Workshop: Ethical Perspectives on Population and the Sustainable Development Goals

25 September 2019, Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm.

Organizers: Eric Brandstedt, Olle Torpman and Henrik Andersson.


Agenda (for abstracts, see below):

09:00–09:30 Coffee

09:30–09:40 Welcome and introduction by project group

09:40–10:30 Dean Spears (Rice): ‘Population Momentum, Population Ethics, and the Prospects for Fertility Policy as Climate Mitigation Policy’

10:30–10:50 Coffee

10:50–11:40 Philippe van Basshuysen (Hannover): ‘Who’s Afraid of the Repugnant Conclusion?’

11:40–12:30 Simon Caney (Warwick): ‘Ecological Liberalism and Sustainable Development’

12:30–14:00 Lunch

14:00–14:50 Hilary Greaves (Oxford): ‘Some Contrarian Perspectives on the Population Debate’

14:50–15:40 Kimberly Nicholas (Lund): ‘Population, Environment, and Human Development in Science and Popular Media’

15:40–16:00 Coffee

16:00–16:50 Kalle Grill (Umeå): ‘Procreation and Consumption: Six Moral Differences’

16:50–18:00 General discussion and planning session

18:30– Dinner

Attendance is free of charge and everyone is welcome, but please send an email to to let us know you're coming.


About the workshop:

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set an ambitious new development agenda for the world. If realised, there will be no more poverty or hunger, and people around the world will enjoy higher levels of health, less inequality, and a safer climate. However, various obstacles stand in the way of such a future world. Most often recognised are barriers such as inadequate institutions, corruption, and autocratic leaders. This workshop will address another hindrance, which, although it affects the possibilities of meeting most of the SDGs, is rarely discussed: population growth.

Broadly speaking, population growth can obstruct the goals of sustainable development in two ways: first, a larger population increases the demand for scarce resources; secondly, the ensuing increase in consumption produces more pollution. However, it is arguably also a good thing that potentially happy people are added to the world: it increases its overall welfare. Furthermore, procreational freedom is an essential personal liberty.

This workshop aims to lay the ground for a future research project on an ethically informed treatment of population on the development agenda. The preliminary aim of the future project is to develop a normative framework for assessing population policies as a means to meet the sustainable development goals.



Dean Spears (Rice Institute): “Population Momentum, Population Ethics, and the Prospects for Fertility Policy as Climate Mitigation Policy”

Population policy and climate policy may interact in several ways. Here we separate four possible mechanisms and focus on the empirical prospects for one mechanism: reducing the size of the population as a climate mitigation policy to reduce carbon emissions. Prospects for such a policy are limited by population momentum, a demographic factor that limits possible variation in population growth over coming decades, even if fertility rates change very quickly. In particular, a hypothetical policy that instantaneously changed fertility and mortality rates to replacement levels would nevertheless result in a population of over 9 billion people in 2060. We compute consequences in a leading climate-economy model. As a standalone mitigation policy, such a hypothetical change in the size of the future population – much too large to be implementable by any foreseeable government program – would reduce peak temperature change only to 6.4°C, relative to 7.1°C under the most likely population path. Also important is that high achieved fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa are correlated with high intended fertility. Human development policies that reduce intended fertility may increase average well-being while reducing climate mitigation costs, but fertility reduction is unlikely to be a sufficient core approach to climate mitigation.

Hilary Greaves (University of Oxford): “Some Contrarian Perspectives on the Population Debate”

A popular and influential current of thought considers it obvious that a smaller global population size and/or (of course relatedly) lower fertility rates, now and over the course of the next century or so, would be better than the expected status quo. Drawing on existing work on population issues in moral philosophy and (to a lesser extent) economics and climate science, I will outline several lines of argument that each run somewhat counter to this current. In particular, I will present arguments (based on my existing published work) for the claims that

1. It is at best very unclear whether reducing near-term population size would help to mitigate climate change, in any ultimately relevant sense of the latter. The usual arguments that reducing population size would help to mitigate climate change crucially misunderstand the relevant climate science.

2. More broadly, when all relevant factors are taken into account, it is very unclear whether either the current global human population size, or the population sizes that are expected over the next 50-100 years, are above, below or roughly at the optimum. There are competing factors pointing in both directions, and it is very unclear what is the net result of appropriately weighing these factors against one another.

3. Very plausibly, the best moral theory has it that additional happy lives have intrinsic value, over and above the effect (whether net positive or net negative) that bringing additional people into existence has on the welfare of people who would exist either way. If so, this element of intrinsic value tends to increase the optimum population size, compared to a moral theory according to which additional happy lives are intrinsically neutral. Many arguments for the claim that smaller population sizes would be better hinge essentially on ignoring this contributor.

