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Review article: the ethics of population policies
Henrik Andersson, Eric Brandstedt & Olle Torpman
To cite this article: Henrik Andersson, Eric Brandstedt & Olle Torpman (2021): Review article: the
ethics of population policies, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2021.1886714
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa
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Review article: the ethics of population policies
, Eric Brandstedt
and Olle Torpman
Department of Philosophy, Lund University, Lund, Sweden;
Division of Human Rights
Studies, Lund University, Lund, Sweden;
Department of Animal Environment and Health,
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden
This is a review of contemporary philosophical discussions of population poli-
cies. The focus is on normative justication, and the main question is whether
population policies can be ethically justied. Although few analytical philoso-
phers have directly addressed this question – it has been discussed more in
other academic elds – many arguments and considerations can be placed in
the analytical philosophical discourse. This article oers a comprehensive
review and analysis of ethically relevant aspects of population policies evalu-
ated on the basis of the main ethical theories. This analysis is preceded by
a brief historical contextualisation of when and how population policies
became ethically contentious and how this relates to philosophical debates in
environmental ethics, population ethics and political philosophy. The article
also includes a conceptual analysis of population policies in which the empirical
intricacies around individual fertility decisions are sorted out and the dierent
ways in which they can be aected are categorised in a taxonomy which
highlight the most relevant ethical aspects of population policies. The ethical
analysis shows that while population policies can be justied on the basis of
most ethical theories, it all depends on what prior assumptions are made about
what is at stake.
KEYWORDS Population policies; population ethics; coercive; eugenics; population control; ethics;
Population policies are once again presented as a necessary means to reduce
humanity’s impact on nature and to save ourselves from ecological cata-
strophe. This time around it is the ever-worsening problem of climate change
that is taken as a reason to ‘discuss the elephant in the room’, that is, how to
limit world population. As always when this discussion is had, there is plenty
of ethical controversy. The ethics of population policies is a topic tainted by
the history of patriarchal, racist and colonial oppression it is part of. According
to some critics, it is not meaningful to even try to justify population policies,
they are instead best left out of political discussions altogether. But this jumps
CONTACT Henrik Andersson Henrik.Andersson@ﬁl.lu.se
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
to conclusions. Recently, the topic has been explored also by philosophers
(see e.g., Conly, 2016; Coole, 2018; Hedberg, 2018; Greaves, 2019; Pinkert &
Sticker, 2020; and additional references discussed below) and this incipient
discussion suggests that it is actually not clear what conclusions to draw
about whether population policies can be ethically justied. This is the
subject matter of this review article.
The focus is on the contemporary philosophical discussion of population
policies, or more specically on whether one can justify policies that aim to
limit the size of populations. This is a normative investigation and it is the
ethical justication we are interested in analysing and scrutinising. The ethical
reasons for or against population policies are not always plain in sight,
though, but rather often obscured in reasoning that must be reconstructed
to get to the principled ground of what is at stake. This is partly due to the fact
that historically, it is a topic which few analytical philosophers have contrib-
uted to. But it is our contention that these non-philosophical discourses
around population policies are relevant to consider in the search for their
ethical status. Indeed, we believe that these larger academic and public
debates over population policies form an important backdrop against
which the ethics of population policies must be considered.
The article is structured in the following way. We begin in the following
section with a brief historical contextualisation of population policies.
Thereafter, in section three, we take a step back to consider another neces-
sary prerequisite for a meaningful ethical analysis, that is, the empirical and
conceptual intricacies around population policies. We provide a conceptual
analysis of population policies which highlight the dierent ways in which
fertility decisions and population sizes can be aected by those who so
desire. The most important distinctions made are summarised in a visual
taxonomy which illustrates the dimensions in which population policies
should be evaluated ethically. Thereafter we turn to this evaluation and do
so in a systematic way by considering whether population policies can be
justied on the basis of the main ethical theories on oer, that is, ecocentric
environmental ethics, consequentialism, libertarianism, feminist ethics, and
theories focused on fairness. This systematic review of both the concept of
and ethical justication of population policies gets to the bottom of some of
the ethical controversies that again has played out in recent years.
The academic discussions about population policies can be traced back to
Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Malthus
argued that the human species has a natural propensity to propagate and
that this stands in the way for an improvement of the well-being of the
population; in particular as the supply of natural resources at best develops
2H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
linearly, whereas population growth is exponential. Thus, growth of the food
stock does not lead to higher levels of wellbeing, but to more people and
lower average wellbeing. When population growth is larger than food pro-
duction growth, catastrophe looms.
It was not until the end of the 1960s, however, that a general fear spread
that the population of the world was too large and that the uncurbed
population growth would lead to everyone’s despair.
The main source of
this was Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1968).
The Ehrlichs argued that much of the suering in the world can be explained
by overpopulation, and that this raises the question of how one ought to
reduce the world population. They argued that population control can take
the form of incentives and penalties, but they also recognized that clearly
coercive means may be needed. One example, they argued, is ‘the addition of
temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food. Doses of the antidote
would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired family
size’ (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1968, pp. 130–131).
Garrett Hardin (1968) came to a similar conclusion in arguing that coercive
population control is necessary for avoiding the ‘tragedy of the commons’ –
that is, in order to prevent individuals from overexploiting commonly owned
or managed resources. He wrote: ‘A nite world can support only a nite
population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero’
(Hardin, 1968, p. 1243). According to Hardin, this is not a technical problem
that can be solved with new technologies, nor can one appeal to people’s
conscience: In the long run those who do not heed that advice will give birth
to more children, many of which will have the same disposition to propagate,
which means that population growth will just accelerate.
This left Hardin with coercive means as the only viable solution for curbing
population growth. He does not point to any specic means which he thinks
should be adopted, but argues that coercion may be justied. To illustrate
this, he uses the example of how we would treat a bank-robber. We would
not appeal to his sense of responsibility to get him to stop robbing banks.
