Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Is There a Moral Obligation to Limit Family Size?

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Is There a Moral Obligation to Limit Family Size?

Article excerpt

A colleague tells a story about a graduate student who was passionate about the environment. Upon learning that his brother was considering having a third child, the student threatened never to talk to the brother again if he did have the third child because of the foreseeable detrimental environmental impact of that child's life. Surely the student would be wrong to cut off communication with his sibling. But was he correct in thinking that we ought to have small families for environmental reasons? I will argue that he was wrong on both counts.

For our purposes here, I will make two relatively uncontroversial assumptions. First, environmental degradation caused by human beings currently harms a very large number of human beings and threatens substantially to decrease the well-being and life chances of future human beings and other sentient beings. Second, among the many moral obligations that affluent individuals have, the obligation to protect the environment, prevent future environmental destruction, and when possible reverse past environmental destruction should be a high priority.

The Argument for Limiting Family Size

Bill McKibben has been a widely respected and prominent environmentalist for over three decades. He, more than any other individual, has provided a sustained defense of the argument for limiting family size for environmental reasons. In his book Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families, McKibben makes the argument that individuals ought to consider having smaller families. He writes, "but if we averaged 1.5 children per woman--if, that is, many more people decided to stop at one child, nudging the birthrate down toward the current European level--and if we simultaneously reduced immigration somewhat, then in the year 2050 our population would be about 230 million, or what it was when Ronald Reagan was elected. "While McKibben is not saying that everyone should stop at one child, he claims "that if many more of us did so, it would help. That gap of as many as 170 million Americans could be crucial, I think, in reducing our environmental damage. By itself it would not solve the problem, for our fierce appetites and our old fashioned fossil-fuel technologies also account for much of our dilemma. But it would make a difference."

McKibben specifically sets aside a number of considerations that would prevent us from accepting the small families argument. First, he rejects the idea that we ought to impose any kind of restrictions on individuals' choices about reproduction. Second, he focuses specifically on western populations (and perhaps on affluent western populations). Third, he rejects draconian restrictions on immigration to affluent nations although he does endorse some immigration restrictions. McKibben also recognizes that curbing population growth is only one of many steps needed to address environmental degradation.

It is not entirely clear what McKibben believes the moral status of his claim is. At a minimum he is arguing that at least some individuals who are considering having more children ought to limit the size of their families for environmental reasons.

A generalized argument for the moral obligation to limit family size for environmental reasons can be reconstructed as follows. Individuals have a standing moral obligation not to cause environmental destruction. Affluent people living in developed countries cause excessive environmental destruction. When affluent people living in developed countries have more children, they bring more people into the world who are likely to cause excessive environmental destruction. If population sizes decreased in developed, affluent countries, environmental destruction would be significantly reduced. Therefore, since having more children will likely cause more environmental destruction and having fewer children will likely reduce contributions to environmental destruction, individuals ought to limit family size for environmental reasons. …

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