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Anti-Natalism, Harm, and Objectionable Paternalism

My colleagues here at The Prindle Post have, over the last several weeks, been engaged in a thoughtful discussion surrounding anti-natalism, the view on which it is (at least in part) unethical to have children. Laura Siscoe raised an interesting objection to the anti-natalist view: insofar as the vast majority of people prefer existence to non-existence, and we have no reason to think that future people will be any different, Siscoe argues that anti-natalism is likely to be objectionably paternalistic. Benjamin Rossi, in his response to that article, argued against Siscoe’s position by raising a counterexample: he argues that if anti-natalism is objectionably paternalistic, then so are all forms of birth control, and insofar as Rossi takes this conclusion to be unintuitive, he thereby rejects Siscoe’s argument. In explaining why he believes Siscoe’s argument gives rise to these unintuitive conclusions, Rossi points the blame at Siscoe’s idea of what makes paternalism objectionable — a key idea in the broader debate.

Here, I don’t intend to resolve the debate, or come down authoritatively on one side of it — rather, I (cheekily) intend to complicate it further. I’d like to focus on the concepts which underlie the debate, namely those of paternalism and objectionable paternalism, and ask if we’ve truly captured the heart of the question at hand.

First, let’s be clear as to what has already been said. Siscoe defines paternalism as “interference in the freedom of another for the sake of promoting their perceived good,” and identifies paternalism as objectionable, in the case of people who will exist in the future, when it “contradicts the strongly held desires of future people.” Rossi assents to Siscoe’s definition of paternalism, but disagrees with what constitutes objectionable paternalism: he argues that paternalism is objectionable “if it interferes with a person’s exercise of their ability to act as they want, where that person is entitled to such exercise under the particular circumstances of their choice.” It is the notion of entitlement which is key in Rossi’s argument. He concludes his essay with: “If this account is correct, then to make good on the claim that choices to refrain from reproduction … are objectionable, Siscoe must establish that future people have a right to exist, and not just that they very likely would want to exist.

I think that all three of these definitions have a grain of truth, but are flawed in important ways.

First, let’s take the definition of paternalism which Siscoe and Rossi employ: “interference in the freedom of another for the sake of promoting their perceived good.” This is a good approximation of paternalism, but misses a vital aspect of how paternalism is implemented in practice: paternalism is rarely about promoting someone’s good, and is much more frequently about preventing someone from coming to harm. Now, this may seem like an obtuse distinction to make, but consider the examples of paternalism which Siscoe and Rossi discuss: Siscoe references seatbelt and anti-drug laws, and Rossi discusses the example of a parent stopping a child from playing hopscotch along the edge of a roof. These are not examples of paternalism for the sake of increasing the subject’s well-being, but are instead fundamentally about preventing the subject’s well-being from becoming worse. Or, in more common terms: paternalism is about making sure you don’t hurt yourself, rather than making sure you maximize your potential.

Why is this distinction important? First, it shows where our concern really is when it comes to paternalism. Imagine a child who, with exceptionally hard work and dedication, would go on to become a graduate of the best law school in the country and an exceptional civil rights lawyer. Very few people believe in paternalistic policies which would force this child to do that hard work or have that dedication; however, we generally do believe in paternalistic policies which will make sure this child at least goes to school until they turn 18. This is because we, fundamentally, care about avoiding bad outcomes rather than continually forcing their well-being upward; and this, importantly, re-orients our discussion from benefiting the subject of paternalistic intervention to avoiding harm for the subject of paternalistic intervention. This re-framing reveals the second important point of this distinction: that in order for paternalism to make sense, we need to understand what harm is, and this is notoriously difficult. This is especially complicated in the setting of future peoples, as whether or not we can understand harm to future persons is an entirely open question, and casts doubt on the metaphysical backing which anti-natalists build upon.