Rather, we would say that the money in the bank is not a common, and make
sure that our society is not constructed in such a way that this could be
perceived as a common. There are enforceable rules that prohibit bank-
robbing. Similar rules would be needed with regards to procreation.
Infamously, Hardin did not target everyone’s reproduction equally, but held
what must be described as a white nationalist or racist view about who was
primarily responsible; it was the poor people in developing countries who
were the cause of the problem and the ‘fortunate minorities’ in developed
control had to impose population control there because they are all in the
same lifeboat which otherwise would sink (Hardin, 1968).
Around the same time, the Club of Rome released its report The Limits to
Growth (Meadows et al., 1972), issuing stark warnings about ecological
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 3
collapse due to (at least in part) overpopulation. The general anxieties around
overpopulation expressed here, as well as by the Ehrlichs and Hardin, inu-
enced the philosophical discussions as much as the public debate. The
general discussions of environmental problems around the time created
several new subelds within moral and political philosophy. An obvious
example is environmental ethics, which studies the impacts of humanity on
non-human nature and the responsibility of humans to care for the environ-
ment. Indeed, the academic eld of environmental ethics arose in part due to
the ecological impact of human population growth.
Another outlet for discussions on population size was in population ethics,
which took form in the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s with
contributions from Jan Narveson and Derek Part. Here, worries about over-
population were addressed on a much higher level of abstraction – safe from
political controversies. The questions addressed were formulated in terms of
how to value the future. As Katarina Forrester (2019, p. 173) notes, when the
‘racist and civilizational discourse of overpopulation would gradually become
politically toxic for liberals and the left as antiracist critiques of eugenics,
sterilization, and population control gained traction’, the move towards
a higher level of abstraction made population ethics durable. One could,
however, argue that even if these philosophers took their views about the
value of future populations to be policy neutral, their ethical underpinnings
connected to a ‘technocratic theory of government’, which ‘was historically
associated with colonial practices of population control and eugenics’
(Forrester, 2019, p. 181). Some population ethicists also drew out the policy
implications of their ethical views, such as Narveson (1967) who argued that
no one has the right to produce a child with a miserable life which would only
burden the public.
The survivalist tendencies expressed by Hardin also inuenced political
philosophers. One example is Onora O’Neill (1975), who adopted Hardin’s
metaphor of a lifeboat ethics to address the joint threats of famine and
overpopulation. She urged that the most pressing question to ask is one of
survival: Given the radical shortage of resources, how can we save as many
people as possible? The answer she proposed was that there was a need for
both global famine prevention policies and population policies. Which spe-
cic population policies would be needed depended on the severity of the
threat and they range from ‘mild to draconian’, from contraception to ster-
ilization (O’Neill, 1975, p. 276 f). O’Neill’s problem formulation was widely
shared at the time by many other liberal philosophers who focused on famine
prevention and international humanitarianism. It also related to ongoing
policy discussions, such as the Brandt Report (Brandt et al., 1980).
As time passed, population policies became more and more politically
toxic. Eventually it was no longer viable to relate to individual reproduction
from a top-down humanitarian perspective. Individual rights and the rights of
4H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
the family to procreation took center stage. The International Conference on
Population and Development (IDPD), in Cairo 1994, marked this shift in the
general attitude towards population control. Principle 8 in the program of
action that was agreed upon states that:
Everyone has the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of
physical and mental health. States should take all appropriate measures to
ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, universal access to health-
care services, including those related to reproductive health care, which
includes family planning and sexual health. Reproductive health-care pro-
grammes should provide the widest range of services without any form of
coercion. All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and
responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the informa-
tion, education and means to do so.
The emphasis here is on the right to decide freely and the right to not be
subject to coercive means.
This so-called ‘Cairo declaration’ is part of the
political backdrop against which contemporary philosophers must position
themselves in arguing about population policies. The other part is the history
of racist, sexist and colonial practices which have characterized the imple-
mentation of anti-natalist policies. One might wonder whether it is possible
to justify population policies in this hornet’s nest.
Conceptual and empirical clarications
Before assessing population policies from an ethical point of view, certain con-
ceptual and empirical clarications are needed. Broadly construed, a population
policy is a measure with the intention to aect the pattern of a population, e.g.,
the size, ethnographic distribution, and geographical spreading.
however, population policies are understood merely as a means to aect popula-
While population policies can be implemented as a means to stop or
decrease population growth it can also be implemented as a means to increase
population growth. In this paper we focus on the former since this is what most of
the relevant research has focused on.
However, much of what we will say here
will also be true for population policies that are introduced in order to increase
There are many ways to aect population size. One can, for example, inuence
people’s procreative decisions – i.e., decisions about whether and when to have
children or how many children to have. A variety of factors aect people’s
procreative decisions. For instance, dierent social, economic and cultural factors
can be distinguished as relevant to individual procreative decisions, as well as
factors such as education, religion, contraceptive use, abortion, immigration,
cohabitation, age of marriage, female participation in the labour force, teenage
fertility, and government programs, children as a source of labour or old age
support, costs of raising children, health care improvements, gender equality,
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 5
maternal and social support, and so on. Some of these factors have been shown
to correlate with declining fertility rates, others with inclining fertility rates. The
evidence of eects of population policies is, however, mixed (Balbo et al., 2012).
Population policies can be characterized in dierent forms. Many existing
characterizations draw on the distinction between coercive and noncoercive
population policies. This is perhaps not surprising considering their history. The
practice of compulsory sterilization, for example, is a shameful legacy of many
societies and is today recognized as a horrendous abuse of human rights.
However, the coercive/noncoercive distinction is not very illuminating
(Moskowitz et al., 1995; Steinbock, 1995). Other features of population policies
are also relevant. One distinction worth making in this respect is the one between
direct and indirect population policies. A direct population policy is one which
targets procreation directly, such as sterilisation programs or family tax benets.
