S. J. Beard, Partha Dasgupta and Natalie Jones have co-edited a special section in The Journal of Development Studies on population ethics and 21st-century demography. The papers in this section seek to break out of stale debates and false dichotomies in the field of population ethics by bringing together demographic and philosophical perspectives on population change and its relationship to global risk.
In their introduction 'Population and Ethics: Difficult Questions, Global Challenges', the editors argue that while many of the most pressing problems of our age relate to changes in human population; the issue receives little attention from academics, while public debate is often left to unconsidered opinion and ideological divides around ‘culture wars’ and the ethics of birth and death. They go on to consider the reasons for this and how they can be adressed by a more complex and nuanced understanding of the ethics of population. The remaining papers then offer four perspectives on this debate.
‘The Toxification of Population Discourse. A Genealogical Study’ by Diana Coole, seeks to understand how and why international discussions about population policy have undergone a cycle of growth, decline and resurgence since the emergence of widespread public awareness of the consequences of demographic change in the 1960s.
‘Population ethics for an imperfect world: Basic justice, reasonable disagreement, and unavoidable value judgements’ by Elizabeth Cripps, considers how to bring these three issues together from the perspective of ‘non-ideal’ political theory, and how policymakers can respond to the many different ethical considerations and viewpoints that are relevant to evaluating population policies and demographic change.
‘Government transfers to parents and population policy in a global perspective: An economic demographic approach’ by Martin Kolk, points out that the realities of the 21st-century population are inconsistent with a focus on demographic change in (usually poorer) countries with high fertility rates as the principal contributor to global population problems and that it is time to pay more attention to policy in low-fertility countries as well.
‘Population ethics and the prospects for fertility policy as climate mitigation policy’ by Mark Budolfson and Dean Spears, considers how effective population policies are likely to be in mitigating climate change, both in relation to their direct effect upon emissions and their indirect effect such as what how they might change the social cost of carbon.
While not offering a comprehensive account of how to think ethically about population change and its implications for sustainable development, it is hoped that these papers will shed some light on these difficult and controversial issues and provide a starting point for a more considered discourse. While the time for that debate may be long overdue – if it is to be had, then it is vitally important that it be done well.
Special Section: Population and Ethics in The Journal of Development Studies