During the early 1960s, philosophers were not professionally concerned with social issues. The central issues in moral theory were the prescriptivity of ethical language, the is-ought gap, universalizability, and the definition of morality. In the population field, a few countries had faltering family planning programs and the United States disposed of surplus food through Food for Peace shipments. Only a few members of the general public were concerned about "the population problem," taken to be solely a problem for less developed countries.
In the 1970s, perspectives of philosophers, the public, and experts in the population field changed dramatically. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the population problem caught the attention of the U.S. public. Practically, this change dates from the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb. In the public mind, the population problem became one of the survival of humankind and affected both developed and less developed countries. Like most popular issues, within a year of the 1972 report of the U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, the population problem had receded from center stage. Although it made a small comeback during the 1974 World Population Conference, in the United States, Watergate and President Richard Nixon's resignation overshadowed it. The public image of a crisis requiring an immediate, drastic solution had faded.
Meanwhile, philosophers altered their perspective. The tumult on campuses over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, and then the abortion debate, caused philosophers to turn to more concrete social issues--applied ethics as the British are wont to call it. Even population issues received some attention, chiefly applications of either utilitarianism or John Rawls's theory of justice to determine an optimum or desirable population size.
The perspective of experts on population also changed. In the middle 1960s, the prevailing view was that people in less developed countries had many unwanted children because they lacked the knowledge and means to control their fertility. Had they access to family planning, they would control their fertility, and population growth would swiftly decline. After early attacks on this view, most notably by Kingsley Davis and Garrett Hardin, further studies showed that the poor in less developed countries were not clamoring for contraception. To reduce population growth, motivations for large families also had to change. The 1974 World Population Conference signaled a new emphasis upon integrating population activities in general development programs that would alter people's motivations for large families.
The time seems propitious to attempt to synthesize these three developments in perspectives on the population problem. Although this book attempts to do that, it basically reflects a philosophical viewpoint. The population problem is not a single problem, but several. Central to them is the moral issue of what duty the present generation has to future generations. Consequently, the population problem requires analysis in light of moral theory.
The central moral issues of population may be seen retrospectively. Current rapid rates of population growth in less developed countries chiefly came about . . .