An indirect population policy is one which targets procreation via some or other
means, such as education programs. We will return to this when we discuss the
libertarian approach to population policies in section 4.3.
Dierent population policies might also dier with respect to their geographi-
cal scope, which is captured by the distinction between local and global popula-
tion policies. A local population policy aims to aect the population size within
a certain geographical area, while a global population policy aims to aect the
world’s total population size. For instance, restricted immigration can be seen as
a local population policy, since it aects the population size within a certain
geographical area (typically within the borders of a nation state). International
eorts to promote qualitative education for all, on the other hand, would count as
a global population policy.
Relatedly, there is a question of whose reproduction is targeted within the
(local or global) area. Whether or not it was the intention of past policy makers,
population policies have often targeted specic social groups. Sterilisation pro-
grams, for example, were often aimed at the mentally ill, the poor or more
specically poor women, or those belonging to certain ethnic minorities
(Glover, 1998). This leads to a suspicion that population policies have been
disguised means of social control – or, more specically, of separating or selecting
socially desirable from socially undesirable citizens. A worry about teenage
pregnancies may, for example, really be a worry about poor people multiplying
and creating costs for society at large, a worry which is taken as justication for
incentivising or nudging young working-class women not to procreate. We will
get back to this in section 4.4, when we discuss a feminist approach to population
Moreover, it should be emphasized that the intended goal of a population
policy is potentially relevant to its justication. It can, for example, be the case that
a population policy is justied as a means to reduce poverty, but not as a means to
prevent biodiversity loss. As we shall see below, dierent ethical views yield
dierent implications regarding which goals are relevant in this respect. This
6H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
also suggests that it is important to consider whether population size should be
understood as an end in itself, or merely as a means to some separate end – such
as alleviating poverty or preventing further biodiversity loss.
In relation to this, it is relevant to consider whether the goals, that would
potentially justify a population policy, could be achieved by other means than
population policies. Indeed, social goals can be met in dierent ways by targeting
dierent factors in the complex causal web of social interaction. Although redu-
cing fertility rates could be one way of reducing inequality and improving life
expectancy in a society, it is not the only way of doing so. Another way would be
to redistribute social goods. As an example, Hartmann (2016, p. 283) points out
that successful demographic transitions in Cuba, Sri Lanka, Korea and Kerala
cannot be explained in terms of population control. Instead, she argues, they
are due to factors such as income and land redistribution, employment opportu-
nities, social security, reductions in infant mortality, improvements in the position
of women, and accessible health care and education.
The above shows some of the conceptual and empirical complexities around
population policies. There are ethical questions in relation to all aspects of these
conceptual and empirical complexities, as we will see in what follows. It may
therefore be helpful to use the following graph, which illustrates the most
important dimensions, to focus the attention in the ethical analysis that now
In accordance with the graph in Figure 1, a population policy can be char-
acterised as being anything from (i) coercive to noncoercive, (ii) means to ends-
oriented, and (iii) targeting local or global demographic factors. Consequently,
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 7
a population policy can at least in part be identied depending on where it is
situated on this three-dimensional graph.
Moreover, this framework can be applied at an individual as well as a collective
level of morality. This relates to the distinction between personal and public
morality. In other words, it can be investigated to what extent ethical justication
can be given for (i) governmental or non-governmental population policies in
order to decrease the human population, and (ii) individual people’s measures
taken to inuence others to have fewer children. While it is quite clear that
collective population policies might be relevant for sustainability reasons, one
might question whether an individual’s choice to have fewer children is at all
relevant in such regard. However, just as a collective’s (e.g., a nation’s) ecological
impact is the product partly of the population factor, an individual’s ecological
impact is also the product partly of the population factor (in terms of reproduc-
tion). Murtaugh and Schlax (2009) and Wynes and Nicholas (2017) argue that by
choosing to have fewer children, an individual can – other things being equal –
lessen their ecological footprint compared to what it would be had they chosen
to have more children (see Van Basshuysen & Brandstedt, 2018 for criticism). As
we shall see below, however, most of our discussion will concern public popula-
An ethical evaluation of population policies
In this section, we assess population policies on the basis of some inuential
ethical views. We start with the ecocentric and consequentialist approaches
that are most permissive towards population policies in general. We then
move towards more liberal approaches, including the libertarian approach
and the feminist approach, that tend to be more restrictive.
The ecocentric approach: a case for reducing the human population
The most apparent normative defence of population policies comes from
ecocentric moral theories. Ecocentric moral theories employ a holistic world-
view according to which so-called ‘ecological wholes’ – such as ecosystems,
species, biotic communities, etc. – have direct moral standing. Nonhuman
parts of nature have a right to exist for their own sake, irrespective of whether
they are useful for humans. A conclusion that is often drawn from such
theories is that humans have no right to infringe on these natural entities.
What is characteristic for ecocentric theories, compared to the human-
centered theories discussed below, is their axiology. While human-centered
moral theories typically endorse only human-related values – such as human
well-being, autonomy, perfection, etc. – ecocentric moral theories endorse
environment-related values – such as ecosystemic integrity, beauty, stability,
biodiversity, etc. Sometimes these values are considered constituents of the
8H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
‘well-being’ of ecosystemic wholes. Whether an act is right or wrong depends,
thus, on how it aects these values – or, in other words, whether it promotes
or counteracts the well-being of ecosystemic wholes (Keller, 2010).
