Bioethics Blogs

Adding Happy People

Almost every week there’s a headline about our planet’s population explosion.  For instance Indian officials confirmed recently that India is projected to overtake China in just over a decade – to become the most populous country on Earth.  Many are worried that the planet is becoming increasingly overpopulated.  Whether it is overpopulated, underpopulated, or appropriately populated is a challenging ethical question.

Let’s suppose a ‘happy life’ is one that would be on balance very well worth living from the point of view of the person living it.  Is it good to add people with happy lives to the world?  This question divides into two more specific ones:  First, is it good to add happy people, in virtue of the good effects of doing so for us already existing people?  Second, is it good to add happy people, independently of any effects on the already existing?  The latter is by far the more intriguing.

The Canadian-based philosopher Jan Narveson famously answered this question in the negative.  He says, “We are in favor of making people happy, but neutral about making happy people.”  Whether this stance is correct has a wide range of practical implications for procreation, resource conservation, climate change, and existential risks.  Some of the implications are absolutely profound:  since there are very many happy future people who could exist, if morality were in favor of making happy people we’d have an overwhelmingly strong reason to promote the colonization of other planets by our descendants; we’d have very little if any reason to do this if Narveson were right.

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.