But the waters only get muddier when we turn to the idea of objectionable paternalism. I agree with Rossi’s assessment of Siscoe’s definition: that objectionable paternalism cannot merely be that which “contradicts the strongly held desires” of the subject, as seemingly justifiable examples of paternalism (i.e., a parent pulling a child out of oncoming traffic) can involve strongly held desires on the part of the subject. However, Rossi’s suggested reformulation — that paternalism is only objectionable “if it interferes with a person’s exercise of their ability to act as they want, where that person is entitled to such exercise under the particular circumstances of their choice” — is also deeply incomplete. The problem here, in my appraisal, is the emphasis on entitlement. If you care about the moral value of autonomy, then this should trouble you: on Rossi’s view, you are only entitled to act without interference from paternalistic intervention in cases where you have previously demonstrated your entitlement to act in the first place. This is very different from our usual understanding of autonomy-based ethics, where the burden falls on the paternalist to demonstrate the ethical grounding of their intervention.

The difference between these views can be seen clearly in a simple example. Imagine a case where a patient refuses life-saving dialysis, but their healthcare team seeks an injunction to paternalistically force her to receive dialysis. In assessing whether or not this paternalism is objectionable, Rossi would have us ask: is the patient entitled to refuse dialysis? I would hold, however, that a different question is more important: do the physicians have a right to dialyze her against her will? These are two very different questions, and Rossi’s definition of paternalism seems to put the onus on the subject to demonstrate their freedom from paternalistic intervention, rather than on the paternalist to demonstrate the ethical grounds of their intervention.

These considerations, unfortunately, obfuscate the debate between Siscoe and Rossi, but they demonstrate an important pattern in ethical debates: the words we use matter, and, more often than not, the definitions which we attach to the ideas in our debates are the true heart of the disagreement, and the true question at hand.

If Anti-Natalism Is Objectionably Paternalistic, Then So Is Family Planning

photograph of child and parent shadow on asphalt

In her recent column, Laura Siscoe argues that reproductive choices motivated by anti-natalism are objectionably paternalistic because they “seek to decide what’s best for future people (i.e., their non-existence)” and “contradict the strongly held desires of future people.” Although I think her argument is mistaken, it raises some important issues regarding our duties to future generations that are well worth exploring.

To illustrate how her argument goes awry, consider a devoutly Catholic couple who successfully use the rhythm method because they want to delay having children until they feel confident that they can provide a sufficiently stable environment for their offspring. It seems to follow from Siscoe’s account that this practice is objectionably paternalistic because it entails that some future person or people who might have come into existence had the couple not intentionally employed a form of “natural family planning” will not in fact exist. We can safely assume that this would contradict their strongly held desires, so their practice is not just paternalistic, but objectionably paternalistic.

The point of this example is that if the anti-natalist choice to refrain from having children full stop is objectionably paternalistic, then so is any choice to refrain from having children under some particular set of circumstances, when that choice is motivated by the desire to do what is best for one’s future children. Perhaps it does not follow from a choice’s being objectionably paternalistic that it is, all-things-considered, morally wrong. But Siscoe seems committed to the view that the Catholic couple should at least consider the interests of the potential future people whose existence is precluded by their use of the rhythm method in their moral calculus. Moreover, in this calculus, such interests weigh heavily against practicing this or any other form of birth control. This is surely an odd result, given that even an organization as avowedly “pro-life” as the Catholic Church sanctions, and even encourages, some forms of family planning.

If we try to trace the counterintuitive implications of Siscoe’s argument back to one of its premises, however, a problem confronts us. On the one hand, these implications seem to flow from the claim that possible future people have interests that are entitled to moral consideration. Once we grant this premise, and we also acknowledge the seemingly undeniable fact that our actions affect those interests, we seem to be committed to extending moral consideration to the interests of possible future persons who are affected by any choice to refrain from reproduction. On the other hand, the claim that we have some responsibility to act with an eye toward future generations is commonplace both within and outside of moral philosophy, despite some well-known puzzles associated with it. Must we, along with Siscoe, simply bite the bullet and concede that any choice to refrain from reproduction for the sake of the unborn is objectionably paternalistic?