Philippe van Basshuysen (Leibniz Universität Hannover): “Who’s Afraid of the Repugnant Conclusion?”

‘Total utilitarianism implies the repugnant conclusion’ is a universally acknowledged claim in population ethics, and it is usually interpreted as an important argument against total utilitarianism. Against this received view, I argue that total utilitarians may deny that the repugnant conclusion follows from their theory. Assuming that the average well-being of a population depends functionally on the size of that population, I show that total utilitarianism implies the repugnant conclusion only under stringent conditions on this function. These conditions might constitute what Parfit called a ‘deep impossibility’, which gives reason to abstain from interpreting the repugnant conclusion as a decisive argument against total utilitarianism. A possible response is to deny that well-being is a function of population size, but I argue that this is not a plausible view on population axiology.

Kimberly Nicholas (Lund University): “Population, Environment, and Human Development in Science and Popular Media”

How has the scientific discourse on population evolved over the last 50 years? What does the current social discourse around population indicate for an evolving concept of sustainability? In this talk, I will share both ongoing research and an informal analysis of media and social media to illustrate how population issues are raised in science and policy and how they capture the public imagination, and explore implications for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and climate stabilization.

Kalle Grill (Umeå University): “Procreation and consumption: Six moral differences”

Thomas Young has claimed that overconsumption is morally equivalent to procreation, given the same environmental impact. Lately, several philosophers and other scholars have assumed this same moral equivalence when arguing that individuals have moral reason to abstain from or limit their procreation. I deny this equivalence, based on six independent considerations, some of which are relevant only for individual morality and some of which are relevant also for social policy.

First, the instrumental value of new lives is often great and different from that of consumption. Second, new lives are widely held to have non-instrumental value, unlike most consumption. Even those who deny that future individual lives have value should accept that the future of humanity is important in some collective sense. Third, the consumption of our children (and later descendants) is the result of their voluntary actions and so not relevantly ascribable to us, even if we are responsible for the minimal consumption required for a decent life. Fourth, the environmental impact of procreation is delayed in time in ways not applicable to consumption. Fifth, the environmental harm from the consumption of our descendants is conditional on the future actions of others, making it less attributable to us. Sixth, our procreative choices affect the procreative choices of others in ways our consumption choices do not.

Simon Caney (University of Warwick): “Ecological Liberalism and Sustainable Development”

Population size is widely agreed to be one of the drivers of environmental sustainability. Many have argued that, given this, there should be concerted efforts to limit global population growth or even global population size. A variety of different proposals have been defended. Sarah Conly (2016) argues that each couple is entitled to one child; Christine Overall (2012) proposes one child per person. Others do not prescribe specific quotas but argue for policies designed to discourage or disincentivise procreation (Cafaro 2012; Cripps 2015; Hickey, Rieder & Earl 2016; Rieder 2016).

In this paper I defend an alternative approach – what I term Ecological Liberalism. This is built around five key values – Equality, Liberty, Responsibility, Subsidiarity and Democracy. Drawing on the first three values it argues that individuals should each live within certain ecological limits (limits that reflect an Egalitarian theory of justice), that each can choose how to live within those limits (reflecting the value of Liberty) and that persons should bear the costs of their own decisions (reflecting the value of Responsibility). This approach needs, however, to be supplemented. An individual's ecological footprint is often profoundly shaped by factors beyond their control – the nature of the built environment, the design of buildings, the structure of towns and cities, the energy system, and so on. These factors are routinely ignored in philosophical debates about environmental sustainability, but they have momentous impacts on the volume of people's emissions. Given this, we need to go beyond a purely individualistic approach.  My proposal is that there where people's ecological footprint is profoundly shaped by collective factors (say a city's layout) those affected should have democratic control over the nature of these factors (Democracy) and can be held accountable for their decisions (Responsibility). In line with a principle of Subsidiarity, these decisions should be taken at as local a level as is possible compatible with honouring principles of ecological sustainability. I argue that this approach is not only the fairest and most liberty-respecting way of ensuring that individuals. and societies live within their ecological limits. It also encourages experimentation and social learning, and is the most politically feasible approach.

The point then is that individuals and societies are subject to responsibilities to limit their ecological footprint, but they can choose *how* they discharge their responsibility. Each must live within limits, but it is not for others to prescribe specifically how they do it. Many factors determine individuals' and societies' ecological footprint - procreative choices, levels of investment in technology, afforestation programmes, building design, infrastructure, the layout of towns and cities, diet, travel, lifestyle choices, how much people work, and so on. It is misplaced, I argue, to propose any environmentally-motivated principle for procreative limits in isolation of the other determinants. Having set out and defended this approach I respond to four objections.