On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in

  Population Ethics



     B.Contestabile    admin@socrethics.com                                                           First version 2007   Last version 2015








Starting point

Starting point of this paper is the following citation concerning the state of contemporary population ethics:

“Most discussion in population ethics has concentrated on how to evaluate populations in regard to their goodness, that is, how to order populations by the relations “is better than” and “is as good as”. This field has been riddled with paradoxes which purport to show that our considered beliefs are inconsistent in cases where the number of people and their welfare varies.” [Arrhenius 2004, 201].



Type of problem

The best known and most discussed example shattering our intuitions is Parfit’s

Mere Addition Paradox. This paper explores the potential of the Buddhist Truths to answer the following questions:

         What is at the source of the Mere Addition Paradox?

         Why are paradoxes unavoidable in population ethics?




         The comparison of classical utilitarian and Buddhist intuitions demonstrates the close tie between intuitions and interests. The perplexing Buddhist intuition about non-existence can be explained (except for metaphysical reasons) by a radically different priority given to survival.

         The method of measuring the quality of life is not decisive for the existence of paradoxes. The Buddhist axiology changes but doesn’t remove counter-intuitive combinations.

         If the conflict of interest (quantity versus quality) is described within a two parameter model, it causes conflicting intuitions. In axiologies which favour quantity (utilitarianism) or quality (perfectionism) the conflicting intuitions inevitably lead to paradoxes.

         In order to find a compromise one would have to find a universal interest and a corresponding universal intuition. The obvious candidate to meet this request is sympathy. But since there is no universal consensus on the desirable degree of sympathy, the normative force of such an approach is limited.

         Breaking out of the two parameter model and accepting the incommensurability of certain qualities threatens the normative claim of population ethics.










The full text was published 2010 in


Contemporary Buddhism, Volume 11, Issue 1


pp. 103-113








Addendum:  How many people should there be?   



According to the above abstract there is no consistent theoretical answer.

In the following we have a look at some practical approaches. They depend on various assumptions:




1.  The different qualities of welfare are assumed to be commensurable



Positive total welfare

Classical utilitarianism – despite of its expansionist potential [Contestabile, 109] – does not have a preference for quantity. Total welfare can be augmented by an improvement of quality as well. But the fact that the improvement of quality takes more energy than the multiplication of the same quality favours expansion at the cost of quality.


         It is easier to copy an invention than to invest in research (e.g. generic drugs)

         It is easier to procreate than to improve the quality of life [Parfit, 387-390].

Expansive population policies at the cost of quality can be prevented by comparing averages:

The most popular theory among welfare economists, Average Utilitarianism, ranks populations according to the average welfare per life in the population [Arrhenius 2000, 53].

Average utilitarianism says that the best population size is the one that produces the highest average welfare.

Despite of its theoretical deficiencies [Arrhenius 2000, 53-57][Broome, 191-195] this normative guideline has some influence on national policies.

The term welfare has to be associated with life satisfaction; it is not restricted to economic welfare.

Human rights and intergenerational justice are side constraints for the maximization of average welfare.



Negative total welfare

Insofar as the Speed Limit example [Contestabile, 110-111] is concerned with the distribution of welfare among a fixed number of people; it does not contribute to population ethics [Arrhenius 2000, 110]. Its relevance concerns the comparison with an empty population.

         If the suffering of the traffic victims surpasses the happiness of the drivers, then – according to classical utilitarianism – it is better to stop mobile traffic.

         If the suffering within a population surpasses its happiness, then – according to the same logic – it is better to stop procreation; non-existence is the lesser evil.

But the empty population is only a theoretical option. In practice it is impossible to eradicate humanity by global voluntary childlessness or by a conscious violent self-destruction. Populations with negative total welfare have to be analysed like the mirror image of populations with positive total welfare [Broome, 213].

         For the rationality of a negative total, see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.

         For a practical implementation see Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering, chapter Negative Utilitarianism.



