The more the merrier for the global population

Conservatives in the West have long favoured viewpoints exhorting traditional family structures and increased fertility. Most of these approaches are based on the West’s Christian heritage. After all, God clearly commands in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply”, and apart from Christianity and Judaism, other religious traditions­ have similar commandments.

But what if God does not exist? Does that leave the “be fruitful and multiply” command to no effect? Not necessarily. As it happens, there is a secular argument to have more babies.

19th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham­ – an atheist – is widely considered the founder of utilitarianism. In Bentham’s own words, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Therefore, happiness ought to be maximised. This can be done by improving living conditions, and therefore making people happier. But crucially, one way of increasing the number of happiness units is by also bringing more people into this world.

Now, there may be a point at which the number of people in the world is so large, that living conditions are not improved. Think of crowded countries such as Bangladesh­. But that does not matter, for ultimately, even with worsened conditions, on aggregate Bangladesh is happier than England – a country with similar territorial size, but far smaller population.

It may be contested that average happiness is more important than aggregate happiness. This viewpoint though, is problematic. Adam and Eve may have had an idyllic existence before the Fall, but surely, a world of say, one million slightly less happy people, is preferable.

Indeed, adding people to world population can only be a good thing. Suppose you are a school administrator in an impoverished Bolivian school with 200 students. You are planning a field trip, and your budget is two hundred pesos. With that budget, you are told to take one hundred students on the field trip—students would get an expenditure of two pesos each. After giving it some thought, the school district’s superintendent tells you that he will give you one hundred pesos more to take a second group of one hundred students­ – thus implying that in the second group, students will get an expenditure of one peso each. Should you refuse the opportunity to take more students to the fieldtrip? Of course not. Now, you might want to make things more just, and you would merge both groups, so that now you have two hundred students and three hundred pesos: this time, students get an expenditure of 1.5 pesos. In comparison to the original plan, the expenditure per student has decreased, but you have increased the number of students going to the fieldtrip. The more, the merrier.

Philosopher Derek Parfit realised the implications of this. He coined the term “mere addition paradox” to describe situation in which by adding people to the world, things get better, even if on average, happiness decreases. Parfit was disturbed by the fact that if you increase population size and reduce average level of happiness, you might reach a world with a huge number of people, but with lives barely worth living. In Parfit’s words, “for any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.” Parfit described this as a “repugnant conclusion”.

But as repugnant as it may have seemed to Parfit – and to ethicists at large, this conclusion is hard to resist. Indeed, so far, attempts to refute Parfit’s reasoning have been generally unsatisfactory – in justice, the responses have been complex, but for brevity’s sake I cannot detail them here.

There is a Malthusian proviso to this argument. If world population keeps expanding indefinitely, there may be a breaking point in which wars, pestilences and famines dramatically reduce population size, thus defeating the original purpose. But we are not anywhere close that breaking point, and for all we know, Malthus himself was largely unjustified in his alarmism. As compared to Malthus’s time – the early 19th Century­ – our world population is far larger, yet we live in much better conditions than during the incipient Industrial Revolution. Things have only got better as technological advances have made up for our increasing populations. 

Nevertheless, the implication of Parfit’s argument is that even if an increase in population size dramatically reduces our living conditions, we are still ethically obliged to have babies. This is certainly a bizarre – but compelling­ – secular argument that merits discussion, and that should be considered by policymakers who seem to be alarmed by the expanding world population.

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