[lit-ideas] Re: Does This Have Wings?

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 14 Jul 2012 18:49:21 +0100 (BST)

Ed, your reply seems to me eminently reasonable and fair. Doubtless 
population expansion need not produce starvation and so the possibility 
that it might is a hypothetical: this was never denied by my posts which were 
conditional on 'if population were (likely) to produce starvation' etc. Other 
risks from population expansion and its affect on competition for 
limited resources include much greater instability within and between 
states - with the risk of wars. These are hypothetical too but not so 
far-fetched that they are far from conceivable. You are probably also 
right about the self-interest in my position and these words of warning 
also strike me as fair and important : I would be surprised if self-interest in 
preserving one's own standard of living were not the larger factor.  I don't 
think anyone is immune from the persuasion of self-interest, and this should 
make us particularly 
cautious when we're feeling altruistic, and have the power and ability 
to coerce.       
Even aside from assessing the hypotheticals in terms of likelihood, there 
are difficult moral problems here. I am inclined to think that a smaller 
population with a greater quality of life is to be preferred [though 
not unconditionally] to a larger population with a much lesser quality 
of life. In fact, even if the quality of life were the same I am unsure 
how a larger population enjoying it would have some moral advantage over a 
smaller one. But this, though it expresses something of my moral 
intuitions [which I might abandon or revise as a situation developed], 
is far from a pressing moral problem.

The pressing problem is that with population (as perhaps with climate 
change and nuclear weapons) we may envision a catastrophe and, while we 
might act coercively to avert imminent catastrophe, it is morally more 
problematic to act coercively when catastrophe has only a hypothetical 
character: yet if we do not act when it is hypothetical it may be too 
late to avert catastrophe when it is imminent.


 From: Ed Farrell <ewf@xxxxxxxxxxx>
To: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx> 
Cc: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> 
Sent: Friday, 13 July 2012, 19:39
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: Does This Have Wings?

Re: [lit-ideas] Re: Does This Have Wings? 
Friday, July 13, 2012, 8:26:44 AM, Donal wrote:


From: Ed Farrell <ewf@xxxxxxxxxxx>

>It's also clear in the arguments of Paul and Donal how utilitarian "ethics," 
>constructed as it typically is upon hypotheticals, is less about human beings 
>and more about statistical constructs.>

Whatever I posted is compatible with a rights-based and non-utilitarian view, 
one "about human beings" and not mere "statistical constructs": a so-called 
'right to have children' may have to be curtailed when having too many children 
undermines other rights (like to survive without some conflict to the death 
between the living). Starvation or drought being faced through over-population 
is hardly merely hypothetical or a 'statistical construct': and no morality 
says anything worthwhile if what it says is irrespective of any 'hypotheticals' 
in the sense of a practical problem-situation that is partly determined by 

Starvation through overpopulation, when presented as a moral club to
persuade us to large scale programs of enforced birth control, IS a
hypothetical.  Ehrlich, who Hart cited earlier, was a notorious
proponent of draconian birth control whose "starvation through
overpopulation" predictions were notoriously wrong.


From what I have read elsewhere, the evidence tends to support Chris Bruce's 
suggestion: that when sufficiently empowered and free from poverty women will 
not have more children than is sustainable. But say that empowerment does not 
occur so as to stave off a potentially disastrous expansion of population 
(which may make issues of poverty even more intractable, and lead to social 
instability and even war): it seems to me the 'right to have children' does not 
clearly trump any other rights and that legal restrictions on such a right may 
be justified in terms of the importance of other rights. 

What matters here is the moral problem-situation which is partly constituted by 
the 'facts'. On my view, there are conceivable circumstances when certain 
restrictions would be justified: and I can even conceive of circumstances where 
forcible abortion might be the lesser of two evils - say, if nothing short of 
such a policy would curtail an expansion of population such that mass 
starvation and social breakdown would occur. This is not necessarily only a 
utilitarian view but one that might be based on the view that there is 
something morally much more wrong in many starving to death than in some 
foetuses being forcibly aborted (as part of a policy needed to keep population 
within sustainable limits). If it comes down to it, I am inclined to think that 
there is something morally much more wrong in many starving to death than in 
some foetuses being forcibly aborted, but of course any genuine moral problem 
of this sort will rarely present in such a
 straighforward or clear-cut way. Nevertheless, what I am inclined to think 
here is very much "about human beings", and the reality of their suffering, and 
not "about statistical constructs". 

Well, but this "starvation though overpopulation" scenario IS a
hypothetical construct (and a rhetorical device, of course). It
is certainly not about starvation and suffering in any unequivocal
way.  Starvation and suffering are not one-dimensional but the
'starvation through over-population' scenario is.  We do not
associate the Netherlands, Japan or Singapore with starving masses
yet they have far higher population densities than the most
crowded parts of sub-Saharan Africa. When presented with the
figures for Japan's population and population density, someone of
Malthus's generation would have undoubtedly regarded it as
impossibly over-populated. More that this, population curves are
not the simple exponential series most "starvation through
overpopulation" scenarios (pace Malthus) assume, but are in fact
complex and difficult to account for (here's Japan again, from
the Eugenics Review of 1966):   



As it happens, I do not regard myself as utilitarian though I think there are 
many cases where some of the considerations that would weigh in certain 
utilitarian thinking have moral force (though that force need not be based on 
'utility' but on a sense of right and wrong; and so acknowledging their force 
need not make one utilitarian).

The suspicion is that over-population is not here offered as an issue raising 
genuine and difficult moral problems - problems we should try to foresee; and 
plan so as lessen the suffering that over-population might cause - but in an 
ideologically driven way to flush out liberals as crypto-fascists [or even just 
fascists] by perhaps showing them up as child murderers if they would ever 
countenance forcible abortion (as indeed I plainly would: though this is not a 
pressing problem for me as there are many ways short of forcible abortion by 
which we might better tackle issues of over-population). The attempt to use a 
morally serious issue in this way is itself morally questionable. The attempt 
to identify my position, with one that prefers statistical constructs to human 
beings, is false. 

I do not say that you prefer statistical constructs to human
beings. I do say you are too ready and willing to dictate which
freedoms and life-choices are available to others.  And while
some of your willingness may spring from empathy and a love of
one's neighbor, I would be surprised if self-interest in
preserving one's own standard of living were not the larger
factor.  I don't think anyone is immune from the persuasion of
self-interest, and this should make us particularly cautious
when we're feeling altruistic, and have the power and ability
to coerce.       


On a side-note that is perhaps important: I also share the Darwinian view that, 
despite all the humbug in our culture that hides this, the drive to have 
children is more of a selfish drive than an altrusitic one; and we should be 
wary of such drives especially when they come with a plentiful capacity for 
deception as to their moral character [large families in poor countries may be 
motivated by parents wanting a plentiful supply of children to look after the 
parents in old-age: that may be why removal of poverty lessens the drive for 
large families]. It is the kind of self-deception we have around children, and 
the emotional response we easily can feel, that allows examples such as 
over-population and abortion to be used as convenient tools in ideological 
warfare. But from a Darwinian and global perspective on the possible future, 
and not current circumstances in the well-off West, even forcible abortion 
might be a lesser evil if we do not act to stave
 off unsustainable population growth with its potentially catastrophic 


  ><(((º>¸. ·´¯`·.¸., . .·´¯`·.. ><(((º>
  Edward W. Farrell // ewf@xxxxxxxxxxx

  E d  F a r r e l l  P h o t o g r a p h y
  http://www.edfarrellphotography.com ;

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