Alonzo Fyfe is misguided about population ethics…

I have previously written an entry against Alonzo Fyfe on the subject of meta-ethics, where he completely butchered the idea that evolution motivates morality and confused it with some form of adaptationism. His moral position is one he calls “desirism,” which seems to be based solely on people’s desires (hence the name), although when push comes to shove he seems to retreat towards some form of cultural relativism.

The topic of the entry I want to examine now is population ethics, that is to say, how many people there should be in the world. Obviously, antinatalism has a very particular answer to that question, that answer being “ideally, zero.” This is, obviously, not a widely accepted answer; as I’ve discussed before, insofar as population ethics go, it is considered a reductio ad absurdum.

The most famous argument in population ethics used to support the “zero” conclusion is Derek Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion (which of course he did not himself believe in, because who’d be that crazy?). In this entry, Alonzo Fyfe tries to refute this argument with his desirist ideology. It is, therefore, of some antinatalist interest to examine the objections presented, since they have a direct bearing on the truth of antinatalism. If it is morally right for humanity to perpetuate, then antinatalism must be wrong.

Insofar as antinatalist theory is concerned, there is no reason for mankind to exist. There is no justifiable reason for anyone to exist, whether it’s one person or a billion people. The only way that people can validate their existence is by mitigating the harm suffered by themselves and others, but there is no reason for that suffering to exist in the first place.

Fyfe quotes the Repugnant Conclusion:

For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

From the antinatalist perspective, the Repugnant Conclusion is nonsensical because it assumes that all lives are worth living. It is clearly the case that many lives are not worth living. Furthermore, antinatalists do not believe that people are accurate about the quality of their life, as well as the quality of other people’s lives. Finally, most antinatalist arguments do not rely on quality of life at all, making the issue moot.

But Fyfe is not an antinatalist, and his objection is quite different:

This argument requires the assumption that each life us assigned an intrinsic value independent of interests or desires (though the intrinsic value of a life at depend on how many of the person’s desires are fulfilled). Or job – our moral duty – is to make this number as big as possible.

Desirism rejects that model.

I would very much like to know why Fyfe rejects the model. However, he does not tell us why he rejects it, and that seems like a crucial hole in his reasoning. I think it would be interesting because the view expressed seems pretty close to the views of some antinatalists (like Gary Mosher), with the exception that this intrinsic value is independent from the number of people that exist. Our moral duty is to protect this value and alleviate suffering, not to create more suffering and endanger the lives that already exist. As such, antinatalists tend to be negative utilitarians (aiming towards the lowest amount of suffering), not positive utilitarians (aiming towards the greatest amount of happiness).

Fyfe continues:

It asks a different question. “What reasons for action do we have to bring additional people into the world?”

Where populations are small, additional people contribute to the greater fulfillment of desires. Those who exist in such a world have many and strong reasons to promote interests that increase the population.

To see this, imagine one person living utterly alone, and the benefits of adding just one more person. Where there are two, add a third. Each new person provides significant improvements to everybody’s quality of life. Yet, in all but extreme circumstances such as on a lifeboat, they place little additional strain on available resources.

However, at some point adding new people produces less of a benefit; the law of diminishing returns applies.

Again, from the antinatalist perspective, these statements are nonsensical. Every new human being, whether one or a billion already exist, adds new unnecessary suffering to the world, suffering which must now be alleviated. The main difference is this: a new person coming to existence in the scenario where only one person exists will alleviate a lot more suffering than a new person coming into existence in the scenario where a million people already exist, but that is solely because the one person was suffering a lot more!

Let me put some fictional numbers to these scenarios in order to clarify my point. Suppose we have two scenarios, one where one person exists (P1) and one where a million people exist (P2). Because of the advantages of cooperation over independence, it is possible for the million people to alleviate their suffering more efficiently than for the one person. So suppose that the levels of suffering in each case are P1: -1000 and P2: -50.

Because of the unique forms of suffering caused by being alone and having only one pair of hands to gather resources, adding one new person to P1 is extremely beneficial. So suppose that in this case we’re able to go clear from -1000 to -600. Fyfe here is basically saying, look how much benefit this new person has brought to the existing person! That’s a +400 gain! But this is hopelessly naive. In P2, on the other hand, a new person may not change the levels of suffering significantly. Suppose a new person in P2 improves the average level of suffering by +0.001. Fyfe would say that this is where the law of diminishing returns would apply.