Perhaps we can avoid this result if we examine the notion of paternalism in greater depth. Siscoe’s gloss on “paternalism” is “interference in the freedom of another for the sake of promoting their perceived good.” Rightly, I think, she does not build into the notion of “paternalism” that it is morally objectionable. After all, there are strong arguments in favor of some degree of interference in the freedom of others for their own sake under certain circumstances — paradigmatically, parents’ interference with their children’s freedom.

So, in addition to a definition of “paternalism,” we need an account of what makes paternalism objectionable. Siscoe seems to imply that paternalism is objectionable when it “contradicts the strongly held desires” of others. But this can’t be the whole story: a small child may strongly desire to play hopscotch along the edge of a tall building’s roof, but its parent’s decision to prevent it from doing so, while undeniably paternalistic, is not morally objectionable.

I suggest, then, that paternalism is objectionable if it interferes with a person’s exercise of their ability to act as they want, where that person is entitled to such exercise under the particular circumstances of their choice. This account would explain why the kind of paternalism that gave the notion its name — the paternalism of parents with respect to their children — may not be objectionable. There are many contexts where there are strong arguments that children should not be able to act as they want — arguments that in effect show that they have no right to act as they want in those contexts.

If this account is correct, then to make good on the claim that choices to refrain from reproduction — whether motivated by a commitment to anti-natalism or concerns that are less absolute in their implications — are objectionable, Siscoe must establish that future people have a right to exist, and not just that they very likely would want to exist. Without a legitimate claim on us of this kind, we are not bound to respect their interest in existing, and the argument against anti-natalism from paternalism falls apart.

Is Anti-Natalism Objectionably Paternalistic?

black and white photograph of parent and child holding walking through tunnel

There is something about envisioning a future without children that is intuitively objectionable to many. This sentiment is portrayed in the film Children of Men, which depicts a child-less world as bleak and devoid of hope. Despite this intuitive pull, the position known as anti-natalism enjoys a certain degree of popularity in both philosophical and public discourse. The basic premise behind the anti-natalist movement is that life is sufficiently bad in some way, such that we have a general moral duty not to bring new human life into the world. There are various reasons anti-natalists appeal to as grounds for this conclusion, including the impacts of climate change on future generations, the inevitably of life bringing about suffering, as well as just a general pessimism about the moral trajectory of humanity.

I propose here a possible objection to anti-natalism, namely, that it is objectionably paternalistic. The moral concept of paternalism consists in the notion of interference in the freedom of another for the sake of promoting their perceived good. Commonplace examples of public paternalism include seatbelt laws and anti-drug legislation. There are, of course, also familial examples such as imposing bedtimes on children or forcing them to eat a healthy diet.

It is generally accepted that we should exercise at least a certain amount of moral and political caution when endorsing strongly paternalistic policies. There is some degree of good in human autonomy and honoring peoples’ preferences, even when we believe those preferences to be ill-advised. Caution seems particularly advisable when the freedom being infringed upon by the paternalist policy carries great weight. For instance, China’s infamous one-child-policy tends to strike people as more ethically objectionable than a policy limiting certain kinds of hard drug use. The reason for this is (at least partially) because the right to have children seems much more central to human expression and vital to the preservation of one’s autonomy than does the right to use severely dangerous drugs.

The way that the topic of paternalism interfaces with debates over anti-natalism is two-fold. For one, anti-natalism deals with the procreative choices of individuals. Some strong versions of anti-natalism seek to impose a vision of what’s best on prospective parents, whose opinions might sharply diverge from that of the anti-natalist. Secondly, anti-natalist stances are paternalistic in that they seek to decide what’s best for future people (i.e. their non-existence). Of course, some degree of paternalism is involved in both the choice to have as well as not to have children, as it is parents who must determine on behalf of their children if the life they aim to create is worth living. So in contrast with pro-natalist positions, what makes anti-natalism potentially objectionably paternalistic?

