Most contemporary work in population ethics operates within the framework of welfarism – the assumption that individual welfare is the fundamental value. But this framework is a straitjacket, leading population ethics into a labyrinth of sterile paradoxes. Once welfarism is rejected, a vastly more plausible approach to population ethics becomes available.
The approach that I favour involves a kind of perfectionism at the level of society. Of course, the welfare of individuals comes into the story. But as I shall explain, it is by no means the whole story.
The fundamental principle for population ethics, I propose, concerns societies. (To fix ideas, let us assume that two societies are distinct only if there is no communication between them at any time. Thus, almost all human beings alive today belong to a single society in this sense.)
According to this fundamental principle, it is in a way intrinsically better for a society to endure for a longer period of time, so long as it improves, or at least does not deteriorate, in terms of certain crucial achievements and virtues. The society’s enduring longer, while improving or not deteriorating in terms of these achievements and virtues, is in this way better than the society’s either dying out earlier, or permanently deteriorating in terms of these achievements and virtues.
Roughly, for a society to endure, there must be a continuous transmission of knowledge and understanding, and cultural and institutional practices, from one generation to the next. Clearly, this knowledge and understanding, and these cultural and institutional practices, change constantly over time. But they change through a connected series of links, in which the earlier knowledge and practices exert an influence on the later knowledge and practices. (As I understand it, our society could endure even if we have no more biological children. The next generation could consist of artificial life-forms, such as androids. They would still be part of our society if they learn their first language from us, and so on.)
The crucial achievements of a society include above all the society’s intellectual, cultural, artistic, and athletic achievements. For example, the society’s intellectual achievements include its knowledge of the natural and social sciences, its technology, the understanding of history and philosophy that it contains, and the like.
The crucial virtues of a society include above all: justice, and effectiveness at promoting the common good. Clearly, if the average level of welfare in each generation is lower than in the preceding generation, the society will be deteriorating in its effectiveness at promoting the common good. So, unless there are compensating gains in the other virtues or achievements, it will not be better for a society to endure if its average level of welfare just constantly declines. (This, in my view, is the only role that individual welfare plays in the correct account of population ethics.)
This picture supports the conclusion that each of us has a reason to prefer outcomes in which our society performs better – partly through enduring for a longer, rather than a shorter, time – over outcomes in which our society performs worse.
As I see it, this reason is broadly similar to the reasons that each of us has to pursue various forms of individual self-improvement (to pursue knowledge, to develop and exercise skills and virtues, and so on). However, there are a number of key differences between the reason that each of us has to prefer our society to perform better and each person’s reason to pursue individual self-improvement:
- There is an enormous difference in value between (a) outcomes in which our society endures longer and improves in terms of these achievements and virtues and (b) outcomes in which it either dies out sooner, or deteriorates in terms of these achievements and virtues. This enormous difference in value generates a particularly weighty reason for each of us to prefer the former outcomes over the latter.
- This is a reason for each of us to have the same preference between these outcomes – whereas reasons of individual self-improvement are primarily reasons for each person to pursue her own self-improvement (rather than the improvement of others).
- The task of making our society better, in part through its lasting longer, is a task that can only be pursued by collective action: we must collectively raise children, organize schools and education systems, protect the environment, and so on.
Thus, we have compelling reason to commit ourselves to this grand collective project of getting our society to endure and improve. Doing one’s part in this collective project thus becomes a deeply moral issue.
This, it seems to me, is a much more plausible approach to population ethics than the dominant welfarist framework. A few philosophers – including Derek Parfit (in “Can We Avoid the Repugnant Conclusion?”, Theoria 2016) – have explored the prospects of perfectionist approaches to population ethics. But to my knowledge, no one has clearly articulated the social-perfectionist approach that I have sketched here.
Instead, the specialist literature on population ethics remains totally dominated by theorists who are wedded to welfarism — indeed to a broadly utilitarian tradition. These theorists endlessly strive in vain to make sense of welfarist comparisons between outcomes in which certain lives are lived and outcomes in which those lives are not lived. This is, in my view, a hopeless endeavour: the blinkered welfarist approach will never yield a plausible understanding of population ethics.Like