If abolishing China’s one child policy led to more children, would it be so bad?

Written by Simon Beard

This is an unedited version of a paper which was originally published on The Conversation:

please see here to read the original article

After 35 years, the Chinese government recently announced the abolition of its controversial one child policy for one that will allow all Chinese citizens to have up to two children. Whilst this increased respect for personal autonomy is undoubtedly good, it is not clear if the lifting of the ban will actually lead to a marked increase in China’s birth rate – while the birth rate has dramatically reduced since the policy was introduced, so too have those of neighbouring countries without such policies.

Whether or not Chinese parents decide to use their new-found rights to procreate, the move does raise questions. Would it be good or bad if more children were now born in China and the population grew? And what value might there be in any changes to China’s population size and structure?

There are several reasons to think that more Chinese children would be a good thing. These children, or at least the vast majority of them, can expect to live lives that are ‘worth living’. They will enjoy the good things life has to offer and there is no reason to assume that they will suffer unduly. Whilst China is far from the perfect place to grow up, Chinese people born in 2015 have better expectations for health, education, and prosperity than at any other time in history. More children could also help to solve China’s two pressing demographic challenges: a rapidly ageing population and an over predominance of male children, caused by a sexist preference for boys under the one child. It seems hard to argue that these reasons do not make an increase in the number of children a good thing, at least in one respect.

On the other hand, many people worry that the world in general, and China in particular, may be “overpopulated” and that more children will reduce the resources, making  available to Chinese people, making things worse for everyone.

One thing we might believe that would strengthen this argument is that the welfare of currently-not-existing-but-merely-potential people does not make an outcome better or worse. This view is consistent with the common intuition that having a child is neither good nor bad. Call this the intuition of neutrality. Unfortunately, this intuition is almost certainly mistaken. Most of us would view it as terrible if human beings were to cease to procreate so that the current generation would be the last. Imagine that aliens were to offer humanity a choice. We can exchange all our procreative functions for a lifetime of sheer bliss, or we can continue to live as we are and humanity will be guaranteed to thrive for generations to come. If you are at all tempted to say that we should keep hold of our procreative functions in this case, then you must agree that the welfare of not-currently-existing-but-merely-potential people can make an outcome better.

Another view, which would strengthen the argument that additional children would make things worse, is that whilst the welfare of potential people matters, the number of such people does not. This view is not consistent with the intuition of neutrality. However, it does imply that if the addition of more people in the future made things worse for China’s current population then this may be a bad thing if it lowers everyone’s average welfare.

A hellish scenario

Unfortunately, once again any intuitions we may seem to have supporting this view are clearly mistaken. Consider the following two cases adapted from Derek Parfit. In Hell One, there are many people who suffer and whose lives are very bad for them, worse than their never having existed. In Hell Two there are even more people with very bad lives than in Hell One, but also many people whose lives, whilst still bad and worse than nothing, are not quite as bad as the lives in Hell One. If the number of people in each case did not matter, then it would seem that Hell Two must be better. Most of the people in Hell Two are better off than the people in Hell One are, and only a minority have lives that are as bad. If we believe that Hell Two is worse than Hell One, then the number of people in a population matters to us. We recognise that this minority of people in Hell Two represents a greater number of bad lives than the total population of Hell One.

However, if you do not accept either of these views it is hard to argue that the costs additional children bring with them will outweigh the benefits. One reason for this is what economists call “the diminishing marginal utility of consumption”. This means that as you consume more the utility or welfare you gain from this extra consumption will tend to diminish. One implication of this is that it is almost always better, in terms of producing more welfare, for a resource to be consumed by somebody who consumes less than by somebody who consumes more. However, this also implies that it is better for a fixed quantity of resources to be consumed by a larger number of people than by a smaller number. It follows that, even if additional children do nothing to increase the stock of resources available to China’s population, they can still increase the welfare derived from them.

Existential risks

Even if an increasing population is in itself a good thing, we might still view it as bad because of its wider effects.

One effect of increasing China’s population might be to increase our existential risk, that is the likelihood of human extinction, or otherwise to reduce the human population in the long run. Such arguments rely on the claim that existential risks result from the simultaneous global population, so that the more people live at any one time the higher the risks. However, for many plausible causes of existential risk this is not so. For instance, man-made climate change does not result from the level of greenhouse gas emissions at any one time, but by the build-up of these gasses in the atmosphere over hundreds of years.

Similarly, the exhaustion of the Earth’s non-renewable resources is a long-term process; it is not simply the result of too many people consuming these resources at the same time. Such processes will continue whether global populations increase or decrease. Undoubtedly, the simultaneous global population can accelerate the processes that cause existential risk, but it will also affect the number of minds, and hands, that can be utilised to avoid or respond to these risks.