It is not entirely clear what more specic action recommendations are
implied by such views, but we shall not explore the ne details of the
ecocentric approach but rather its more general implications for population
policies. We will, however, distinguish between radical and moderate eco-
centric theories (Callicott, 2013). On radical ecocentric theories, such as, e.g.,
Aldo Leopold’s Land ethic, these ecocentric values are the only things that
matter for the rightness of an action (Leopold, 1949). As this implies, radical
ecocentric theories allow – or even require – population policies to be used
whenever that is needed for safeguarding ecocentric values. Such theories
are highly implausible. For instance, they are ‘ecofascist’, as Tom Regan has
argued (Regan, 1983), since they do not allow individual humans inviolable
rights and thus open up the possibility of sacricing individuals for the sake of
For that reason, moderate ecocentric theories might turn out to be more
plausible. According to such theories, human beings possess direct moral
standing just as ecocentric wholes do. Human-centered values are supposed
to count in addition to the ecological values. Human well-being must thus be
taken into consideration as well as the well-being of ecosystemic wholes.
Typically, moderate ecocentric theories imply that humans have no right to
use nature over and above what is required for satisfying basic human needs.
This notwithstanding, moderate ecocentric theories allow for quite sub-
stantial population policies too. Consider one of the most famous moderate
ecocentric moral theories, deep ecology. The relation to population anxiety
can be seen in the eight basic principles of deep ecology, formulated by Arne
Naess and George Sessions. The fth principle, for instance, states that: ‘The
ourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial
decrease of the human population. The ourishing of nonhuman life requires
such a decrease.’ The eight principle states that: ‘Those who subscribe to the
foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement
the necessary changes.’ According to deep ecology, we thus have an obliga-
tion to decrease human population (Naess & Sessions, 1984).
It is not clear from the deep ecological principles how such a decrease in the
human population should be brought about. Given the moderate ecocentric
stance of taking into account human-centered values alongside ecocentric
values, one possibility is that policies which frustrate basic needs of humans
are impermissible. At a rst glance, it might therefore seem that coercive
population policies cannot be justied by deep ecology. At a closer look,
however, things are more complicated. Indeed, even deep ecology regards
humanity from a holistic point of view. This means that it is centred around the
human species rather than on human individuals. Hence, ‘basic human needs’
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 9
should be understood, not in terms of what is required for the survival and
well-being of individual human beings, but rather in terms of what is required
for the survival or well-being of the human species. And those things are quite
dierent. The survival and well-being of the human species is consistent with
both death and suering of a great number of human individuals.
Since there is no doubt that the human population is currently expanding
at the cost of other species on Earth, as well as the toll it takes on many
ecosystems, it seems quite clear that the current human population size is
problematic from any ecocentric perspective. As this suggests, they all seem
capable of justifying population policies on the condition that the objective is
to care for the well-being of ecosystemic wholes. As a consequence, it seems
quite clear that ecocentric moral theories can both in principle and in practice
allow for substantial population policies of many kinds.
It should be noted, though, that things are a bit more complicated here as
well. Humanity’s impact on the Earth’s ecological systems can be explained in
terms of the I = P*A*T equation, where the ecological impact (I) is the product
of three factors: the population size (P), this population’s auence measured
in consumption of goods and services (A), and the technology with which
these goods and services are produced (T). Consequently, the population
factor is not the only factor by which ecosystemic health can be safeguarded.
This same end could be reached through decreased consumption or
improved technology, or some combination thereof. This in turn suggests
that even if ecocentric theories could justify population policies, they require
them only if there are no other alternatives available.
That being said, it is clear that population policies based on an ecocentric
approach will be ends oriented. Depending on the specics of the applica-
tion, they can belong to the sphere of public as well as private morality, and
be placed anywhere along the dimensions of coercive/non-coercive and
The consequentialist approach: a case for eciency
Roughly, a consequentialist ethical theory can justify the implementation of
a population policy if – and only if – it leads to better consequences than the
implementation of any alternative (including other population policies as well
as no policies at all). The consequentialist approach adopts a dierent axiol-
ogy than the ecocentric approach. Typically, consequentialist theories are
welfarist. In other words, they do not take into account any ecocentric values:
Only the well-being of humans and other sentient beings matter for the
rightness of an action. This restriction to the well-being of sentient beings
implies a restriction on which population policies that can be justied. Still,
one cannot in principle rule out any population policy from the perspective of
consequentialism – not even coercive population policies. If a coercive policy
10 H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
leads to more overall well-being in the world, then, on a welfarist approach, it
is justied. This is acknowledged by Räikkä (2001), who claims that coercive
population policies may in some cases be preferable to noncoercive ones.
Whether or not a population policy is justied, he argues, depends on the
eciency of the means it proposes and the potential harm of restricting
individuals’ procreative liberty by such means compared to the harm reduc-
tion thereby brought about through a smaller population size.
Robin Atteld (2015, p. 129) gives another consequentialist argument for
population policies. He argues that China’s one child policy actually presents
a case for coercive population policies. He reasons as follows: noncoercive
means would have been insucient for limiting the population growth in
China and an uncontrolled population would have led to catastrophic con-
sequences. So, while he acknowledges that China may have acted ethically
wrong by limiting reproductive freedom, that is if they thereby failed to
minimize harmful consequences, if the alternative for China would have
been no population policy and thus catastrophe, then the coercive nature
of the one child policy is justied.
Although it is thus clear that any type of population policy can in principle be
justied from a consequentialist perspective, nothing has been said so far about
exactly how a population policy must be conducted more concretely in order to
be justied. Few consequentialists have explicitly discussed the specics of
population policies in this respect. Philip Cafaro (2015) is an exception. He
argues that we must take the severity of the possible consequences of climate
change into consideration when assessing population policies. He proposes
restricted immigration as a concrete population policy. By closing the borders
of the state, he argues, the population size of a nation will be limited to the
(procreation of) its existing members. This would thus count as a local popula-
tion policy. However, Cafaro argues for this policy on the basis that immigration
increases the greenhouse gas emissions. More specically, he argues that the US
ought to severely limit immigration in order to become ecologically sustainable.
