living.