Population and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 26, 2023, from

Article Summary

Ethical concern with population policies and with the issue of optimal population size is, generally speaking, a modern phenomenon. Although the first divine injunction of the Bible is ‘be fertile and multiply’, systematic theoretical interest in the normative aspects of demography has become associated largely with recent developments which have provided humanity with unprecedented control over population size, mainly through medical and economic means. Once the determination of the number of people in the world is no longer a natural given fact, but rather a matter of individual or social choice, it becomes subject to moral evaluation.

However, the extension of traditional ethical principles to issues of population policies is bedevilled by paradoxes. The principle of utility, the ideal of self-perfection, the idea of a contract as a basis for political legitimacy and social justice, the notion of natural or human rights, and the principle of respect for persons – all these presuppose the existence of human beings whose interests, welfare, rights and dignity are to be protected and promoted. But population policies deal with the creation of people and the decision concerning their number. They relate to the creation of the very conditions for the application of ethical principles.

    Citing this article:
    Heyd, David. Population and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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