The ethical discussion around immigration policies is complex and it is
far from clear that restricted immigration is justied on consequentialist
grounds. Among other things, the eects on the would-be immigrants’
well-being, the long-term consequences for the economy, and the bad-
ness of climate change, must be taken into consideration before one can
conclude that restricted immigration is all things considered a justied
policy. In relation to this, it should be mentioned that fertility rates are,
indeed, falling in parts of the world, much due to the abovementioned
factors. This has had as a consequence that some express worries about
a declining population. For example, Ben Wattenberg (2004) discusses the
demographic challenges we face with falling fertility rates. Especially in
Europe this will have serious consequences that need to be addressed
according to Wattenberg. Similarly, Bricker and Ibbitson (2019) stresses
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 11
that important developments in the world have allowed women to have
fewer children than previous generations which will lead to a decreasing
world population with all the challenges that comes with it.
Moreover, consequentialists in general tend to acknowledge that there
are better alternatives to coercive population policies. Consequentialists,
who claim that it is our moral obligation to make sure that procreation
ends since existence entails more suering than joy, still argue that
coercive means should be avoided. The most well-known consequentialist
having such a view today may be David Benatar. He argues that if the
state were to implement coercive population policies (e.g., via legal
prohibitions of procreation), then it would have to ‘engage in highly
intrusive policing and the invasion of privacy that that would entail’,
which would in eect lead to very bad consequences (D. Benatar, 2008,
p. 106). Obligatory abortions, for instance, would have the consequences
that women would hide their pregnancy and give birth in places lacking
the proper medical equipment which would in turn lead to much suer-
ing. Even if Benatar is vague about which means to implement in this
regard, it is clear from his (David Benatar, 2020) that he thinks that given
certain commonly accepted conditions, e.g., that we ought to combat
global property, it follows that procreative freedom should be restricted.
This suggests that the consequentialist approach would in practice recom-
mend noncoercive population policies before coercive ones (if it would at all
recommend population policies before other means to increase welfare in
the world). To nd principled arguments in favour of noncoercive population
policies over coercive, however, one must look elsewhere.
The libertarian approach: a case for incentivization
While coercive population policies can in principle be justied on both
ecocentric and consequentialist theories, they are ruled out by many other
ethical views. One common critique is that population policies tend to unduly
restrict individual liberty. This critique can be supported on several non-
consequentialist grounds, among which the libertarian moral theory is per-
haps the most apparent.
On the libertarian approach, a population policy can be justied only
insofar as it does not violate anyone’s rights. More precisely, libertarianism
condemns violations of negative rights, that is, individuals’ rights to non-
interference. The basic idea is that individuals should be free to do what
they want insofar as they do not impermissibly restrict the freedom of others.
Since coercive population policies are per denition interfering with others’
procreative freedom, they are typically hard – if not impossible – to justify on
a libertarian ground. An exemption to this would be if the coercive policy is
an instance of self-defence, and as such necessary to avoid an interference
12 H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
that the would-be procreator otherwise would make. For sure, it is not only
the would-be procreator that has rights against interference from the state,
but also other people that have rights against interference from would-be
procreators and their ospring. As Peter Vallentyne notes, ‘one has a duty to
ensure that others are not disadvantaged in certain ways by the presence of
one’s ospring’ (Vallentyne, 2002, p. 205). If procreators fail to comply with
this duty, then other people have a right to defend themselves against such
failures. Population policies might be one instance of such a defence. Perhaps
coercive population policies could also be justied in extreme cases, even
though no one has violated or threatened anyone else’s rights. Onora O’Neill,
for instance, argues that coercive population policies can be justied only by
the threat of major harm, such as ‘threats of war, famine, disease, poverty,
pollution or overcrowding’. However, we shall sidestep this possibility here in
order to determine what noncoercive alternatives could be justied on
libertarian grounds. For, it is not even clear to what extent noncoercive
population policies could be so justied.
As mentioned above, individuals’ fertility decisions are at least in part
shaped by socio-economic and cultural factors. Hence, one potential means
by which such decisions could be aected, is through changes in these
factors which incentivises people to have fewer children. We thus turn to
the question of whether incentivizing population policies can be justied.
A closely related population policy is that of nudging – a notion introduced by
Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009) in order to refer to the
subtle ways to impact people’s decision-making. The morality of nudging has
lately been much discussed. Much of the discussion has focused on whether
nudging is a form of manipulation (e.g., Noggle 2018 and Sunstein 2015). As such
nudging appears to be coercive. For instance, a tax on childbearing might nudge
or incentivize people to have fewer children, but such a tax could be argued to be
coercive since it restricts people’s liberty in a quite drastic way. The only libertarian
justication for such a tax is that it is a means to internalize the social costs that
come with childbearing. We return to this below.
Hickey et al. (2016) give three criteria that must be met for incentives not to be
First, there should be transparency about the goals, methods and
outcomes of the implemented policy. Second, the incentives should be oered to
the would-be procreators rather than government ocials and families. Third, in
order to avoid coercion to poor women the incentives should be directed at
‘upstream’ procreative behaviours, such as the use of birth control and other
family planning practices.
If they are correct an incentivizing population policy
could reasonably be justied on libertarian grounds.
A concrete way of conducting incentivisation is through preference adjustment.
Preference adjustment is the practice of changing the norms of individuals and
the society they live in, e.g., through public campaigns (Hickey et al., 2016, p. 14).
The permissibility of preference adjustment depends on how it is done. If the
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 13
information that causes the preference adjustment is objective and rational, then
it is dicult to see what could be wrong with it. The information is then merely
a catalyst for forming an informed decision. If the interventions adopt rhetorical
means, however, then it may be harder to justify. Although rhetorical tactics –
such as emotional appeal and celebrity endorsement – would be a very ecient
means of changing the preferences of a population, and much harder to justify
Diana Coole admits that incentives and disincentives often are coercive but
argues that some incentives and disincentives can still play a part in a neoliberal
governance. She concludes that a case can be made for reducing the size of
population. However, two provisos must be met, human rights must be protected
and ”if a convincing, evidence-based case is made for its current and future
benets, and following public discussion” (Coole, 2018, p. 96).