Another effect of an increasing population in China would more people living in poverty and inequality. People in China remain poorer, on average, than the rest of the world and 150m citizens live on the international poverty line of less than US$2 a day. An increase in the birth rate of these people is likely to increase global poverty and inequality, and there is evidence to suggest that rising populations in poorer countries have completely cancelled out the effect of all efforts to eradicate global poverty. So does this make this kind of population growth bad?

Philosophers often differentiate between inequalities that result from the “mere-addition” of people who are less well off from inequality that results from making people worse off. While the morality of the latter kind of inequality is hotly debated, the philosophical consensus is that inequality that results from mere addition is not bad. As Larry Temkin puts it: “Typically, when we say one outcome’s inequality is worse than another’s, the same people exist in both outcomes and the worse-off fare worse in the one outcome than the other.” However, when the choice is between where the worse off exist and where they do not, “the inequality is not morally regrettable”.

The only reason that such inequality might be bad would be if some or all of the worse off lives created by this population growth were not “worth living” and were even “worse than nothing”, for instance lives of constant and unbearable suffering. However, politicians and policy makers are seldom willing to contemplate that many lives could fall into this category.

Unless we take the controversial stance that many lives are not worth living, then we should conclude that a growing population in China is not only good in itself but its effects are far less negative than we might think. It follows that it is not only a good thing that the people of China have a choice to have more children but it would be a good thing if they chose to have these extra children as well.

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18 Responses to If abolishing China’s one child policy led to more children, would it be so bad?

  • Angra Mainyu says:

    While I’m against China’s one-child (or even two-children) policy, I would like to raise an objection to the argument against the intuition of neutrality:

    “Call this the intuition of neutrality. Unfortunately, this intuition is almost certainly mistaken. Most of us would view it as terrible if human beings were to cease to procreate so that the current generation would be the last. Imagine that aliens were to offer humanity a choice. We can exchange all our procreative functions for a lifetime of sheer bliss, or we can continue to live as we are and humanity will be guaranteed to thrive for generations to come. If you are at all tempted to say that we should keep hold of our procreative functions in this case, then you must agree that the welfare of not-currently-existing-but-merely-potential people can make an outcome better.”

    Let’s say that in the future, humans developed genetic engineering and other techs that would effectively end death, and eventually decided not to increase their numbers anymore. Would that be terrible as well? I don’t see why.
    Granted, death still would (eventually) happen. But for that matter, extinction will eventually happen too. Still, one can modify the scenario and say they would make new humans (perhaps, copies of the ones who died) only if the population goes below a certain threshold, if that’s a difficulty.

    My point is that the event that seems intuitively bad (at least prima facie) is extinction without any successors, rather than lack of reproduction.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    Simon Beard says of Derek Parfit’s scenario:

    If we believe that Hell Two is worse than Hell One, then the number of people in a population matters to us.

    That is obviously incorrect: if we do believe that, then we believe it for that scenario. Simon Beard generalises the belief, without giving argument or evidence. The underlying issue seems to be that intuitive judgements about the number of people suffering, are qualitatively different from intuitive judgements about the number of ‘happy’ or ‘satisfied’ people. They can’t simply be swapped.

  • Hedonic Treader says:

    I do think many lives are in fact not worth living (i.e. experiencing).

    This is certainly true for quite a number of people and probably even more so for the animals used for their consumption.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    This kind of argument about the number of potential future beneficiaries is right-wing. It is associated with anti-environmentalism, climate scepticism, and growth-ism. It is an example of a new right-wing ideology, but the political intent is rarely explicit. (The Population Ethics project may be at fault, but also suspect that philosophy in general attracts right-wingers).

    The typical argument is that the number of humans should be maximised, to maximise the number of ‘happy’ people (well-being) and therefore to maximise well-being. This is then deployed as an all-purpose argument against environmental concerns.

    Now historically, the number of inhabitants is not 100% correlated with global environmental impact anyway, because most of the damage was done by the population of industrialised countries, and specifically countries which are industrialising. The issue of “overpopulation” is also less of a concern for environmentalists than it used to be, since it became obvious than consumption patterns matter more than pure numbers. This type of anti-environmentalist argument is therefore somewhat misdirected.

    That noted, what does the right say? They say, more or less: by questioning continued economic growth and continually increasing production for a continually increasing population, the left are denying billions of potential humans the chance of happiness and well-being, and that is as morally reprehensible as making billions of people suffer.

    That is the ‘numbers of potential happy people’ argument, in its political form.

