Critical-level utilitarianism and the population-ethics dilemma

Economics and Philosophy 13 (2):197- (1997)
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Advances in technology have made it possible for us to take actions that affect the numbers and identities of humans and other animals that will live in the future. Effective and inexpensive birth control, child allowances, genetic screening, safe abortion, in vitro fertilization, the education of young women, sterilization programs, environmental degradation and war all have these effects. Although it is true that a good deal of effort has been devoted to the practical side of population policy, moral theory has not dealt adequately with the new possibilities. The dilemma faced by moral theory is that traditional theories cannot answer moral questions involving the creation of people. Two related problems arise. The first concerns numbers: how many people should there be? The second asks what sort of people should live and what their levels of well-being should be. Conventional social-contract theories, including the work of Rawls (1971), are restricted to situations with a fixed number of individuals. Sumner (1978) attempts to extend a Rawlsian veil-of-ignorance approach to possible people but is aware of the difficulties involved. The main problem is that possible people must be thought to benefit when they move from non-existence to existence, a view that we reject (see Section 1, Heyd, 1992, Chapter 1; McMahan, 1996a; Parfit, 1984, Appendix G). Rights-based and duty-based theories suffer from a similar problem; there must be a person who has the right or a person to whom the duty is owed (see McMahan, 1981).



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References found in this work

Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Welfare, happiness, and ethics.L. W. Sumner - 1996 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Well-being: its meaning, measurement, and moral importance.James Griffin - 1986 - Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press.

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