When surveying the preferences of most people — including many of those who face tremendous suffering — the verdict seems most do not wish for non-existence. Given that most (though certainly not all) people would choose their existence over non-existence if confronted with the choice, what degree of weight should this fact carry for anti-natalists? Given that peoples’ expressed preferences seem to tilt clearly in one direction, paired with the significance of the issue at hand (i.e., existence over non-existence), it seems we might have reason to be morally cautious of anti-natalist sentiments.

One way of objecting to this conclusion is to point out that moral concerns about paternalism typically apply to people that are already living. It is less common to think about paternalism as it relates to future or potentially future people. After all, we don’t actually have access to the preferences of future people. Thus, we are merely extrapolating their preferences from those who are already living. A limitation of this approach is that we could be discounting certain factors that might make this prediction inaccurate. For instance, perhaps the condition of the world gets so bad as to cause the majority of future people to opt for non-existence.

This is certainly not a possibility that we can rule out. However, we have reason to be dubious of this outcome. If anything, there are many signs that human suffering is (on a whole) measurably less than what it once was. People are being lifted out of severe poverty at increasing rates, many preventable diseases have been nearly eradicated, and the rights of certain marginalized populations are now legally enshrined. Absent an argument that we can predict with a very high level of confidence that future peoples’ lives will be dramatically worse than peoples’ lives now, it is reasonable to assume future people will continue to prefer existence over non-existence.

If we grant this empirical point, the paternalist concern starts to emerge. Anti-natalism runs the risk of being objectionably paternalistic insofar as it contradicts the strongly held desires of future people. Making the judgment of which lives are worth living places one in the morally precarious position of having to potentially undermine the preferences of those whose lives actually hang in the balance. Thus, while there is unavoidable moral risk involved in procreative decisions, it is particularly incumbent on anti-natalists to consider the weight that the expressed preferences of living people should carry when it comes to procreative choice.

Debating Pro- and Anti-Natalism

photograph of parent/child pedestrian sign on tile pavement

Every person on the planet has an incredible ancestry. We’re all the result of countless interactions between parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so on. This lineage is so extensive that it stretches past the emergence of humanity as we know it today, through our caveman ancestors, all the way through to the advent of life itself. We are all, each of us, the result of an inexhaustible history of relationships, both biological and social.

So, with all this ancestral pedigree, one might feel the pressure to continue the line and have children themselves. Some may be familiar with such a demand in the form of arguments like carrying on the family line or name (think back to Tywin Lannister’s obsession with family legacy). Breaking the maternal and paternal chain that has existed for multiple millennia is no small act. Even if one faces no social or familial pressure to have children (and many do), it is understandable to feel some force to the idea that, after the countless generations and innumerable interactions necessary for you to emerge into the world as you are, you will be the one responsible for breaking the chain.

Yet, there are some who argue that not only is this not something to feel bad about, but that refusing to have children is the morally correct action as reproducing is a morally transgressive act. Those who hold such a position are known as anti-natalists.

There have been multiple arguments supporting the anti-natalist viewpoint, including convictions that life is inherently bad and thus should be avoided, that life need not be bad but we’re unable to create a life which would be good, or that we shouldn’t reproduce because we cannot obtain the consent of those we would create. What they all share, though, is the core tenet that the negative aspects of life are so great that we should not inflict that harm upon those yet to exist. This does not mean that we should try and eliminate those who do exist, as this would equate to murder and be itself wrong – for us, it is already too late as we are already subject to the harms of existence. But it does mean we should avoid passing that harm down to future generations.

Now, this may sound unreasonable to some. After all, while many of us will experience hardship in our lives, I would suspect most would say that such hardship hasn’t made our lives not worth living. Thus, to say that my being brought into existence by my parents was an inherently immoral act would seem a step too far. You might want to say it was selfish or reckless, but to accuse them of doing something wrong is a fairly extreme claim to make. Indeed, if it applies to one generation back, then there’s no reason to say it should go further than that and apply to my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and so on. Thus, the anti-natalists don’t just condemn you for having children, but everyone who has ever had children, and that’s a lot of people to scold.