    Now if we look at what Simon Beard is advocating for China, it is apparently a continuation of the current growth strategy, with ever-increasing production (especially consumer goods), which has associated environmental impacts. This he regards as a future with “lives that are worth living”. Specifically he writes:

    Unless we take the controversial stance that many lives are not worth living, then we should conclude that a growing population in China is not only good in itself but its effects are far less negative than we might think.

    This is not a ‘controversial stance’ at all, and the meaning of “lives not worth living” has been emotionally distorted. The phrase suggests the terminology of the Nazi T4 programme to physically eliminate the handicapped, lebensunwertiges Leben, an individual life unworthy of Life itself. Simon Beard specifically claims that:

    These [potential Chinese] children, or at least the vast majority of them, can expect to live lives that are ‘worth living’. They will enjoy the good things life has to offer and there is no reason to assume that they will suffer unduly.

    That is clearly untrue. A large proportion will suffer mental illness, most will endure poor labour conditions and work-related stress, perhaps the majority will become obese, most will suffer ill-health due to diet, inactivity and pollution. China wil increasingly resemble western societies, where only a tiny proportion of the population is happy, and society is arranged to maximise threat, lack of agency, and feelings of inadequacy. That is a ‘life not worth living’ in the sense that a good life has far more worth than such a life.

    It is both rational and good to reject this kind of life, which is so typical of modern western societies. In doing so, I am not in any way advocating that existing unhappy people should not be allowed to live, or should be exterminated as in the T4 programme. There is absolutely nothing wrong or ‘controversial’ in pointing out, that most children in China will be born into unhappy lives, and that a strategy of maximising population can not therefore maximise ‘welfare’ or well-being, in the sense of creating additional happy lives.

    It is plainly not true that “Chinese people born in 2015 have better expectations for health, education, and prosperity than at any other time in history”. They will have far more consumer goods, but that’s about it. Certainly their health, on current trends, will steadily get worse, leading to declining life expectancy.

    Philosophical approaches to ‘maximising welfare’ were never intended to provide an argument for adding more human beings. At least in secular form, that type of argument is, so far as I know, very recent. If the terms are to have ethical significance, then human ‘welfare’ and ‘well-being’ must be interpreted in broad terms, much wider than GDP per capita. This should be about real lives and real people, and not facile assumptions that adding people adds happiness or well-being or good lives, or anything like that.

  • doctor john says:

    basically with poor labor conditions and work-related stress, since the country had many people it sounded like a gud idea but it as well had its own disadvantages cos incase bad fortune comes to the only child you had and you have grown old what are the chances of having another kid? in my opinion i think its about real lives and real people, and not facile assumptions that adding people adds happiness or well-being or good lives, or anything like that.

    Reply

  • frizzled says:

    I had expected more attention to be given to anti-natalism and feminism.

    We should distrust the intuition that human extinction would be bad, precisely because any evolved species would be expected to say the same thing. Our instincts on this question will be for a sense of self preservation, not ethical consistency. This is illusory, and fundamentally tribalist/racist/species-ist. Your intuition that humanity going extinct is bad is no more valid than a white supremacist’s intuition that mixed race procreation is bad. If the human race evolved into a separate species, we would not see that as dying out, yet if we were abruptly supplanted by a separate species, we would be upset.

    This blog (and Paul Treanor) have argued before that extinction of subgroups of humans, and of animal species, is morally neutral. The same argument implies the human race itself does not have a right to exist, and that its extinction is not more worth worrying about more than the extinction of the mammoths. By going extinct we allow other species to take our niche, and perhaps to inherit our recorded knowledge.

    An argument can also come from minimizing suffering, as per Benatar and Singer. If suffering is always more important than happiness, we should minimize suffering by going extinct voluntarily. However, that can be argued both ways. Other species on this planet, and perhaps on others too, suffer as well as we do. It is not obvious that humans suffering outweighs that of animals, who have much less comfortable lives. Perhaps it is ethically necessary to ensure animals all stop procreating, even alien life in the rest of the universe, before we voluntarily depart.

    Finally this discussion is deeply involved with feminism. Simon Beard and Paul Treanor are both men. The ethical debates concerning reproduction have mostly taken the forms of debates around women’s rights, like abortion and contraception. There should be some self-awareness that male ethicists are on shaky ground to judge the ethical implications of a natural function of female bodies. Motherhood and procreation have long been contested issues within the feminist and women’s movements.

    • Paul Treanor says:

      The idea that the number of humans should be maximised is not in itself a concern for feminism, nor does feminism have anything specific to say about it. However, when it is applied to real-world cases such as the demographic policies of China, it certainly does affect women’s issues. Western media coverage is hostile toward the one-child policy, because it is seen as an infringement of the presumed right to have children. Without asking them, we don’t in fact know whether Chinese women all desperately want to have large families, and feel oppressed by the policy. In line with trends in other rapidly developing and developed countries, if they do want a family they are probably happy with one or two children.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        It is clear that some women (and men) feel oppressed by such a policy.