The sign of total welfare

The following assumptions decide about the sign of total welfare:

1.      The notion of a life worth living:

a.      If non-existence is considered to be the worst case, then every life is worth living [Broome, 2-12] and total welfare is necessarily positive.

b.      If non-existence is considered to be the best case, then no life is worth living [Stanford, chapter 2.4] and total welfare is necessarily negative.

c.      If a life worth living is understood as a life with positive welfare, then total welfare can be either positive or negative.

2.      Within case (1c) it is decisive, how suffering is measured relative to happiness:

a.      Current surveys on life satisfaction suggest that total welfare is positive.

b.      If suffering is given a higher weight than in surveys, then total welfare may turn negative.

Above assumptions are shaped by conflicting interests:

         The biological interest to expand life favors a positive evaluation and triggers a corresponding expansive policy.

         The Buddhist interest to avoid suffering favors a negative evaluation and triggers a corresponding contractive policy.

The predominating assumption that total welfare is positive, might be the result of a distorted perception, caused by the biological interest to expand life, see Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition.





2.   The different qualities of welfare are assumed to be incommensurable



Majority opinion

The Speed Limit example [Contestabile, 110-111] is useful to introduce the concept of incommensurability, because it compares the convenience of the car drivers with the suffering of traffic victims.

The aggregation of incommensurable preferences is the most general approach to solve conflicts of interest (like quantity versus quality). The “repugnancy” of a population [Contestabile, 105] can be considered to be a matter of individual preference. A majority-definition of “repugnancy” is then derived by aggregating the individual preferences for each combination of population-size and welfare. If the individuals are well informed about the consequences of a certain population policy and if they can freely express their attitude towards risk, then the aggregation of their preferences delivers an inter-subjective criterion to decide between policies.

For ethicists, however, majority decisions are not a satisfying answer to the question “How many people should there be?”.

Majority decisions may overrule normative guidelines, but they do not replace them.


1.      The right to have an unlimited number of children is (in world of limited resources) in conflict with the right to alimentation.

2.      If the carbon technology induces global warming, it can be stopped by majority decision, even if the people in this branch of the industry lose their jobs. But if a majority works in the carbon industry and votes for politicians who promote their short-term interests, then the majority decision is in conflict with intergenerational justice.



Reproductive liberty

Is reproductive liberty a human right?

Although reproductive liberty is not specifically listed as an individual right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), a variety of UN declarations, resolutions, covenants and conventions have been taken to justify the claim that reproduction within the family is a fundamental human right [Kates, 29]

Reproductive liberty is based on the assumption that self-regulation is the best policy, similar to Adams Smith’s invisible hand respectively the idea of a free market. If resources become scarce, then the incentive increases to find technological solutions. Arguments in favor of reproductive liberty are the following:

1)      The social system is too complex to make predictions. Within the family the consequences of parenthood are much easier to foresee than on the society level. For the parents it may be foreseeable that an additional child makes a positive contribution to welfare.

2)      The suffering of the possible parents from childlessness (or from not having an additional child) is unequally distributed. Families with many children compensate childless families in such a way that prescriptions are dispensable.

3)      There is no strict demographic definition of the word overpopulation. How would we define it?

a)      In terms of population density? If so, Bermuda would be more overpopulated than Bangladesh.

b)      In terms of rates of "natural increase"? In that case, Pre-Revolutionary America (1763-1776) would have been more overpopulated than contemporary Haiti.

c)      In terms of the "dependency ratio" of children and the elderly to working-age populations? That would mean Canada was more overpopulated in 1965 than India is today!

(Starved for ideas)

4)      According to empirical data the idea that people should be coerced into having fewer babies misses the point. Birth rates fall with death rates (i.e. by defeating famine and diseases) and with the availability of contraceptives [MacKenzie].

5)      The attempt to control birth rates by governments may lead to undesired results:

Example 1:

India's state of emergency between 1975 and 1977 included an infamous family planning initiative beginning April 1976, which involved the vasectomy of thousands of men and tubal ligation of women, either for payment or under coercive conditions. The son of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, was largely blamed for what turned out to be a failed program. A strong backlash against any initiative associated with family planning followed the highly controversial program, which continues into the 21st century (Compulsory Sterilization, Wikipedia).

