One Child: Do we have a right to more?

by Phil Cafaro

Given current consumption levels and the ongoing attempt to increase them as fast as possible (through increased economic growth, the chief goal of most national governments) a strong case can be made that Earth is overpopulated. It almost certainly cannot support the current human population of seven and a half billion people for the long term (see last week’s blog), much less the higher populations projected for later in the century. Shrinking the global population is likely a necessary (but not sufficient!) condition for creating ecologically sustainable societies. At a minimum, continued population growth appears incompatible with creating such societies.

Despite this, many well-meaning policymakers ignore population matters, ostrich-like, and hope for the best. Regarding the failure to deal with population issues at the Copenhagen meetings in 2010, the U.N.’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, remarked: “A lot of people say population pressure is a major driving force behind the increase in emissions, and that’s absolutely true; but to then say ‘OK, that means that we need to have a population policy that reduces emissions,’ takes you onto shaky ground morally.”

Bowdoin philosophy professor Sarah Conly argues, contrarily, that given its importance, ignoring population represents the real shaky moral ground. Clearly written and carefully thought through, her recent book One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? represents a rare attempt to explore population ethics and population policy in a philosophically rigorous way. While the book is directed in the first instance toward philosophers, it avoids jargon and merits the attention of anyone with an interest in population matters and ecological sustainability.

Chapter 1, “The Problem,” discusses the severity of global environmental problems and the connection between these problems and overpopulation. Conly explores in this chapter why population matters have proven so difficult for environmentalists to discuss in recent decades. It argues against the kind of lazy thinking that resolves that “if Malthus was wrong in his particular prediction about population size, population size can never be a problem.” In response to the oft-repeated refrain that it is consumption, not population size, that is driving environmental harms, Conly responds, reasonably, that it is both: the growing per capita consumption of ever more capitas quickly ratchets up our environmental troubles. “Even if it is consumption and population in combination that pose our present danger,” she writes, “that doesn’t mean we’re justified in having more children than the system can bear. Contributing to either part of the destructive combination is wrong, even if they’re only harmful together.”

This chapter also states Conly’s central conclusion forthrightly: under current circumstances, people do not have a right to have more than one biological child. In what follows, her argument hinges on the claim that the potential harms of environmental degradation are significant enough to justify limiting the human freedom to procreate.

Not that Conly denies such freedom. People have a right to procreate, she believes. Chapter 2, “The Right to a Family,” argues for such a right based on basic human interests and on the fact that in most societies, “our standard model of a good life typically involves having some children.” Chapter 3, “The Right to Control Your Body,” argues for such a right based on personal autonomy and integrity, grounded in the respect we owe one another as persons. Conly’s arguments for these conclusions are solidly grounded in the philosophical literature on rights. In both cases, however, she goes on to argue that while these provide “reasonable grounds” for a right to procreate, they do not entail a right to have more than one child.

In the first case, while many and perhaps most adults have strong interests in procreation, these interests can be met fairly well by having one child. The kinds of interpersonal and intergenerational bonds cultivated in family life do not depend on having large families. A family with one child is just as much a family as one with ten children. A man or woman may desire more than one child, but, Conly affirms, they can meet their basic interests by having a single one. This being the case, while they may desire more children, this desire must be balanced by a consideration of the potential harms, to society, of their having more children. Like other rights, the right to procreate is not unlimited.

Similarly, in the second case, the moral requirement to respect persons and uphold their autonomy argues in favor of a right to procreate. In fact, respect for autonomy generally supports non-interference in individuals’ lives. Again though, this right to be left alone may be limited when my behavior threatens to harm others—including potential harms to future generations. And there is the rub. The environmental dangers of overpopulation may be serious and pressing enough to outweigh claims to a right to have more than one child. If they do not now outweigh such claims, Conly argues, these dangers may do so in the future, as humanity continues our drift toward ecological catastrophe. Thus ethicists and policymakers need to consider such possibilities. She notes that even Amartya Sen, a staunch defender of reproductive freedom (and complacency toward India’s exploding population), concedes that if this freedom were to lead to great misery, it would need to be reconsidered. But if that is so, it might be better to limit reproductive freedom while it is still possible to avert such misery.

Beyond moral persuasion, what limits might be justified? Conly tackles this question in chapter 4, “Sanctions.” First, though, she reminds us that “when it comes to stopping an undesirable behavior, punishment shouldn’t be the first thing we think of. There are other steps we can take that would be preferable to all involved.” Education regarding the connections between overpopulation and environmental problems might change people’s behavior. Financial incentives and rewards have often proven effective in convincing women and men to have fewer children, although Conly discusses how such incentives have sometimes passed over into coercion. Increasing contraceptive availability is a non-coercive, win/win approach, and “regardless of our worries about population, it seems the humane thing to do” in terms of furthering women’s safety and health.

Among environmentalists who advocate for attention to population matters, increased availability of contraceptives is about as far as most are willing to go. Certainly such efforts are well worth doing. But Conly notes that it is an empirical question, whether non-coercive means would be sufficient to keep human populations within sustainable bounds. And when it comes to protecting the environment, we do not typically rely solely on education, voluntary action, or positive incentives. Instead we deploy laws designed to force all parties to do their fair share, along with penalties for those who fail to do so. The ignorant, the selfish, the sloppy, even you and me in our weaker moments—free riders of all sorts must be constrained if societies hope to achieve substantial environmental protection.

How might this effect population matters? “If we believe that not enough people are going to give up having a second child to make our own choice effective, it is actually reasonable to say, ‘Why should I give up doing what I want to do [whether having that second kid or buying the gas guzzler] when it won’t even do any good?’ We need a big enough number of people to limit how many children they have for that to really make a difference: if I don’t think enough are going to do it,” then the whole effort is in danger of unraveling.

