Have you heard of “theoretical population ethics”? No? I hadn’t either before I came across this interesting post from Theron Pummer at the University of Oxford about a new project entitled: Population Ethics: Theory and Practice.  Essentially population ethics is about determining public policy that will have an effect on large populations and that seeks to weigh the identity, size and quality of life of that population in answering knotty theoretical questions.  Since we only have a limited amount of public money, should we spend a sum of money on a “short-term” health intervention that will have a large beneficial effect on a smallish number of people or should we spend that same amount on averting a longer term problem that may not occur but will have catastrophic consequences for most of the human population?

For examples Pummer puts forward three cases: malaria or nukes; malaria or bioterrorism; and worms or climate change.  To look at one of these in more detail:

“Case 1 – Malaria or Nukes: we can with virtual certainty save 100 million people from dying of malaria, or instead avert a 10% chance of a nuclear war that would kill everyone alive now, thus also preventing the existence of all future generations”

According to Pummer, we should avert the 10% possibility of nuclear war because although the odds of it occurring is lower than the 100 million dying from malaria, the consequences of a nuclear war are so much worse that it should be avoided even at the “cost” of failing to save 100 million people from malaria.  Now the post and the philosophical considerations are interesting and worth reading (and quite a bit above my head) and you should go and have a look at it. I would be interested to see what people make of it. Here are some of my thoughts (not necessarily connected):

* In many respects the approach of these population ethicists seems close to that put forward in public medicine: we have a limited pot of money, so which procedures should we undertake with this money? Which people are most likely to survive the operation and which people will just be in here again in a couple of years with some other disease soaking up public resources?

* Although such questions make a certain amount of utilitarian sense, treating patients, people or populations as only consumers of medical resources or consumers of public resources that could instead be used to avert a chance of nuclear war seems to be missing the big picture: all people are worth saving or helping and should never be seen only as consumers of resources or terms in a statistical equation.  

* These theoretical cases about “averting a 10% chance of nuclear war” always leave me cold, as not in any way being applicable to real-life. The certainty that one’s actions will have this result is impossible to replicate apart from these ethical case scenarios. In short, real life is much messier and uncertain. But if these scenarios aren’t like the ethical problems raised in real life, how can they be useful guides for how to act ethically in real life which is of course the only place one can act ethically?

A lot of these scenarios involve balancing the quality of life of populations and the existence (or not) of future generations. As Pummer states:

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…Another fundamental problem in theoretical population ethics is how to balance quality of life against population size.

I readily accept that I am not a philosopher, but these “fundamental problems” seem to be due to an over complication of the issue that disappears if we keep sight of one guiding principle: every single human being is infinitely valuable.  If that is true, then questions of weighing quality of life disappear.  Saving a human being with a “high quality” life is as valuable/good/right as saving a human being with a “low quality” life.  Any dangerous questions like, “What determines quality of life?” (lack of disabilities, not being a girl in certain societies) or “Who determines the quality of life and thus the worth of people’s lives?” disappear.

This is surely a good thing. After all, we have seen many examples throughout recent history of societies determining that certain individuals do not have lives worth living and that therefore their lives should be afforded less weight than the majority (and heaven help them if their lives are deemed to stand in the way of the “good of the nation”).

Similarly, I cannot quite see the demands that “merely possible persons” place on us such that they can weigh against actual human beings who are alive now, each of whom is infinitely valuable.  Sure, we should try to pass on our planet in as good a condition as possible to future generations, but that is because we have a duty to treat our environment with care (NOT because it is Gaia or Mother Earth! As G K Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, “Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”) But when we weigh up those currently alive with those who might exist in the future, then surely there is no contest? Our duty is to those who currently, actually have lives of infinite value. After all, the universe might implode tomorrow…

Anyway, those are my ramblings; what do other people think? Have I missed the boat and am I talking nonsense? Or are some of the philosophical arguments being put forward in theoretical population ethics missing the wood for the trees?  

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...