The conclusion of this subsection is that a libertarian approach can justify
noncoercive population policies of an incentivizing kind. There are, however,
those who object to incentivization as a means to reduce population size.
Roughly, the main argument is that there is no way to know that the changes
that result from incentivization are fully voluntary (Mills, 1999). As Betsy
Hartmann (2016, p. 64) elaborates, ‘[f]or people who are desperately poor,
there is no such thing as a free choice’. Also, noncoercive incentivizing
population policies will likely aect women more than men. As this suggests,
incentivizing population policies may be discriminatory. This leads us to
a feminist critique of population policies.
A feminist approach: a case for reproductive rights
It can be argued that incentivizing population policies are morally problematic.
Moskowitz et al, for instance, highlight that incentives for contraceptive implants
are often an ‘instrument of class prejudice and eugenic social coercion’
(Moskowitz et al., 1995, p. 2).
This criticism is supported by what we may call a
feminist approach according to which both gender equality and equality in
general must be guaranteed for population policies to be justied. This kind of
justication highlights structural problems related to population policies, which
ecocentric, consequentialist and libertarian approaches neglect.
Feminist thinkers have observed that implementation of population policies
often tend to target specic groups of people – such as women or the poor. One
possible explanation is that poor women have higher fertility rates than other
women. However, the poor also have much smaller ecological footprints, so when
for example, climate change is discussed as a problem of overpopulation this can
also reect classist, racist and sexist attitudes through which responsibility for
global problems are deected from the auent and poor people in developing
countries are seen as the cause of their own suering. Accordingly, a population
policy must be designed and implemented in a way which avoids perpetuating
14 H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
structural discrimination. It has also been argued that population programs
should give women control and encourage social changes through providing
women with greater opportunities (Tangri, 1976).
A specic proposal put forward in this context is a right to reproduction. This is
often supported by the claim that everyone has a right to their own body and to
freely form important decisions with regard to it. In this context it is also clear that
pro-natalist policies can be rejected on the same ground as anti-natalist policies.
Pro-natalist policies could also be accused of treating women merely as a means
and infringing their right to their own bodies. This right, it is argued, would be
violated if individuals’ were to be manipulated to have fewer children than she
otherwise would. This right to reproduction is often interpreted not only as
a negative right against interference in one’s decisions concerning procreation,
but also as a positive right, which involves a right to assistance in procreation
(Brake & Millum, 2018). Understood in this way, the right also involves such things
as child care, income support, and health services – which are typically more
important to the most marginalized in society.
One argument for the positive right to reproduction is that there are
certain enabling conditions, i.e., conditions that enable individuals to freely
make fertility decisions that are necessary for the reproductive right to be
realized. According to Correa and Petchesky (2007), the right to reproduction
comes with four enabling conditions (or ‘principles’, as they call them): (i)
bodily integrity, (ii) personhood, (iii) equality, and (iv) respect for diversity.
They claim that, although the social implications of these are often ignored,
‘[a]ll four principles, as we interpret them, both derive from and further
society’s interest in empowered and politically responsible citizens, including
all women’ (Correa & Petchesky, 2007, p. 298).
Sara Conly has argued that the right to reproduction can be met by having
just one child (Conly, 2016). This implies that a reproductive right is in
principle compatible with policies limiting population size. Sure, this might
not be what others have in mind when they refer to the right to procreate.
This more general idea of a right to procreate, i.e., the right to one’s own
body, to control it and to have full autonomy over decisions relating to it, may
be compromised by a population policy introduced to limit the number of
children a woman gives birth to. This line of response is also available for the
suggestion that one can acknowledge that there is a right to procreate but
that this right may be tradable. This view, that is found in a proposal from
Boulding (1964), has recently been advanced by De la Croix and Gosseries
(2009) who argue that a way to deal with over- and under-population is to
introduce a scheme with tradable procreation entitlements.
Still, it could be argued that rights can be exceeded, and having more than one
child will cause so much damage that it would go beyond the right to procreate.
Conly supports this view with Amartya Sen’s claim that ‘despite the importance of
reproductive rights, if their exercise were to generate disasters such as massive
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 15
misery and hunger, then we would have to question whether they deserve full
protection’ (1996, p 1039). In a similar vein, The European Convention on Human
Rights (ECHR) states in Article 8 that a public authority may interfere with people’s
reproductive rights if doing so is ‘in the interests of national security, public safety
or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime,
for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and
freedoms of others’.
Since population growth contributes to e.g., climate change, which in turn
threatens these values, perhaps even a feminist approach should accept some
population policies. The potential hazards of population growth is for example,
considered by ecofeminist Donna Haraway who formulated the slogan ‘Make Kin
Not Babies!’ in order to emphasize the role of kinmaking as an alternative to
biological children (Haraway, 2016, p. 103). This multispecies kinmaking is
believed to enable a free choice to not procreate in order to reach a population
size of 2–3 billions without engaging ethically problematic means (see also Clarke
& Haraway, 2018). More generally, given feminisms focus on equality it is likely
that feminist approaches would at most support indirect population policies. This
is in line with Tangri (1976), who argues that fertility reduction should be regarded
as secondary (see also Marsden, 1973). Fortunately, there is evidence that policies
aimed at neutralizing gender inequalities have in fact also reduced population
growth. For instance, female education is a highly ecient means for fertility
reductions, since it typically leads smaller families (O’Neill et al., 2005, Sen, 2001,;
Lutz et al., 2014). Also, strengthening the position for impoverished women
reduces their fertility. As argued by Abadian (1996, p. 1793), ”by attending to
fundamental freedoms for impoverished women, by enhancing women’s access
to and control over critical resources – their capability to achieve well-being – we
not only meet welfare goals but also promote a reduction in fertility”. More
generally, family planning services, education, and safe methods of contraception
strengthen women’s reproductive autonomy and often has as a consequence
that the individuals choose to have fewer children. Consequently, it is not
impossible to nd population policies on a feminist agenda, but they tend to
be indirect, means-oriented and noncoercive.