The reason I want to bring this up is because, in recent years, there has been a renewed interest not in anti-natalism but in its opposite – pronatalism.

For pronatalists, having children is a moral necessity for which we should be commended and those who avoid such a “duty” should receive condemnation. And, while it has a long and troubled history with strong (yet not necessary) links to right-wing populist movements and theories like the Great Replacement, it is easy to see how it can capture the public imagination given that we typically celebrate the family unit and any addition of members to it.

Today, we see governments around the world implement policies designed to increase birth rates, be that through offering couples financial incentives – like tax breaks and housing assistance – to have children or by curtailing reproductive freedoms like abortion. In a rather striking example, Russia has recently reinstated the Mother Heroine medal, awarded to those women who have 10 or more children.

The reason for today’s emphasis on pronatalist ideologies is undoubtedly varied and complex. But, to oversimplify it: many countries worldwide fear the socioeconomic implications of their populations getting, on average, older and smaller. This is because an older population requires more younger people to look after it than a younger population (unless technology can come to the rescue). It also means that a more significant percentage will be retired and thus less economically productive. We have seen the effect of this already in Japan, where 1 in 10 people are now over the age of 80. Thus, all those countries wanting to deal with the demographic shift towards an older population must either make the elderly more economically productive (deferring retirement age) or shift the age imbalance by bringing more younger people into their fold. The latter is done either by encouraging immigration (which can be politically difficult to achieve) or by driving up birth rates.

It cannot be ignored that failing to address the global socioeconomic issues associated with an ageing population would be devastating. The prosperity of a country is inextricably tied to its economic productivity. And so, when a country becomes less productive, its population suffers. On this basis, there seems to be an argument that it is in governments’ interest to find any way to promote raising birth rates. (This is baked directly into the state’s job description – if a government can’t look out for the needs of its people, what is it for?).

Any success, however, would only kick the can down the road. The only way we can avoid the dangers of an ageing population is to have one of ever-increasing size. And this simply isn’t possible. Eventually, any given population will shrink as exponential growth isn’t possible on a planet with finite resources.

And it is here that we see the tension between pro- and anti-natalism: should we try to lessen the pain people are experiencing now or limit the number of people who will experience pain in the future? The former is born out of a desire to maintain the status quo, while the latter wishes to blow it all up.

It’s hard to say which viewpoint will ultimately carry the day. Pronatalism has the historical advantage. But life lived under threat of economic collapse, climate disaster, and humanitarian crisis makes the prospect of having children less appealing. Given these rising risks, I suspect more may come around to the anti-natalism way of thinking.

The Curious Case of Evie Toombes: Alternative Realities and Non-Identity

photograph of elongated shadow of person on paved road

Evie Toombes just won a lawsuit against her mother’s doctor. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect affecting her spine, which requires continual medical care. Taking folic acid before and during pregnancy can help reduce the risk of spina bifida, but Toombes says that the doctor told her mother that folic acid supplements weren’t necessary. The judge ruled that, had the doctor advised Toombes’ mother “about the relationship between folic acid supplementation and the prevention of spina bifida/neural tube defects,” she would have “delayed attempts to conceive” until she was sure her folic acid levels were adequate, and that “in the circumstances, there would have been a later conception, which would have resulted in a normal healthy child.” The judge therefore ruled that the doctor was liable for damages because of Toombes’ condition.

Let’s assume that Toombes is right about the facts. If so, the case may seem straightforward. But it actually raises an incredibly difficult philosophical conundrum noted by the philosopher Derek Parfit. Initially, it seems Toombes was harmed by the doctor’s failure to advise her mother about folic acid. But the suggestion is that, if he’d done so, her mother would have “delayed attempts to conceive,” resulting in the “later conception” of a “normal healthy child.” And, presumably, that child would not have been Evie Toombes. Had her mother waited, a different sperm would have fertilized a different egg, producing a different child. So had the doctor advised her mother to take folic acid and delay pregnancy, it’s not as though Toombes would have been born, just without spina bifida. A different child without spina bifida would have been born, and Toombes would not have existed at all.

