Saturday, November 03, 2007

Aggregate Impacts Matter

No Right Turn writes:
Demographers at Waikato University's Population Studies Centre say that unless New Zealanders start breeding more, New Zealand's fertility rate will slip below replacement level. And? I don't actually see why this would be a Bad Thing. Or why a growing population would be a Good Thing. Or indeed, why this should be any concern of government (or indeed anyone) at all.

Our fertility rate is an aggregate of people's individual reproductive choices. And those choices are fundamentally personal and the sole domain of the individuals concerned. It is no business of government how many kids I or anyone else has. It is no business of government whether any of us breed or not. Government simply has no legitimate interest in what goes on in our bedrooms, or in whether those activities result in children or not. It is simply None of Their Fucking Business.

That can't be right. It would clearly be a bad thing if the entire human race died out, for example. It's logically possible that the aggregate impact of individually permissible personal choices would have disastrous consequences for the world at large. If so, we have a legitimate interest in taking collective action to avert disaster or create a better world, and that's what politics is for. We all might reasonably agree to structure the general institutions of society so as to incentivize socially beneficial choices, e.g. to replenish the dwindling ranks of humanity. This can't plausibly be denied in principle.

In practice, of course, there are plenty of grounds for objection. For one, world population does not appear to be excessively low. So if some nations want to increase their local population, they should allow more immigration. (Cf. adoption.) And I assume NRT is worried about setting a bad precedent or 'slippery slope' for social conservatives to start meddling in personal lives in a more intrusive way. My point is just that as a matter of principle, our liberal individualism should not be so extreme as NRT's above. It's not really true that state interest in the individual sphere is absolutely illegitimate. Despite NRT's fears, we can draw a principled distinction between, say, saving the human race and persecuting gays. (Really.) The hard work is discerning the precise borderline. The absolutist can avoid this hard work, but only at the cost of being, well, you know, wrong.


  1. It would clearly be a bad thing if the entire human race died out

    Predictable but worthwhile rejoinder: bad for whom?

  2. I think the decline to 0 population in itself would be a bad thing because it would involve a sort of social decay - a little like how having as many children as possible would cause things to fall apart.

    So - I agree with Richard as usual that concequences matter and they matter in this case, although I think matters get a bit confused for the '0 population' scenario.

  3. Robert - surprisingly, perhaps, a state of affairs can be bad without being bad for anyone in particular. See my post Badness Without Harm.

  4. I don't dispute that the extinction of the human race would be bad for people who are alive during the process of extinction, and of coure no one, individually, wants to die. But I'm hard pressed to see why it matters if the human race, as a whole, continues?

    I think I'm trying to say something other than that there can't be badness without harm. Clearly, if there are no humans around, there are no people to be harmed. However, why would it be bad if there were no more humans? Is it bad that people die (or have died) in the past? Maybe the way people die is bad, or how they die, but is the pure fact that they die bad? I don't think so, and so I don't think that taking the aggregate of people who die or have died (i.e. humanity as a whole) could be bad.

  5. Mathew - it would be bad for a world to have no humans because human lives have value, and it is bad for a world to lack things of value.

    (It may or may not be bad that people die. But it is certainly good that they exist at all. So it is bad if no more are born to replace those that die.)

  6. Richard,

    I think it would be safer to say that the world would be less good, not bad.

    But, even that I question. Look, why can't people have the sort of value that does not call for creation, production, etc... It is a value that ought to be respected when found, but not a value that calls for any sort of making. I take it that even if bringing twins into the world were no more burdensome than bringing into the world a single baby and there were no problems with resources, etc... taking a pill that causes a twinning does not make the world better than it would have been with just the one baby. If that is so, why not say that the first baby does not make the world better either?

  7. Heh, I hadn't realized what a controversial claim I was making!

    Doesn't it seem overwhelmingly intuitive that it's good for the world to contain (good) lives? If you also intuit that an additional good life adds no further value to a world with a billion already, then that would just seem to suggest that the value that lives contribute to a state of affairs is not simply additive. Plausibly, value is more holistic than that. Speaking loosely, what matters is the general shape of the world. Adding one to a billion does not make the world a more beautiful shape. But a world with a person is surely more beautiful than the void.

  8. Average utilitarianism seems to resolve most of the examples you give and still suggest that the end of humanity could in principle be perfectly okay. The one you gave in your "Badness without Harm" article is resolved because the average happiness is increased in the world where the mother waits until she's ready to have kids, while it still allows for the destruction of the human race to be a morally neutral event because abscence of human lives neither increases nor decreases the average. (Although I suppose if one believes in a sort of long term human progress, then keeping humanity around for longer would increase the average happiness because people in the future would be happier than people in the past, thus upping the average as well as the total.)

    That said, I agree with you that the end of humanity certainly can be a bad thing even under this sort of metric. Because the human race would not die off all at once, there would be some group of people who would end up being "the last survivors," and it is reasonable to suppose that these people would have a rather unpleasant life. (Of course, there might also be more immediate problems with a negative population growth rate, such as the fairly standard example of an aging population putting stress on welfare programs.) Thus, it is not immediately implausible that forcibly keeping the birth rates up could be done for the sake of preventing people from having misery later on, even if the end of humanity itself is deemed a morally neutral event.

  9. Aside from the value or disvalue of human extinction, how can a government not have the right to encourage or discourage population growth within its borders? The State has an interest in, among other things, preventing foreign invasion, maintaining or acquiring a certain degree of power on the international stage, and promoting the economy and general standard of living within its borders. Obviously there are limits on what it can do in pursuit of these goals, but as long as the government isn't being overly intrusive, it seems like it could legitimately encourage people to have more children, if it thought this would promote, say, national defense, or economic well-being.

  10. Yeah, that's a more practical way to develop the argument.


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