Workshop: Non-Welfarist Approaches to Population Ethics, 22 Sep 2022

Most work in population ethics is based on a welfarist assumption, according to which the fundamental value is the welfare of individual people. As is well-known, population ethics has encountered a number of paradoxes. One important question is whether we could avoid them by abandoning the welfarist assumption in favor of non-welfarism. According to non-welfarism, the welfare of individual people is not the only – or perhaps not even any – fundamental value. Examples of non-welfarist determinants of value are fulfillment of virtue, flourishing, needs, rights, capabilities, desert, autonomy, knowledge, cultural diversity, beauty, biodiversity, or even the genesis of a population – which are then supposed to be valuable independently of their contribution to welfare. Hence, on non-welfarism, one population can be overall better than another even if its level of wellbeing is lower, given that it contains enough of these other values. The overall question is, however, whether a move to non-welfarism could help us formulate a viable theory of population ethics that avoids the paradoxes and can be fruitfully applied to actual policy cases. The aim of this workshop is to explore the scopes and limits of non-welfarist population ethics.


09:30–09:55 Coffee

09:55–10:00 Welcome

10:00–10:55 Krister Bykvist: “Who Should Care About Impossibility Theorems in Population Ethics?”

11:00–11:55 Tim Campbell: “Axiological Retributivism and the Desert Neutrality Paradox”

12:00–13:30 Lunch

13:30–14:25 Ralf Bader (online): “Rights, Duties and Non-existence”

14:30–15:00 Coffee

15:00–15:55 Katie Steele: “Population Deontology”

16:00–16:55 Stephen Gardiner: “Contractualism and Tyranny Over Possible People”

All times are in CET. The event is held at IFFS, in Stockholm. Online participation is possible. Contact the organiser for questions.

If you wish to participate online, please use the following Starleaf link:

Meeting ID: 414 307 5488


Krister Bykvist (IFFS)

Who should care about impossibility theorems in population ethics?

Abstract: It is a well-known fact that various impossibility theorems show that there is no theory about the value of populations that can satisfy all of the conditions we want to set on such a theory. It is not all clear which condition we should give up, something which many think is especially worrying since in the face of climate change we need to make urgent decisions that will affect the size and composition of future populations. In my previous research, I have tried out two ways of responding to these theorems that do not involve a wholesale rejection of any of the conditions (the evaluative uncertainty approach and the degrees of satisfaction approach). Here I want to take a step back, for it turns out that not everyone is convinced that the impossibility theorems is anything to worry about unless you subscribe to a consequentialist welfarist moral framework. One recent example of this is Samuel Scheffler, who in his book Why worry about future generations (OUP, 2018) argues that in order to determine the reasons we have to care about future people there is no need to construct a population axiology and thus we can simply sidestep the accompanying impossibility theorems. I shall argue that this reflects a serious misunderstanding of population ethics and its impossibility theorems. These theorems are troubling for all reasonable moral views.

Tim Campbell: IFFS

Axiological Retributivism and the Desert Neutrality Paradox

Abstract: According to axiological retributivism, people can deserve what is bad for them, and an outcome in which someone gets what she deserves, even if it is bad for her, can thereby have intrinsic positive value. In this paper, I consider how axiological retributivism should address comparisons of outcomes that differ with respect to the number and identities of deserving agents. Attempting to answer this question exposes a problem for axiological retributivism that parallels a well-known problem in population axiology introduced by John Broome. The problem for axiological retributivism is that it supports the existence of a range of negative wellbeing levels such that if a deserving person comes into existence at any of these levels, the resulting outcome is neither better nor worse with respect to desert. But the existence of such a range is inconsistent with a set of very plausible axiological claims. I call this the desert neutrality paradox. After introducing the paradox, I consider several possible responses to it. I suggest that the most reasonable response is to reject axiological retributivism.

Ralf Bader

Rights, duties and non-existence

Abstract: Appealing to rights in the context of variable population ethics runs into difficulties. In particular, in cases where the existence of the rights-bearer and hence of the right is dependent on the very action in question, it is difficult to appeal to rights to establish that certain procreative choices are impermissible. This paper will examine to what extent these difficulties can be circumvented by focusing on the correlative duties on the part of procreators, especially on the way in which problematic procreative choices have as their implication that there are non-fulfillable duties on the part of procreators.


Katie Steele: Australian National University / IFFS 

Population Deontology

Abstract: The distribution of welfare over the resulting population is widely considered to have at least some importance in so-called ‘population-affecting’ choices. Hence why the ‘impossibility results’ of welfarist population axiology are thought to be an impasse for everyone, whatever their overall account of population ethics. Here I explore whether some overall accounts of population ethics can nonetheless open up ‘ways out’ of the impasse. In particular, I explore an overall account that involves deontic constraints on population-affecting choices. These deontic constraints can be construed in terms of the basic rights of the persons who would actually exist in an act outcome (and may look a lot like a ‘sufficientarian view’, e.g., Huseby 2012). I argue that such constraints are plausible, and moreover, they serve as safeguards that can make a less demanding welfarist population axiology also seem credible, even one that privileges the welfare of those persons who live closer to the present.

Stephen Gardiner

Contractualism and Tyranny Over Possible People

Abstract: Mainstream moral contractualists hold that, properly-speaking, one can only wrong actual people. In this paper, I aim to motivate and then explore an alternative approach that takes seriously the claim that merely possible people can be wronged. This approach makes sense of some key examples, and also suggests a more intuitive view on wrongful human extinction.