The fairness approach: the case for internalising the costs of children
The last category of arguments we will survey is focused on a comparison
between parents and non-parents. The main claim, in short, is that if the decision
to have a child creates costs for society at large including for non-parents, then
these costs should be borne by those making the decision, i.e., the parents. The
alternative, i.e., to socialise the costs, is unfair on the non-parents. If this claim can
be substantiated, then some kind of population policies may be justied as
a means to securing that everyone gets the fair share, they are entitled to by
16 H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
Before we can evaluate this, it is important to note a few things about the
relevant costs in question. The starting point here is that creating an individual
can result in either positive or negative externalities (Casal & Williams, 1995). The
main positive externalities are goods and services the new individual produces
and which society at large can benet from, e.g., their work, taxes, and contribu-
tions to pension systems. The main negative externalities are the costs imposed
on society and those living in it by the new individual through their consumption
of scarce natural resources and production of waste.
Some have argued (e.g., Casal & Williams, 1995; cf. Cripps, 2015) that to the
extent that having children produces negative externalities, e.g., contributes to
climate change, fairness demands that these costs should be internalised to the
parents – the so-called ‘Parental Provision view’. Paula Casal and Andrew Williams
(Casal & Williams, 1995) ground their argument on a Dworkian view of egalitarian
justice according to which inequalities between individuals are unjustied if they
result from brute luck (e.g., natural misfortune) but justied if they result from free
choice. The decision to have a child is, in relevant respects, no dierent from other
choices an individual could make (cf. Young, 2001), and so there is no reason for
why others should cover its costs. To the extent that the creation of an individual
reduces others’ share of impersonal resources, fairness demands that the parents
compensate them for that loss even though they themselves end up worse o as
a result. What concrete implications this has in terms of population policies is not
fully clear, but Casal and Williams (1995) argue that subsidies to parents (e.g., child
allowances and tax exemptions) should be removed and perhaps new taxes
imposed. Elizabeth Cripps (2015) takes a similar line arguing that having children
is unfair on non-parents because the additional costs created make it harder and
eventually even impossible for them to meet their duties of basic global and
intergenerational justice. In particular, it risks placing future generations in a tragic
choice situation in which either they may not have any children at all or be forced
to act unjustly towards their contemporaries. We are not yet, she argues, in this
situation, but morally hard choices must be made already now. We may, for
example, need to introduce nes on those having children and stigmatising those
having many children even though such policies would be both intrusive and
Marcel Wissenburg (1998) seems to accept the Parental Provision view, but
draw a dierent conclusion. He argues that it leads to a paradox: on the one hand,
it is necessary to reduce the world population, on the other hand, introducing
population policies, which would restrict the procreative liberty of those who
have not yet reproduced, is unfair and incompatible with the idea of a liberal
society. Wissenburg’s concern seems to be a problem of non-ideal theory. If the
Parental Provision view is correct, then procreative liberty should be restricted by
parents having to pay the full price of having children, but these restrictions may
need to be implemented gradually so as to not frustrate anyone’s existing life
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 17
The fairness-based argument for restrictions on procreative liberty can,
however, also be challenged in other ways. One thing is that it is far from clear
what an optimal world population size is, taking into account both positive
and negative externalities (Greaves, 2019). Adding individuals to our world
now will, other things being equal, lead to some negative externalities, but
may also, for example, accelerate the development of new technology.
Another way in which the argument can be challenged is in its attribution of
responsibility to the parents for the environmental impact of their grown-up
children and more distant descendants (Olsaretti, 2017; cf. Van Basshuysen &
Brandstedt, 2018). Olsaretti (2017) counters the Parental Provision view on several
fronts. One thing is by arguing that it assumes a static, time slice perspective on
society. In the dynamic real-world situation, everyone is someone’s child and the
claim to internalise all externalities of children would eectively spell the end to
distributive justice. In other words, the Parental Provision view is incompatible
with the thought that as members of a society, there are certain things we owe
one another. Furthermore, socialising the costs of children does not give benets
to parents compared to non-parents, but rather gives children their fair share –
everyone is still entitled to an equal share. Olsaretti (2017) does, however,
recognise that population growth can make it worse for everyone, but argues
that if this is so, then this is a problem that it must be explained in other ways.
A nal way in which the Parental Provision view can be challenged is the claim
that it cannot be implemented without undermining the social bases of self-
respect for children (Heyward, 2012). Even ‘soft’ population policies, such as
removing child allowances and social campaigns against having many children,
would inevitably lead to collateral damage on the children born after these are
introduced and give them a worse start in life than that of previous generations.
We began this review article by highlighting the conceptual and empirical
intricacies of population policies and thereafter made various distinctions which
resulted in a three-dimensional taxonomy for understanding the ethically rele-
vant dimensions of population policies. This paved the way for a deeper and more
detailed assessment of their ethical status. A general implication of the results of
the ethical analysis we have done is that whether or not population policies are
ethically justied comes down to what fundamental assumptions are made about
whose fertility decisions are targeted and for what reasons, and which conse-
quences are taken into account in the justication. It is clear that ecocentric and
consequentialist approaches can in principle allow for both direct and coercive
population policies of various kinds – at least insofar as the ecosystemic well-
being, or the overall welfare in the world, is thereby increased. Both libertarian
and feminist approaches, however, put tougher constraints on population poli-
cies. According to the libertarian approach coercive population policies are
18 H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
impermissible, but certain incentivizing policies may be allowed. The feminist
approach agrees with this, but further requires that the noncoercive policies take
structural justice issues into account. Finally, there are issues of fairness that must
be addressed in the implementation of population policies, in particular as they
tend to negatively aect those already most disadvantaged. The conclusion must
be that to ethically justify population policies is very problematic.
