Is EA just about population growth?

post by LuceAlexis · 2021-01-17T08:55:53.355Z · EA · GW · 10 comments


  Counterarguments and Rebuttals
  Conclusion and Summary of Argument

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” – Genesis 1:28



 Would you rather have a world with X or would you rather save Y lives? People make idiosyncratic life decisions. Well-intentioned people desire to maximize their "impact." What does "impact" mean? Some argue that "impact" is discoveries about truth (as is the pursuit of most of the physical sciences). Some argue that it is creating works of art or original ideas (as in the case of many musicians and authors). Many people spend their entire lives pursuing such goals and, to the musician, it is worth spending an entire life creating art. 

But imagine you had the power to choose between a world where there were another 50 hit songs versus a world where someone who would have been dead was now alive. What would you choose?

Those that argue that saving lives is the be-all-end-all would count an extra 50 hit songs as frivolous—no matter the reach, quality, or novelty of music. It is never worth a life. Those that are ruthlessly pragmatic and quantitative (i.e. economists) try to argue that the "biggest" impact is to save lives. After all, death is irreversible, and what worth is art without people to enjoy it, and what worth is truth if it leads to greater destruction (as Einstein regretted creating the atomic bomb)?

I want to challenge the claim that creating “impact” implicitly means “saving lives.”[1] 



Let us go back to the central claim: “The goal of a life well-lived is to save lives.” At face value, this seems like a noble cause. After all, as Peter Singer has pointed out, anyone who sees a baby drowning in a pool will gladly jump in, save the baby’s life, and feel appropriately self-satisfied. 

Yet, this easily goes into an endless regression, where I am living to save other people; other people are living to save me; we are all living to keep all of us alive, together. This seems to imply the goal of a life well-lived is to propagate humanity. If we maintain the environment, it is to ensure that humanity can survive. If we prevent nuclear war, it is to ensure that humanity grows. Surely a noble cause?

Consider that the global population, according to UN forecasts,[2] will peak and may fall in the future. This is because women who are more educated, who are happier with their lives, who are richer, have fewer kids.[3] And, in a counterfactual world, these women, often in richer countries like those of the EU or the US, would have more kids, had they been poorer and had fewer opportunities for birth control, education, and a stable career. 

Now, if we continue staring into this crystal ball—this counterfactual world where women have more babies—we would see that there are more lives in this world. Wait—if the goal of a life well-lived is to save other lives, then this counterfactual world in this crystal ball is better.

So, we cannot both believe that educating women is good and that “the goal of a life well-lived is to save other lives.” More educated women lead to fewer lives! 


Counterarguments and Rebuttals

Now, most of you are scrunching your eyebrows. This does not seem right, you say. Perhaps the lives of the kids would be more miserable, as there would be fewer women working, lower overall GDP,[4] and (especially) lower standards of living for women. So, perhaps we ought to adjust the beginning claim to something like “the goal of a life well-lived is to maximize quality-adjusted life years of humanity.”[5] At last, this feels appropriate, as we have a statement that incorporates the obvious problem that a miserable life is certainly not a life worth living.[6] 

Still, let’s say you are a god controlling this crystal ball, this counterfactual universe. If I were to give you the choice between educating a girl and giving her a career versus saving three lives from death, what would you choose? Consider that those three lives have an equal chance of being male and female, and will likely eat, smile, cry, and live life like everyone else in that society. 

Most people who want to make a difference in the world, who seek to have a greater “impact” would choose the second option. For the feminists who chose the former, kudos; you are a minority, unfortunately. 

Now, at this point, most of you are still feeling uneasy. You will tell me, “Well, there is a difference between lives that don’t yet exist and lives that already do exist. The woman’s life does exist, and the three children do not.” 

True! But there’s something wrong with that statement, too. We do care about lives that don’t yet exist. We make sweeping statements like, “This is for our grandchildren.” Or, just the same, we vow to preserve the environment or obtain greater wealth to pass on. We often do things for people that do not yet exist, and who we do not know will ever exist. And if the goal of life is to maximize quality-adjusted life years, surely it is meant to maximize quality-adjusted life years for all people in the future as well as the present?[7]

One easy way of solving this is by discounting future lives, just as a financier discounts money. We could say, “We believe that this woman’s quality of life is important and that her children’s lives are important. But each of her children’s lives is only worth 1/5 of her life because they are in the future.” Now, I think this is a rather clean solution to this dilemma, but others have argued vehemently against this. By discounting future lives, we are inevitably discounting actions today that could affect people 100 years in the future, which would be disastrous for many people in the future. Our decision-making would be hampered, as we would value those future lives very little after all the discounting is done (consider long-run risks such as climate change). 

Other people say that the reason this comparison is not appropriate is that a woman ought to have the choice to have kids and that anything that takes away this choice is abhorrent. The sentiment is, “You should educate the girl because that allows her to have a choice to have kids. The number of kids she has is her decision, so you should respect that.” However, a generation ago, that same woman would have no qualms about having kids. In our counterfactual world, where she does not receive as much education, she would just consider it a natural part of life, choice or not. Of course, improving the opportunity to choose between different lifestyles is important, but to what extent? How much happiness does she gain, and is it greater than the combined happiness and lives of three people that otherwise would not have existed?


