Optimum Population and Environmental Constraints–A Utilitarian Perspective

Published on 17 March 2022


Whilst In the Utilitarian tradition of Henry Sidgwick, population ethics is to be considered through the expectation of the sum of utilities of all who are ever born. This work is unsuited for application to the world we have come to know for at least two reasons. Firstly, it takes as its subject the choice to  be made by an “objective social planner”, to whom the interests of everyone are equivalent. Secondly, it takes as its object an entirely idealized notion of  well-being that is neither derived from any particular source nor bounded by any particular constraint. In reality, our ethical theories should extend into realms in which decision-makers are not objective planners, but subjective agents, and where well-being has to be derived from consuming the resources of a finite planet.
In this paper, we seek to amend this utilitarian model by altering the way individual well-beings are aggregated by decision-makers so that they reflect the conditions that are faced by those whose decisions have the greatest impact on demographic change, namely parents and prospective parents. Next, we put this theory to work on a more realistic notion of well-being that takes account of the biosphere's ability to supply humanity with goods and services.
Finally, we begin what appears to us to be the crucial next step in applying utilitarian reasoning to global population ethics by addressing some of the issues that may explain differential fertility rates around the world, including different approaches to property rights to natural resources, different ethical assumptions about the value of children, and the unequal distribution of resources. However, we conclude that there are reasons not simply to let these differences stand, but rather to use ethical insights from our model and from elsewhere to advocate for changes that are likely to be in the long term interest of humanity.

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