Population and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 25, 2019, from

3. Means of implementation

Even if there are criteria for fixing a desired population size, all philosophers agree that there are constraints on their implementation. One fundamental problem belongs to distributive justice: how should the burden of achieving the demographic goal be distributed, both within the present generation and between generations? Unlike the abstract issue of optimal population size, which deals with future (possible) people, the implementation of population policies affects actual people and their interests. Thus, for instance, should the burden of curtailing growth fall on all classes equally (as in China where each family is allowed to have no more than one child) or proportionally to the actual (or desired) number of children in a family? Should poor families be compensated when reproductive restraint means that they have fewer working members (an acute problem in the Third World)? Should religious beliefs play a role in deciding differential criteria in the distribution of the burden of birth control? Furthermore, may rich nations make economic aid conditional upon the adoption of family planning programmes? These questions of distributive justice can be tackled in terms of the various theories of justice. But when raised on the intergenerational level they become elusive. The goal of a certain population size can be achieved either by an aggressive policy within, for example, two generations or by a milder one within four. The problem is that full equality in distribution of the burden would require a spread over an indefinite number of generations, which is absurd.

Population policies usually involve a gap between private rights and public interest, and hence require politically enforced coordination (so as to avoid free riders). This is Garrett Hardin’s view of the Tragedy of the Commons (1968), in which overgrazing can be prevented (for the benefit of everybody) only by state interference. But procreation is usually considered a private matter in which the law should not interfere. Positive means, like enforcing sterilization or legally limiting the number of children, are usually considered immoral. But indirect incentives (positive or negative) through taxation, free birth control or education are acceptable. There is also wide agreement today that a rise in the standard of living, as well as an improvement in the status of women in society and in the family, are both desirable goals in themselves and effective means of restraining population growth.

Citing this article:
Heyd, David. Means of implementation. Population and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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