So, using the hypothetical numbers to provide some perspective, adding a new person causes the following changes:

P1: from -1000 to -600
P2: from -50 to -49.999

The gain in P1 is so significant precisely because the first person is suffering so much that new people can provide them a lot of relief, but these new people are badly off as well. The high gain that Fyfe touts as a positive of procreation only occurs at the expense of the first person’s suffering, and there was no reason for that suffering to exist in the first place. It’s all a big shell game. and a crappy one at that.

But of course a scenario where only one human exists but can somehow procreate is nonsensical. This is not, and probably never will be, the state of the human species. Therefore we learn nothing about the desirability of procreation from such a scenario. And the law of diminishing returns, as Fyfe would say, hits way before any sort of realistic number. The population of a hundred years ago (1.5 billions) is far beyond that limit. The population of two thousand years ago (somewhere between 150 and 330 millions) is probably beyond that limit as well, or at least close to it.

I will skip his explanation of the law of diminishing returns (as I assume everyone basically understands what that means) and go into his argument based on desirism:

I would like to stress that what desirism suggests to look at is is not interests TO bring more or fewer people into the world but interests THAT bring more or fewer people into the world. What reason do we have to encourage women to become interested in science, medicine, politics, consulting, and ends that would be thwarted by having children, thus motivating them not to select that option? What reasons do we have to promote interests in non-procreative sex over procreative sex – such as is provided through the use of birth control?

What Fyfe says here is profoundly offensive. He is basically acknowledging that women’s interests must be squelched for procreative purposes, and that “we” might decide to “encourage” women to do something else than become breeding machines if “we” (presumably, the men in charge) decide that fewer people should be brought into this world.

I’ve explained in the past how natalism entails the objectification of women and a profound misogyny which simply ignores women’s needs or desires, because natalism is based on the assumption that procreation can be discussed as an abstract concept and evaluated on the basis of its impact on the economy or society, and therefore that the number of children in a society can be made higher or lower, not as a real-life phenomenon that takes a physical and psychological tool on women, which ruins many women’s livelihoods, increases their dependence on others, keeps women oppressed into systems of motherhood. Fyfe writes from this sociopathic, misogynist mindset, because he is a natalist. There’s really not much else to it.

As you can expect, his answer to these questions has nothing to do with the well-being of mothers or children at all, but a simple economic rationale:

Where bringing more people into the world thwarts more and stronger of our desires, where we have reason to avoid greater competition for scarce goods and services, we have more and stronger reason to promote alternative interests.

I’ve already expressed how profoundly wrong this is, so I won’t repeat myself. I will simply note further the selfishness in Fyfe’s reasoning: the reason why we should not have children is not for any reason connected to the children themselves, not out of any concern for anyone’s suffering, but because they’ll take away our toys.

Should we be having more people? The answer is found by looking at the reasons for action that exist for promoting interests that will increase the population over promoting interests that will maintain or reduce it.

This is a muddled conclusion, to say the least. But either way, it seems to have no relation to the question posed. “Should we be having more people” is a yes or no question, and is not answered by giving reasons. I guess he’s trying to say that we must look at whether we’re part the point of diminishing returns, and he seems to be saying that we have, although he seems uncertain about this for some reason (how anyone can be uncertain about such a clear fact, unless you’re an optimist beyond measure, is beyond me).

I suppose some might say that Fyfe is not telling us what is moral, but is telling us how procreation is evaluated in reality, but this is equally spurious. Historically, none of what Fyfe said holds true. Societies tend to expand to the limit of their energy sources. Societies that don’t have access to plentiful, portable energy will tend to stay small and be unable to expand. Societies that do have such access, tend to expand more than their neighbors. Nothing to do with “desires.”

Only one thing that Fyfe said holds true, that the central question of population ethics is: how many people should there be? He fails at debunking the Repugnant Conclusion and he fails at showing that desirism proves that there’s anything valid about natalism. All he proves is that natalism is disgusting, but I didn’t need him for that.

One thought on “Alonzo Fyfe is misguided about population ethics…

  1. Brian L May 30, 2016 at 11:24 Reply

    I’ve never heard this before. Thanks Francois.

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