On Philosophy

August 17, 2007

More People Are Not Always Better

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Yesterday I developed the idea that there was no good reason to colonize other stars. Obviously one of the premises of that thesis was that more people are not always better. A premise I consider to be self-evident. People are not animals or mold, we have other goals besides reproduction. In fact for many reproduction isn’t even that important (witness falling birth rates in many developed nations). Thus it is reasonable to suppose that, in the long run, all we need are enough people to fulfill our goals as a species, which, unlike the lower species, don’t include filling all available space.

But apparently this isn’t self-evident to everyone, and I won’t pretend to have some special access to the truth. But consider that we could sustain more people on this planet, today, if we wanted to. All that would be required is a reduction in the standard of living. If we halve the standard of living of a group of people (halving the number of resources they consume) the planet can support twice their number, assuming we leave them with enough to survive on. The logical limit to this is a society in which people are given only a minimal space to live and doled out a minimum of food each day. Although no one is particularly happy we can assume their lives are, overall, of positive value, since they don’t kill themselves (and if they do, in large numbers, then the standard of living can be adjusted slightly upwards). In any case if more people are always better then such a society is better than our current one. But I suspect most would be opposed to creating such a society. Which means that, intuitively, more people are not always better, that while more people may be good there are other factors, such as the average standard of living, which may be important as well, and which may dictate avoiding unrestricted population growth.

But that is just an intuitive argument. The question is easily tackled directly simply by leaning on a few common sense principles about normativity. At any point we can ask ourselves, as a society, should we try to increase the population or should we try to keep it stable? Obviously this is a normative question, and thus can be answered by determining what we in fact have a reason to do. Of course some will invoke “supernatural” principles of normativity, claiming that we have reason to increase the number of human lives, because human lives are valuable. Such arguments are easily defeated simply by inquiring why we have reason to act that way, why human lives, in this case, are valuable. “Supernatural” reasoning about normativity is flawed because ultimately it cannot answer all the questions that such a line of argument will raise, ultimately it will fall back to principles that are supposed to be intuitive or unquestionable. Real normativity follows from the desires of individuals. Thinking about this question from the vantage point of society as a whole we simply average out individual differences, and proceed from that perspective.

With that out of the way we can get back to the question at hand. What reasons do we have to increase the number of people in our society, and what reasons do we have not to? Obviously the major disadvantage of adding more people is that they consume resources, which, by itself, results in a need to acquire more resources (not always possible), or to reduce the standard of living. But, on the other hand, increasing the population means that there are more minds bent on furthering the goals of society as a whole. Often that counterbalances the cost of more people. Although not all of the additional people will be helpful, some of them will be, and they are usually worth the cost of the rest. Some of them will contribute to technological and social progress, which will have the effect of increasing the standard of living and decreasing our dependence on various resources, meaning that often these additional people “pay for themselves”, so to speak.

This brings me to my argument from yesterday. Obviously there is an upper bound to how many people a single star system can support. Let us call that number X. So, from our perspective, deciding whether we should expand to other star systems or not, the question is: will one future society of population X better achieve our collective goals or will two? Because, as I mentioned, distant systems can’t effectively act as a single society, they will tend to develop in parallel to each other, and thus doubling the number of human societies won’t lead to our goals being pursued any faster, only by more people, which is of no benefit by itself. On the other hand there are many reasons not to spread out (given that society is internally cohesive). While we may be curious about the rest of the universe I suspect that future humans, like many humans today, will see some value in leaving it in a pristine condition. While all the resources of the solar system may eventually be put towards human ends (as I think they should be, in the very long run) we may have reservations about doing that everywhere. Why destroy what already exists for no substantial benefit?

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