It may be that some lives are so bad that non-existence would be better. And if your life is worse than non-existence, then it’s easy to see why you’d have a complaint against someone who’s responsible for your life. But Toombes’ life doesn’t seem to be like this: she is a successful equestrian. And anyway, she didn’t make that claim as part of her argument, and the court didn’t rely on it. However, if Toombes’ life is worth living, and if the doctor’s actions are responsible for her existing at all, it might seem puzzling how the doctor’s actions could have wronged her.

The non-identity problem arises in cases like this, where we can affect how well-off future people are, but only by also changing which future people come to exist. It’s a problem because causing future people to be less well-off seems wrong, but it’s also hard to see who is wronged in these cases, provided the people who come to exist have lives worth living. E.g., it seems that the doctor should have told Toombes’ mother about folic acid, but, assuming her life is worth living, it’s also hard to see how Toombes is wronged by his not doing so, since that’s why she exists.

The non-identity problem also has implications for many other real-world questions. For instance, if we enact sustainable environmental policies, perhaps future generations will be better-off. But these generations will also consist of different people: the butterfly effect of different policies means that different people will get married, will conceive at different times, etc. Provided the (different) people in the resource-depleted future have lives worth living, it may be hard to see why living unsustainably would be wrong.

(It might be plausible that the doctor wronged Toombes’ mother, whose existence doesn’t depend on his actions. But wrongs against currently-existing people may not be able to explain the wrong of the unsustainable environmental policy, provided the bad effects won’t show up for a long time. Some unsustainable policies might only help current people, by allowing them to live more comfortably. And anyway, the court thought Toombes was also wronged: she’s getting the damages.)

Because it is relevant to important questions like this, it would be very handy to know what the solution to the non-identity problem is. Unfortunately, all solutions have drawbacks.

An obvious possibility is to say that we should make the world as good as possible. Since well-being is good, then, all else equal, we would be obligated to make sure that better-off people exist in the future rather than worse-off ones. But the decision of the court was that the doctor wronged Toombes herself, not just that he failed to make the world as good as possible: if that was the problem, he should have been ordered to pay money to some charity that makes the world as good as possible, rather than paying money to Toombes. And anyway, it isn’t obvious that we’re obligated to make sure future generations contain as much well-being as possible. One way to do that is by having happy children. But most people don’t think we’re obligated to have children, even if, in some case, that would add the most happiness to the world on balance.

Another possibility is to say that we can wrong people without harming them. Perhaps telling comforting lies is like this: here, lying prevents a harm, but can still be wrong if the person has a right to know the painful truth. Perhaps individuals have a right against being caused to exist under certain sorts of difficult conditions. But notice that we can usually waive rights like this. If I have a right to the painful truth, I can waive this right and ask you not to tell me. People who haven’t been born yet can’t waive rights (or do anything else). But when people are not in a position to waive a right, we can permissibly act based on whether we think they would or should waive the right, or something like that. You have a right to refuse having your legs amputated. But if paramedics find you unconscious and must amputate your legs to save your life, they’ll probably do it, since they figure you would consent, if you could.  Why not think that, similarly, future people whose lives are worth living generally would or should consent to the only course of action that can bring them into being, even if their lives are difficult in some ways?

A third solution says that Toombes’ doctor didn’t act wrongly after all–and neither would we act wrongly by being environmentally unsustainable, etc. But that’s very hard to believe. It’s even harder to believe in other cases. Here’s a case inspired by the philosopher Gregory Kavka. Suppose I and my spouse sign a contract to sell our (not yet conceived) first child into slavery. Because of the deal, we conceive a child under slightly different circumstances than we otherwise would have, resulting in a different child. (Maybe the slaver gives us a special hotel room.) There’s no way to break the contract and keep our child from slavery. Suppose the child’s life is, though difficult, (barely) worth living. This solution appears to suggest that signing the slave contract is permissible: after all, the child has a life worth living, and wouldn’t exist otherwise. But that doesn’t seem right!