Conclusion and Summary of Argument

I don’t have the answer. But something is wrong here. I chose women’s education because it was the most obvious example linked to population growth, but it is not the only one. I could have chosen anything we consider “good” that decreases the number of births. We cannot both argue for saving lives and simultaneously argue for a smaller population, no matter how ostensibly “good” the policy is. If saving lives is the goal, then in almost every case (barring a significant drop in quality of life), we would choose the world where there are more lives. 

Formally laid out, my argument is the following:



[1] The goal of this essay is not to disprove this view, but simply to challenge it, and to give it more rigorous thought. I must disclose that I come into this exercise with no prior philosophical leanings nor any rigorous philosophical training, and this exercise was mostly for myself, a clarification of my thoughts.

[2] See

[3] Up to a point. Of course, it has been shown that this relationship between income and fertility is a J-shaped relationship, but this claim still holds generally.

[4] A caveat to this is that there may be greater growth in GDP with a continually growing population. If this is the case, then we could see this counterfactual world’s wealth eventually exceed that of reality, as it would not be bounded by certain human capital constraints.

[5] Or, to maximize total utility, whatever utility means. But let’s stick to the claim with the quality-adjusted life years. 

[6] Although, it is odd that people in misery often do continue to live. So clearly, they are either acting irrationally or they are not as miserable as we make them out to be. See the QALY health science literature on physical ailments like losing a limb. People who do not have the ailment believe life with the ailment to be worse than people who do have the ailment rate life to be. I suspect that this is not the case for psychological ailments, which often do lead to people taking their own lives.

[7] Otherwise, we would just ignore the next generation and live life fully for this one generation—the earth, environment, political institutions be damned.



5:50pm GMT: I added a title to each of the sections.


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comment by Lumpyproletariat · 2021-01-17T09:40:11.115Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
  • Suppose, towards a contradiction, that the goal of life is to save lives.
  • We know educating women more is good and would be done in an ideal world.
  • Increasing women's education leads to fewer lives because of declining fertility.
  • Therefore, the goal of life must not be to save lives.


What if one's goal is to save lives which already exist, contingent on their already existing? 

Pure utilitarianism doesn't necessarily lead to screwy answers when thinking about the future--for instance, suppose that matter is convertible to computronium, and computronium is convertible to hedonium, and that there is thus a set amount of joy in the universe; in that instance, creating more people just trades against the happiness of those who already exist, who could have used all that matter for themselves, but are now morally obligated to share.

But I tend to be of the view that potential people don't exist and thus don't have moral significance. If it's foreseeable that someone in particular will exist (and at that point have moral significance) we ought to make sure things go well for them. But I don't feel any moral obligation to bring them into existence.

comment by LuceAlexis · 2021-01-17T17:41:46.197Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good afternoon, Lumpyproletariat.

Thank you for reading my essay.

What did you think about this portion of the essay? "Now, at this point, most of you are still feeling uneasy...there is a difference between lives that don’t yet exist and lives that already do exist...[continued]"

Additionally, I would posit that it is almost impossible to condition on whether a person exists in the future because 1) we could argue the same for bad as well as good actions. 2) our actions today directly affect the probability of that person existing.

Take, for example, a world in which we wreck the environment (perhaps the current world). Our actions today directly affect whether people in the future exist. And say we were able to condition on whether they exist in the future--say we posited that given current environmental damage continuing, X person in the future had a 10% chance of living. If we were god, would we say that this person is worth 10% of a modern-day person because they are likely not to exist? Well, no, because if we could intervene *today*, we could save their life.

The same is true for educating women. Say that someone in the future has an 80% chance of being alive given we educate a woman in a developing country. If we intervene, that person now has a 10% chance of being alive.

Do you see how this puzzle still is difficult to solve?

comment by Lumpyproletariat · 2021-01-17T21:46:32.799Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There must be something I don't understand; I don't see a puzzle here at all. You spent a lot of time writing this up, presumably you spent a lot of time thinking about it, so I'm going to spend at least a small amount of time trying to find where our worldviews glide past each other.

Here's my take. It's  a fairly simple take, as I'm a fairly simple person. 

If someone exists, one ought to be nice to them. Certainly, one ought not to let them die--to do so would be unkind, to say the least. People who exist should have good lives--if someone doesn't have a good life or will lose their good life, this is a problem one ought to fix. So far, nothing but bog-standard moral fare. 

If someone doesn't exist, they don't exist--it's impossible to be kind or cruel to someone who doesn't exist. I don't think many would disagree on that point either. 

Now here, perhaps, is where we lose each other: if someone is going to exist, and one is aware of this fact, one should probably take preemptive steps to ensure that future person will have a good life--a life happy, fulfilling, and long. This isn't because hypothetical people have moral value, it's because we are aware in advance that the problem won't always be a hypothetical one. We can realistically foresee that unless we course correct on this destroying the biosphere project we've undertaken, people will come into existence and lead terrible, cruelly short lives.

I (and many others, I gather) aren't doing this so that more people will be born--we're doing this so that people who will be born either way live happily.