1. There were, of course, those who disagreed and put forward more positive
views of population growth. The most famous example is Esther Boserup’s The
Conditions of Agricultural Growth (Boserup, (2014) ). Boserup argued that,
as necessity is the mother of invention, population growth will lead to more
ecient agricultural production. Another important criticism to this line of
thought can be found in Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource (Simon, 1981)
and The Resourceful Earth (Simon & Kahn, 1984) in which he argues that,
roughly, a growing population leads to innovation, and when scarcity of
a resource raises its price alternative resources will be found. This belief made
him challenge Paul Erlich in a wager on the price development of metals, as he
believed that their price would not rise with increasing scarcity.
2. A few years prior, in 1964, economist Kenneth Boulding proposed that a system
of marketable procreation licences would meet the overpopulation problem in
the most ethical way: ”Each girl on approaching maturity would be presented
with a certicate which will entitle its owner to have, say, 2.2 children, or
whatever number would ensure a reproductive rate of one. The unit of these
certicates might be the ‘deci-child,’ and accumulation of ten of these units by
purchase, inheritance, or gift would permit a woman in maturity to have one
legal child. We would then set up a market in these units in which the rich and
the philoprogenitive would purchase them from the poor, the nuns, the maiden
aunts, and so on” (Boulding, 1964, p. 135).
3. This is not an analogy that is meant to tell us something about commons, rather
it is meant to show us that coercive means can be justied.
4. For a more contemporary discussion similar to the The Limits of Growth, see e.g,
J. Rockström et al. (2009).
5. In the Final Act of the International Conference of Human Rights 1968, sect II,
item 16, the following claim can be found: ”Parents have a basic human right to
determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.”
However, population growth is also seen as a hurdle for human rights provision.
In other words, this shift has gradually happened. For a good overview of this
development see Pizzarossa, L. B. (Pizzarossa, 2018). For a discussion about the
possibility that this formulation can be construed as a justication for popula-
tion control see Freedman and Isaacs (1993).
6. As noted, population policies must typically involve an intention to aect the
population pattern. We will however also discuss some policies that will have
such an eect even if it is not intended (cf. Räikkä, 2001). To call any policy that
will aect the population pattern, even if it is not the intended eect, seems to
be too inclusive since most policies may have this eect to some degree.
7. This may be compared to Diana Coole’s denition of population control. That is, ‘a
policy regime designed to modify fertility trends through deliberate interference in
CRITICAL REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 19
reproductive behaviour, with the aim of inuencing demographic outcomes.’
(Coole, 2018, p. 4)
8. Pro-natalist policies are common in many parts of the world, and in some
contexts, they are not believed to be as problematic as anti-natalist policies.
However, as we shall discuss in section 4.4, pro-natalist policies can be criticised
on feminist grounds.
9. The most inuential publication at the time, advocating sterilization, was
Gosney and Popenoe (1929). The compulsory means were often motivated by
arguing that the individuals subjected to these sterilizations would actually
benet from it, that is, on paternalist grounds. This, in turn, was often based on
ideas of racial supremacy. For a general critique of eugenics and sterilisation
programs, see Glover (1998).
10. For a brief introduction to deep ecology see Brennan and Lo (2016).
11. Hickey et al understand an incentivizing population policy as an ‘attempt to
inuence fertility by directly altering the costs and benets associated with
certain reproductive behaviors.’ (p 13).
12. For more on the ethical dimension of incentives see e.g., Ruth W. Grant 2012.
13. For more on this see Davidson and Kalmuss (1997) and Hartmann (2016).
14. Interestingly, if these conditions are accepted, then it can be inferred that the
reproductive right is violated in cases where not everyone has access to family
planning, and so are forced to have more children than they actually desire.
15. See also McKibben (2013) for the view that we ought only to have one child and
Overall (2012) for a discussion on procreative rights and their limits.
We presented earlier versions of this article at Lund University and the Institute for
Futures Studies. We are grateful for all comments we received there.
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
This work was funded by Svenska Forskningsrådet Formas (grant number 2018-
02334). Henrik Andersson's work was also funded by Vetenskapsrådet (grant number
Notes on contributors
Henrik Andersson is a post doc at Lund University. His research has had a focus on
value theory and especially the phenomenon of value incommensurability. In his
current research project, Hard choices, climate change and moral responsibility, he
applies recent results from value theory in order to address the hard choices we
face when we aim to combat climate change. His works are published in Theoria, Ratio,
Journal of Value Inquiry and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.
20 H. ANDERSSON ET AL.
Eric Brandstedt is a senior lecturer in human rights studies at Lund University. He is
working on a project about a just transition to a low-carbon future in which he
investigates grievances raised by the ongoing energy transition to meet climate
objectives. His research interests are climate justice, intergenerational justice,
human rights, methodological questions in normative theorising. His works are pub-
lished in Journal of Political Philosophy, Journal of Ethics, and Canadian Journal of
Philosophy among others.
Olle Torpman is a lecturer in animal ethics at Swedish University of Agricultural
Sciences, and aliated researcher at the Institute for Futures Studies. Except for
animal ethics, he is teaching and researching on environmental ethics and climate
ethics. His main research interests are normative and applied ethics in general, and
environmental action guidance and just distribution of climate burdens in particular.
His works are published in journals like Pacic Philosophical Quarterly, Ethical Theory
and Moral Practice, and Environmental Politics.
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