Monday, September 28, 2020

Reading List Preview: Population Ethics

One interesting topic is population ethics. Ethics can talk about the question of "how to make a given existing population most well-off?" Maybe you have 100 people in your population who are very happy. Now consider, should one of you have a baby, and extend the group's size to 101? Will that new baby live a good life? If it's good enough, then you will probably say, "sure, why not?" It seems prima facie good to have one more person exist, if its life will go well. That's population ethics, asking the question of whether there should be more (or the same amount of, or fewer) people, morally speaking.

Intuitively, I tend to want to say "if we have 10 billion people on Earth, that's plenty, let's just stop there and be content with that number of people, and make things sustainable and actually good for everyone". Actually, I'd be content if there were only 1 billion people, if we got to that level of population through a well-managed demographic transition (as opposed to war, plague, famine, etc.) Maybe, whatever population level there is is fine with me. But I wouldn't be as fine with the people who do live not living lives full of true well-being.

Both intuitions, of expansion and contentment, make sense to me. And they go against each other.

So I want to do some readings about population ethics. Here is a reading list from the EA Forum. I may read through it all and write up my thoughts.

Since these are philosophy papers, I think I'll try to repeat the technique mentioned here: read twice, the first time a "light read", the second time more seriously.

I've read part of the first, Population Axiology, paper. Here are some questions and thoughts, going into this:

1. Is there a rational way to decide how large a population should be? If not, then we are in a situation where we have to decide without a right answer.

2. Questions of moral philosophies affecting population-ethical views:

a. Hedonism lends itself to having more and more. Preferentialism can lend itself to that but also can lend itself to saying "everybody got what they wanted, so we don't need any more." With preferentialism, there's a question of "what should people prefer?" The answer to that might answer the question "should we want more and more, or should we be content?" Or we could say that there's no good or bad preferences. Then we wonder what random preferences humans might have, and how they might tilt toward more or fewer people.

b. What about fiducialism? Is fiducialism a "more and more" thing ("adventure", as in the Fiducialism booklet), or inherently about connecting with what is ("mission", or "receptivity to reality")? "Mission" is itself about the reality of people. This lends itself to saying "connect with the reality of existing people". But then, couldn't it lend itself to saying "there ought to be more people", to whose reality one could connect? So that's a hole in fiducialism to try to fill.

c. What do people mean to us? Are they to be seen economically, or in some other way? And given the answers to those questions, how strict should we be in making ourselves live according to economic thinking?

There's some ambiguity as to whether we regard people as wealth or as something else. If people are merely wealth, then we can be content to have less than maximal wealth. But if it's altruistic for the sake of other people to bring them into existence, then we are morally compelled to create them. (Or is there another way to look at people, other than "wealth" and "beings (or prospective beings) to whom one has moral responsibility"?)

It may be more humane to look at people in a non-economic way. Even if in some economic sense (utilitarian, for instance), they would be better off if we were in the economic mode, to really see people as people requires us to leave that mode, and thus to sacrifice some of our do-gooding. This could shift our intuitions away from "maximize the number of superhappy people", make it less obviously a good thing to pursue.

3. What might population ethics look like given the God of MSLN?

a. God had some reason for creating people in the first place (unless there is no reason). Does this mean that in absence of a defeater, he will never stop creating people?

b. Would God value having more and more for its own sake? Is God a slave to maximization?

Interesting question: what is maximization? Is it some "thing" that demands that we do certain things? Or, as a reification, is it merely whatever it cashes out to? In other words, is it that maximization says "I demand that everyone have the best life possible", or is maximization simply our response to the reality of a set of existing people and what kinds of lives they could have?

c. Are people created new, or is there a fixed supply of people created once and for all at the beginning of time, which God then brings into consciousness during their time in history?

Possible answer: We are called to enter God's rest, and presumably God seeks rest, too. New people have to work out their salvation, which is not restful for God. So it seems like there is some finite limit to population, so that there can be a time of permanent rest afterward.

If so, maybe if we increase population above baseline, what we're doing is accelerating the end of the world.

Or, if God can handle our turmoil forever, he can create people forever. If he thinks there aren't enough people, he can always create more. Ultimately, it's his decision how many people there are, because he pays the biggest price for human experience and ultimately has power over the way things are. So if we create more people, he may cause fewer to be created elsewhere.

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