Bioethics Blogs

How Important Is Population Ethics?

We face very important decisions about climate change policy, healthcare prioritization, energy consumption, and global catastrophic risks.  To what extent can the field of population ethics contribute to real-world decisions on issues like these?  This is one of the central questions being pursued by researchers in the Population Ethics: Theory and Practice project at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.  The project, overseen by Dr Hilary Greaves, officially began earlier this month, and will continue (at least in its present form) for three years.  The research team aims to make progress in theoretical population ethics, and to assess its relevance to pressing practical issues that affect future generations.

  • What is theoretical population ethics?

It’s a rigorous investigation into plausibility of competing theories about the value or moral desirability of different populations of people, where these populations may vary in terms of:

personal identity (the populations compared may contain different people)
number (the populations may be of different sizes), and,
quality of life (the people in these populations may be at different levels of quality of life, or well-being).

Limited resources make for tough decisions.  Should we spend our $X on deworming pills, or on combating climate change?  One thing we want to know, in approaching this sort of question, is how good the outcome would be if we intervened in one way rather than another.  One thing that’s relevant to the goodness of an outcome is how people in that outcome are faring – are they happy or miserable?  But which people are we to count?  One of the fundamental problems in theoretical population ethics is whether we should take into account “only” the billions of people who exist currently, or whether we should also consider the astronomically greater number of merely possible future persons.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.