Example 2:

Among the most interesting policies to be observed is the one of the People's Republic of China:

The policy has been implicated in an increase in forced abortions and female infanticide, and has been suggested as a possible cause behind China's gender imbalance (One-child policy, Wikipedia).



Expert opinion

1.      If humanity survives, the ones that disrespect birth control win from a biological point of view. But the price for survival might be an increase in suffering. In the case of limited resources and foreseeable natural catastrophes the protection of future generations requires restricting the liberty of the actual generation. Example: If it were known, that mankind will be destructed within the next generation (e.g. by an asteroid) most people would agree that childlessness is an ethical duty. From a biological point of view this strategy is hostile since there remains a little chance that somebody could survive.

2.      Religions with a claim to power encourage their adherents to have many children, regardless of available resources. Example: Certain Koranic schools consider birth control to be a weapon of the United Nations in their fight against Islam [Padnos]. Reproductive liberty allows improving the situation of a group at the cost of the entire society (which means in practice at the cost of the weakest members of society).

3.      If the world's population grows beyond 7.5 billion, mass starvation could well occur in many poorer parts of the world. Marxists and libertarians argue that the world can accommodate a continual increase in population through technological innovation and up to a point this is true. However, it is clearly apparent, even among developed countries that a higher population leads to a poorer quality of life – compare Britain and Australia for example. Unless you want to live like a battery chicken, technology can't help you without population control. In poor politically unstable countries like Rwanda over-population can lead to genocide.
Similarly, just because some countries can accommodate large numbers of people successfully doesn't mean the whole planet can. The world is increasingly an economically integrated whole with the more sparsely populated countries supplying natural resources and farm products for the densely populated regions. Under-populated countries don't really exist (
Why overpopulation matters)

Also see Reproductive Liberty and Overpopulation by Kates, Karol A.

4.      If reproductive liberty is counted among human rights, then it not only conflicts with restrictive population ethics, but also with other human rights:

If population growth continues unabated, we fear the problems of development will be "solved" by rises in death rates. For this reason, efforts to slow population growth should be treated as a human rights issue (Population: Enough of us now, Ehrlich Paul and Anne)



Intergenerational moral impartiality

According to John Rawls the principle of impartiality should not only govern the distributive justice within the actual generation (difference principle), but also among different generations (see Impartiality, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is unjust to let the actual generation with its temporary and biased interests decide about the fate of future generations:

1)      An expansion or contraction of the population should not have a negative impact on the quality of life, i.e. the quality of life is more important than the population size. The principle

a)      disapproves having many children if there is a threat of overpopulation.

b)      promotes procreation, if a shrinking population decreases the quality of life

2)      There is no moral demand to remain childless or to have children, in order to improve the quality of life of future generations. This principle

a)      allows procreating in an overpopulated world, as long as overpopulation does not worsen

b)      does not oblige people to have more children, even if an increasing population could improve the quality of life.

In this context the term quality of life has to be understood as a distribution of different qualities.









1.      Arrhenius Gustav (2000), Future Generations, A Challenge for Moral Theory, FD-Diss., Uppsala University, Dept. of Philosopy, Uppsala: University Printers

2.      Arrhenius Gustav (2004), The Paradoxes of Future Generations and Normative Theory, in the Repugnant Conclusion, Essays on Population Ethics, 45-60, Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publications

3.      Broome John (2004), Weighing Lives, Oxford University Press, New York

4.      Contestabile Bruno (2010), On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.11, No.1., Routledge, London

5.      Kates Carol A. (2004), Reproductive Liberty and Overpopulation, Ithaca College

6.      MacKenzie, Debora (2008), The Population Paradox, in New Scientist, Nov.22

7.      Padnos Theo (2010), Undercover Muslim, Bodley Head, London, cited in Zürcher Tages-Anzeiger February 1, p.29

8.      Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006), The Repugnant Conclusion