One Child Too Many

Sunday, January 13, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, May 1, 2016

What Is It

The United Nations predicts human population growth will surpass 9 billion around 2050. We know the consequences of overpopulation have the potential to be catastrophic in terms of our continued existence on the planet, with negative environmental effects already visible. Limiting the number of children we have seems like one obvious way to tackle the problem. But is there a moral imperative to limit reproduction? Is having multiple children a right, and if so is it one we should give up for the greater good? What can we do ethically about controlling population? John and Ken have more than a word with Sarah Conly from Bowdoin College, author of One Child: Do We Have a Right to More?

Listening Notes

There are way too many children on Earth – of course people do not have the right to have as many children as they want, says John. Our Earth is suffering under the weight of all these humans! So, asks Ken, is John proposing that we just let humanity slowly die out? Thankfully, John does not advocate for human extinction. However, he does think that Earth’s population has to be managed somehow. But just how? John brings up China’s One Child Policy. But China is a brutal totalitarian dictatorship – you could not pull that thing off in a democracy like the U.S. How about a model like Japan’s? Ken says that Japan has suffered tremendously in economic terms. John then talks about teenage birth rates, adoption, public shaming, and higher taxes. But the question of interfering in a rational person’s life still stands.

John and Ken welcome guest Sarah Conly, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowdoin College and author of One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? Sarah explains that she became interested in this topic because of its contemporary relevance: every day we read about new environmental disasters for which overpopulation is the primary cause. John proposes a hypothetical: how could one persuade a rational couple who want to have a second child not to have that child? Sarah would say: 1) think about the life that second child will have when the expectation is that there will be 9.7 billion people in the world by 2050. 2) Think about other people in this painful situation. 3) Think about yourself. Ken is still concerned. The decision to have kids is not a calculation of the global well-being; rather, it is an intensely personal choice. How do global, abstract considerations stand up against emotional, intimate ones? Sarah responds that personal decisions are not just personal. They have global impact; to think otherwise is just selfish.

Ken says that people have a right to decide for themselves on matters of bodily integrity. What would Sarah tell a woman who exclaims “mind your own uterus?” Sarah would say that this woman does not have such a right because of the effect her choices will have on others. A right is limited by external considerations. We have a right to freedom of speech, but not a right to shout “Fire!” in a theater, because the latter would be harmful. But, John wonders, is this applicable to a case where an individual’s decision to have a child will be statistically insignificant? Sarah says we need coordination across societies; we can establish this through education, incentives like contraception, or laws. Ken wonders whether we would have to give up the right to procreate freely. The right to control our own bodies is the right to control it up to a point, says Sarah. It is not unlimited. Ken questions whether the mere shifting of burden is a harm. Sarah explains why it depends on the weight of the burden.

Sarah, John, and Ken then debate potential methods of population control. Sarah explains why she is not a fan of shame as such a method. We could instead educate people about sex, about population. There are misconceptions, such as the global fertility rate, that lead people to think there is no problem, when in fact that could not be further from the truth. They welcome questions from the audience, and they continue the discussion by considering points such as whether it is worthwhile to have a board of health that one could petition to have a second child. Generally, the questions debated ask: is having a children a right, a privilege, or a great moral wrong?

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:42): Shuka Kalantari speaks with a woman who has six kids and a man who went to great lengths not to have children at all because of concerns over resource consumption and overpopulation.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:35): Ian Shoales talks delegating responsibilities among siblings.  


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, December 29, 2018 -- 9:42 AM

I reviewed what was written

I reviewed what was written and commented on in your 2016 post concerning population growth and so on. After reflecting on my earlier comments and considering current worldviews that I'm aware of, I do not have much new to offer. I have six (6) step-grandchildren---all males. One is a grown man now, whom it is unlikely I shall ever see again. Not impossible, no, but, unlikely. The other five boys range in age from under two, to twelve. They are not in my bloodline, but I wish them all healthy, happy lives. Some may be lucky, or smart, or both. But, by the time the five are grown, probably long before, I shall be quite dis corporate---way dead. They are their own problem--and I contributed nothing to that. Maybe one or another of them will do something towards saving the world? Best I can hope for. Enough said.