For these reasons, Conly believes laws regarding how many children people have may be justified. However, she points out that any punishments for breaking such laws must themselves be morally justified. Sanctions such as forced abortions or sterilizations are morally repugnant, she argues, while substantial fines may not be—particularly if implemented on a sliding scale that impacts the wealthy equally with the poor. That is her preferred approach, should coercion be necessary. In any case, “we can discover the best approach,” one that is both respectful and effective, “once we stop refusing to look at the issue.”

In chapter 5, “The Future,” Conly tackles some of the philosophical complexities involved in considering the rights of future people and assessing the moral salience of various degrees of risk. In chapter 6, she considers some of the practical “Unwanted Consequences” of ending population growth, particularly as regards the smooth functioning of the economy and the dangers of sex selection. In these chapters as in previous ones, her discussions are models of clarity and fair-mindedness. They are well grounded in empirical realities and rigorous in their application of ethical principles.

A final, concluding chapter argues that mild population self-regulation now might spare our children and grandchildren more intrusive self-regulation in the future. It also briefly considers how recognition of nonhuman organisms’ intrinsic value provides additional moral arguments for limiting human numbers. “That individual plant and animal species have intrinsic value is hard to prove,” Conly writes, “and of course even something that has intrinsic value can sometimes justifiably be harmed, if other, greater values are at stake. But if we accept that they have such value, we would at least recognize that when animals and plants disappear from the earth, we have lost something irreplaceable and of great value.”

I would have preferred that such considerations more fully inform the body of the book. A book about population justice that focuses on “just us” is an oxymoron. But given the sparse and rudimentary nature of previous philosophical discussions of population matters, perhaps Conly’s anthropocentric approach is justified. Since most philosophers and policy analysts tackle environmental matters from an anthropocentric perspective, this method may be best designed to secure a wide readership.
Conly concludes that “we need to realize that having children is just not a private matter anymore.” Furthermore, “protecting privacy in the long run will require recognizing the limits of privacy at present.” One Child makes a persuasive case that she’s right. Whether or not one agrees with her conclusions, the arguments she presents deserve serious consideration.



One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? Sarah Conly. Oxford University Press, 2016. 264 pp.

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3 thoughts on “One Child: Do we have a right to more?

  1. I really enjoyed this book and the above is a good review. However, after reading the book I had to make a comment about the author’s view on the topic of ‘cultural survival’. Below you can find the e-mail I sent her. I would like to share it here because I believe it makes an important point that isn’t discussed in the overpopulation movement (by the way, it is also something that is painfully missing in Joseph Bish’s contribution in Phil Cafaro’s book ‘Life on the Brink’). Of course I understand why the subject is not spoken of, but I think it is important that we – as scientists or philosophers – must remain faithful to the facts and not bow for the ‘political correctness’ that dominates our societies. The point that my comment wants to make is that we must not only protect diversity in the ‘natural’ world but also within the human species.

    Dear Ms. Conly,

    I write you this e-mail to let you know that I read your book ‘One Child’ with much interest. Overpopulation activists like me can add a very good book to their repertoire of tools they use to convince people about overpopulation. It is written in a very accessible language and the message is very clear and firmly supported by sound philosophical reasoning. Also very welcoming is the fact that the author is a women, something that only reinforces the message.

    As a philosophy student myself I admire your approach. It is a very sensitive subject yet you have succeeded in telling the facts with minimal ‘collateral damage’ to people who may find this inquiry inappropriate. But as a philosopher I must remain critical and continue my search for the facts without worrying about any existing dogma or accepted assumptions.

    I’m not the ‘mainstream’ population activist as I not only have interests in protecting natural biodiversity but also because I’m worried about the loss of cultural and ethnic diversity. I try to combine the subject of overpopulation with the equally sensitive subject of human diversity since both are closely linked. As an advocate of ‘universal diversity’ I would like to elaborate on your position concerning cultural survival. Please allow me to explain.

    In your chapter ‘Cultural Survival’ you rightly make a difference between the racist and non-racist argumentation. The people who are worried about the survival of their ‘kind’ because they believe that they are ‘superior’ and thus have more rights than others, are indeed racists. This line of reasoning is, like you say, false and harmful. But when you talk about the ‘not so despicable’ concern of mere ‘cultural survival’ I have the impression that you undervalue the essence of culture, ethnicity and diversity. You seem to entertain the idea that any individual is an empty bottle that can be filled with any ‘culture’; as long as the bottle remains filled there is no problem.

    My point is that diversity within the human species is not only a cultural issue, but also an ethnic one. If all European colonists would have made Native American culture their own before they massacred them, this would still be a tragic loss of diversity although their culture would have ‘survived’. Or – more realistic – if current European populations would be replaced by a pan-European type (let alone one of another continent) there would still be a huge loss of diversity even if this replacement would be completely ‘integrated’. In these examples the bottles remain filled with the original ‘cultural fluid’ but the bottles changed.

    We make this objection within the animal and plant kingdom but we fail to bring it up within our own species. The Canadian goose and the American cherry tree are a threat to European goose and cherry tree populations and therefore we take measures so that both variants remain in existence, side by side. In other words: we care about ecological diversity so much that we go to great length to maintain it. Yet we massacre ethnicities and cultures like there is no tomorrow and refuse to take any measures.

    Since this ‘diversity paradox’ is omnipresent in our society (I assume in American society too) I have decided to put it on paper, see attached document. If you find the time to read it I trust you will understand what I am trying to say, and this without writing me off as a ‘racist’. If it is written as clearly as your book you will understand.

    My best regards,
    Fons Jena

    It is remarkable that those who plead for more cultural diversity in our societies support a process that will eradicate most cultures and that we therefore, in the not so distant future, will live in a world with no cultural diversity at all.

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