        As an analogy, most people will not oppressed if homosexuality is illlegal, because most people aren’t gay. But some people feel greatly oppressed.

        I don’t think there is any coherent ethical goal for which the Chinese one child policy was the best possible solution.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      There are some possible scenarios where human extinction would increase total suffering, but in the most probable ones, it would decrease it.

      There’s a good chance that life is rare and the great filter is behind us. If so, and if space colonization happens, humanity will create much more suffering than it prevents.

      Even if other alien life colonizes the galaxy and/or beyond if we don’t, it still comes down to who causes more suffering. It is easy to be chauvinistic about one’s own tribe’s or species’ moral status compared to others. But empirically, humans accept a lot of suffering that could be reduced with moderate cost. It’s not clear we’re automatically better in this regard than aliens. It’s also not clear current human values will dominate the future unchanged. And all else equal, we might at least fill spacial or temporal niches where there is no suffering without humanity, even if aliens exist and are equally prone to cause suffering.

      (Of course, most people will simply declare that all suffering is justified if humanity survives and spreads.)

      Just in case you don’t know it, the Foundational Research Institute has good essays on these topics.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        (This was intended as a response to frizzled.)

        • frizzled says:

          Thanks for the comments, Hedonic Trader.

          I want to point out a potentially important, albeit speculative, source of future suffering: Boltzmann Brains. Due to random quantum fluctuations, brain-like objects capable of (very briefly) experiencing suffering will appear out of nowhere, on a stupendously long time scale. In an open universe over infinite future time, Boltzmann Brains will experience infinite suffering. This must dominate any calculation of how we should allocate efforts to reduce total suffering in the universe.

          Therefore, we should postpone our own extinction until we have established there is strictly zero possibility of killing off the Boltzmann Brains (say, by somehow making the universe closed instead of open), or else have worked out how to do just that.

          If Boltzmann Brains actually exist and we can’t make them extinct, it’s not clear to me that reducing suffering is a useful ethical guide. After all, any number added to infinity is just as large.

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            Considerations like these are important, but it’s relevant to see them in perspective. Most people are against human extinction and voluntary extinction from nonreproduction will not actually happen.

            The probability of preventing Boltzmann Brains seems (to my limited knowledge) lower than the probability that humanity causes infinite suffering, e.g. by creating lab universes on purpose (I can’t put links here, but you can find essays on this on the Foundational Research Institute’s website.)

            Most people aren’t suffering minimizers and selection effects will make it even less likely that future earth-originating intelligence will be suffering minimizers. This casts into strong doubt whether human nonextinction will really reduce net suffering even if it were possible.

            As for infinitarian paralysis, perhaps not all infinities are equal? Also, perhaps no infinite suffering actually exists, or not all probabilites to affect infinite suffering are equal.

    • sane says:

      We should distrust the intuition that human extinction would be bad

      No, we should assume that as our first axiom, and treat anything else as insane.

  • sane says:

    Forget China. We need to boost our own birth rates. More kids means a bigger, better world. As you say, the ultimate impact on global warming, nuclear war or other extinction risks is unclear.

    I am planning to have at least four kids, although I think it is more important to be part of a healthy culture with a decent birth rate (and therefore, a future) than to have a huge number of kids myself in a sickly subculture or country. I want to suggest moving to another country if yours is too narcissistic, but it seems like the entire developed world right now is plagued with low birth rates: where would you move?

    Countries need to adopt measures to solve this. But I don’t know which measures.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      >More kids means a bigger, better world.

      Depends on the kids. With moderate assumptions about automation of low-skilled tasks in the next 3 decades, the lower talent and conscientiousness percentiles may well become economically obsolete.

      Whatever it is you want to optimize, increasing the raw number of children born is probably not the optimal way to do it (unless you want to just maximize human population for some reason).

      • sane says:

        More people means countries can maintain the same standard of living, even with less international trade. I’d like to see the global liberal order decline but without compromising our living standard.

        • Hedonic Treader says:

          Again: Depends on what the people. The comparative advantage of low-skilled labor in automated economies may be below human subsistence in 2-3 decades, especially after correcting for law enforcement costs and redistribution.

          Investing in more babies also implies not investing in other things, like innovation. For the first 2 decades or more, kids cost more than they produce.

          In long-term horizon, the ethical consequences depend on many other assumptions and axioms, e.g. I’d rather not see the universe filled with pointless extra suffering that we could omit creating.

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