Thursday, January 19, 2006

Over-populated Earth?

One of my best friends Ed thinks that it is unethical for Fabien and I to have a biological child. A very brief thumbnail sketch of his argument is as follows:

- The earth is currently overpopulated
- This is (and will continue to be) harmful for the environment
- Harming the environment will eventually make earth uninhabitable for humans
- Having a biological child increases the overall global population
- Therefore having a biological child is harmful to the environment now and in the long term
- Ethics is about not decreasing and if possible increasing the sum of human happiness
- Therefore doing harm to the environment is unethical because it will make a large number of humans unhappy in the future when they become unable to inhabit the planet. Though the happiness of future humans may be better expressed as what an economist would call an "opportunity cost" rather than an actual unhappiness (the never-born can't be unhappy).

This has inspired weeks of entertaining and stimulating debates.

Tell me what you think and mail me if you want to join the discussion!


ec said...

it's just a load of bull**** of course. Too simplistic to think of everything as just numbers or figures. (Not that I have anything against adoption.) Ed might as well tell you to stop driving cars/taking taxis etc and just start peddling your way around. better for the environment. and whilst you are at it, how about growing your own food and building your own shelter? The food you consume, the clothes you wear, the materials used to build your house, some part of the processes used to make these things would have been harmful to the environment. but i don't think you would be very happy going back to primitive such ways. So by all means, go forth and procreate. Ethics be damned. It's your happiness that matters anyway ;-)

Olivier said...

In a way I could agree, but I don't want to accept it...

Michael Low said...

If only everything were so black and white! No offense to Ed, but there are just so many holes to be shot into his argument! In the first place, it seems overly simplistic to define ethics as being about increasing human happiness. If this were true, it appears to be eminently ethical to eat as much as we like, procreate as much as we like, and live like there is no tomorrow!

S* said...

Not really Mike

His argument takes into account the happiness of future humans as well.

But perhaps I should do him justice (those bullet points are actually a very short summary of weeks of discussion); by putting up the original quotation:

"I agree of course that environmental matters are not the sum total of
ethics. As a coarse summary ethics is (in my view) to do with the sum
of human happiness. Human happiness is affected by the interactions we
have with individuals, whether positive or negative. But those are
short term compared to things that affect the long-term habitability
of the planet. In other words, (and again over simplifying) if I am a
cigarette company and I persuade someone to smoke and they are harmed
and eventually die, this is bad, but the harm generally ends within a
few years or so of their death. Burning fossil fuels is not like that
as the harm is ongoing, even though it is more nebulous and so harder
to "picture". So, in the long view, burning a tank of petrol may be
more harmful than randomly slapping a stranger in the face. Yet if you
do burn a tank of fuel you don't feel too bad emotionally because of
the gap between what is obvious to us (because we cannot see the harm)
and the ethical position. [edited for length]... I do not see how an inclination to do something is particularly relevant to whether doing it is or is not ethical. I suppose that it weighs into the overall happiness equation, but I suspect that making the planet uninhabitable is a bigger issue than having an unfulfilled longing for biological children."