I wrote more about this in chapter eight of this book. There are other possible moves, but they have problems, too. So the non-identity problem is a real head-scratcher. Maybe someone reading this can make some progress on it.

Population Growth and Anti-Natalist Philosophy

photograph of tightly-packed crowd

July 11 marked World Population Day, observed by the United Nations (UN) each year since 1989. It was established after the human population of Earth reached 5 billion on July 11, 1987 to, “…focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues.” As of July 11, 2019 the human population has reached 7.7 billion and is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Continued overall positive population growth, combined with a general upward trend in worldwide human life expectancy, has created concerns about overpopulation: that is, a situation in which the resources of particular regions—or the planet in general—are outstripped by the needs of the human population. 

Concerns about human population are not new. Throughout history, legislators and scholars across cultures have been concerned with either depopulation, overpopulation, or population density. In Ancient China, Kongzi (Confucius) advocated government policy to ensure a balanced distribution of people across the arable land of China. Mozi, though a critic of Confucianism, also advocated government policy concerning population. One of the three  moral/political criteria for beneficial actions (, “lì”) in Mozi’s philosophy was that it promoted population growth. In Ancient Greece, Plato fixed the ideal population of a city-state at around 50400 (accounting for 5040 citizens, and then other non-citizens such as women, children, and slaves). Aristotle criticizes Plato’s calculations for not taking into account issues with fertility rates, mortality rates, and the size of territory required to sustain a population. In the Middle Ages, the Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun wrote extensively on population dynamics, advocating for denser population centers to facilitate social and economic prosperity.

Much of the contemporary discussion of human overpopulation is traceable to Richard Malthus’ 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Malthus provides a mathematical argument as the basis of his thesis that overpopulation was a problem that would steadily grow worse: human population grows exponentially while the food supply only grows linearly. That is, the increase in food production occurs at a rate which remains the same over time whereas the increase in population occurs at a rate which itself increases over time. Malthus’ view of the problem focused on the poor and destitute, whom he viewed as those whose position was more vulnerable to famine and disease. These twin killers are examples of what Malthus referred to as positive checks on population: calamities that arise naturally from overpopulation and serve to check population growth. Allowing population to grow until checked by such natural forces was cruel in Malthus’ view. He argued that the better measures were so-called preventative checks: e.g., abstaining from or delaying procreation. 

In the current day, there is significant sympathy with the preventative aspect of the Malthusian position. In light of the growing population, and ever-increasing evidence that human activity is a primary driver of climate change, some people believe that having children is immoral. Or, at least that it is a decision which has to be made in response to the issues facing the world—and not narrower personal or familial ones. Other contemporary scholars have generated their own strands of reasoning to argue against procreation—or at least against the presumption that a decision to have children stands in need of no special justification. In general, arguments to the effect that procreation is immoral are referred to as anti-natalist views. Canadian philosopher Christine Overall and South African philosopher David Benatar both provide their own versions of anti-natalism.

Overall, in her book Why Have Children, canvasses the usual arguments both for and against having children and finds them all lacking. She concludes that the decision to have children always stands in need of justification, and that the justification must be given in terms of the possibility of a healthy relationship developing between parents and children. Benatar, on the other hand, argues that human existence is generally characterized by misery. Because of this he argues that it is always bad to bring new life into the world. In other words, whereas Overall claims that having children can possibly be justified—though not in any of the usual ways—Benatar argues that having children is always unjustified. In his Better Never to Have Been, Benatar claims that life is bad—but so is death and dying. The only way to avoid this double-bind is to never have existed in the first place. (Incidentally, the sort of arguments Benatar gives are among the types of arguments Overall finds lacking.)

In the broad sweep of history, anti-natalist views rise and fall with the population itself. At times when populations have significantly decreased, arguments arose advocating having more children. Barring the success of a general anti-natalist argument like Benatar’s, issues about overpopulation are broadly about resources and climate. Given the dire warnings and predictions about the state of Earth’s climate future, sympathy with anti-natalist positions will likely continue or even increase.