New Work on Population Ethics

Workshop convenors:
Simon Beard (London School of Economics)*
Jimmy Goodrich (Rutgers)
Daniel Ramoller (Stockholm)

07983 676 970


If we are to ethically evaluate choices that affect the composition of future populations how should we take into account these effects? Philosophical research over the past 40 years has thrown up many possible answers to this question but also a very large number of problems. This workshop will bring together diverse strands of population ethics to present current themes and crosscutting challenges.

We identify five key themes and propose presenting one panel on each of them, subject to receiving a sufficient number of high quality papers.

The first theme concerns how ethics should respond to the fact that our choices may affect the identity of the individuals in a population. A key question is the correct way to respond to the ‘non-identity problem’ (Parfit 1987). Many people believe that if something is bad then it must be bad for someone. However, if our choices determine who will come into existence then how can they be bad for these people? A related question is whether there is a moral asymmetry between lives with positive or negative welfare such that, even if there is no reason to bring into existence the former there is reason not to bring into existence the latter (McMahan 1981).

The second theme concerns how ethics should respond to the fact that our choices may affect the number of individuals in a population. A key question in this area is the correct way to respond to the ‘Repugnant Conclusion’ (Parfit 1987). Many people believe that it is better if there are more people with positive welfare, even if these people are slightly worse off (Broome 2004). However this implies that a very large population of people who all live ‘very happy lives’ may be worse than a much larger population of people with lives that are ‘barely worth living’, a conclusion many of us would find very hard to accept.

The third theme concerns the question of the distribution of welfare across populations, irrespective of the identity or number of people involved. Many people believe that we should prefer populations in people are equally well off relative to one another. Others believe that equality is irrelevant and that we should instead give priority to increase the welfare of those who are absolutely worse off (Parfit 1997, Temkin 1998, Otsuka and Voorhoeve 2009). A key question in this debate is whether only people’s absolute welfare level contributes to the value of a population, or whether the relationships between them also matter.

The fourth theme concerns whether the value of populations can be established precisely and whether the relative value of populations is transitive. In response to some of the deep challenges of population ethics it has been claimed that we should reject some of the deepest assumptions about value (Temkin 2012, Arrhenius Forthcoming, Parfit Forthcoming). Key questions in this theme concern whether such a radical approach is really warranted, and whether it actually resolves, or at least avoids, any of these problems.

A final theme concerns the practical application of population ethics. The problems of population ethics will affect our response to climate change and our obligation to future generations (Tol 2002, Broome 2011). Key questions in this theme include the relative merits of different positions for policy makers and how we should respond to the deep disagreements in this field.



Arrhenius, G., Forthcoming, Population ethics, a challenge to morality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Broome, J., 2004, Weighing Lives, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Broome, J., 2012, Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World. New York: WW Norton

McMahan, J., 1981. “Problems of Population Choice,” Ethics, 92(1): 96–127.

Otsuka, M, and Voorhoeve, A., 2009, “Why It Matters that Some Are Worse Off than Others: An Argument against the Priority View,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 37, pp. 171–199.

Parfit, D., 1987. Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Parfit, D., 1997, “Equality and Priority,” Ratio, 10: 202-221.

Parfit, D., Forthcoming, “Can we avoid the Repugnant Conclusion”

Temkin, L., 1998, “Equality, Priority and the Levelling Down Objection.”, in M Clayton and A Williams, ed., The Ideal of Equality, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 126-162.

Temkin, L., 2012, Rethinking the Good, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Tol, R., 2001, “Welfare specifications and optimal control of climate change: an application of fund”, Energy Economics, 24: 367-376

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