(Parenthetical aside: some people place value on the human species continuing to exist--I don't, personally; if everyone alive died that would be awful, but I don't think it'd be more awful than if there had been fourteen billion minds before seven billion died. That said, if we care at all about aesthetics I can see the aesthetic argument in favor of human survival, in that all aesthetics would die with us.)

This is a very different problem from educating women and predictably causing fewer people to exist in the first place. My value isn't people existing, my value is good long lives for those who do (or will).

comment by LuceAlexis · 2021-01-18T05:49:00.520Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Lumpyproletariat,

Thanks for being patient. This is something that I've been mulling over for quite a while, and I haven't been able to resolve it on my own, which is why I'm posting on this forum, and very much appreciate your thoughtful remarks.

"I (and many others, I gather) aren't doing this so that more people will be born--we're doing this so that people who will be born either way live happily."

You've hit the nail on where we lose each other. In my view, whether someone is "going to exist", is something that we have control over. If you save a life today, that person may give birth to new people and do good in their life. If you let someone die today, that person had no opportunity to have offspring or do good. If you educate someone, there are fewer people in the future. The way I see it, the people of the future "existing" is a knob that we have the power to control (in a broad sense). It's not something that would happen "either way."

In the same way, I see no difference between someone not existing and someone dying. In both cases, a person is absent. In one case, the person had very real connections with other people. On the other, that person would have had very real connections with other people but were not given the chance to do so. It is the same way that economists think about opportunity costs. Opportunity costs may not be real, but had you not done something, you would have done this other thing.

Regarding your aside, I think that illustrates an interesting potential solution to the dilemma (?) The purpose is not to save lives (because in your case, the world where 100% of people die is less or equally bad than 50% of people dying). This is an interesting case, and perhaps there's a way to rephrase the original claim to accommodate it, though I'm not certain how.

comment by Lumpyproletariat · 2021-01-20T23:46:30.304Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Regarding your aside, I think that illustrates an interesting potential solution to the dilemma (?) The purpose is not to save lives (because in your case, the world where 100% of people die is less or equally bad than 50% of people dying). This is an interesting case, and perhaps there's a way to rephrase the original claim to accommodate it, though I'm not certain how."

I must have inadequately written my parenthetical aside; perhaps I inadequately wrote everything. 

The purpose is entirely to save lives. We have a world with seven billion people. If all of them died, it amount of disutility in my view would be X times seven billion, where X is the disutility from someone dying. If the world instead had fourteen billion people and seven billion of them died, the disutility would still be X times seven billion. The human race existing doesn't matter to me, only the humans. If no one had any kids and this generation was the last one, I don't think that would be a bad thing.

This isn't something which all EAs think (some of them value "humanity" as well as the humans), though it does seem to be a view over represented by people who responded to this thread.

"The way I see it, the people of the future 'existing' is a knob that we have the power to control (in a broad sense). It's not something that would happen 'either way.'"

I know a man who plans to have a child the traditional way. We've spoken about the topic and I've told him my views; there's not terribly much more I could do. I have very little power over whether or not that child will exist--none whatsoever, in any practical way.

That child doesn't exist yet--there's some chance they never will. I want that child to have a happy life, and to not die unless they want to. When that entity becomes existent, the odds are very good I'll be personally involved in said entity's happiness; I'll be a friend of the family. Certainly, if twelve years in the child fell in a river and started to drown, I'd muddy my jacket to save them.

But I wouldn't lift a finger to create them. Do I explain myself? 

Something analogous could be said about all the humans who do not exist, but will. We have control over the "existence knob" in such a broad sense that there's little point bringing it up at all. So, living in a world where people exist, and will continue to do so, it seems like the most important thing is to keep them alive.

Valuing the people who exist is a very different thing from valuing people existing. EA is not just about population growth--it isn't about population growth at all.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-01-17T20:05:48.524Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There are many different person-affecting views that can avoid treating ensuring people are born like saving lives, and are compatible with statements like "This is for our grandchildren", although they may bring in their own counterintuitive issues. I would recommend the paper "The Asymmetry, Uncertainty, and the Long Term" by Teruji Thomas, in particular (although some parts are pretty technical, so maybe just watch the talk). Maybe also check out "Population Axiology" by Hilary Greaves for an overview of different theories, including person-affecting ones.

Also, if you think of saving lives as reducing the number of life years lost (to death), then preventing births saves lives. Minimizing total disability-adjusted life-years would be similar. This leads to an antinatalist position, though.

comment by LuceAlexis · 2021-01-18T06:15:04.549Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hello MichaelStJules, 

This is fantastic, thank you very much! I have never heard of person-affecting views, Thomas, or Greaves. I'm so glad that I haven't stumbled on something novel and that there are formal philosophers who have written about this.

On reducing the number of life-years lost to death, I don't personally think that's a justifiable position, though I'd love to hear your thoughts. It is irrational to be less happy when given $500 and having $50 taken away than just being given $450 in the first place. 

Though it's not the same comparison, there hypothetically should be no difference between <3 lives existing and 1 death>, versus <only 2 lives existing from the start>. The reason we grieve that 1 death is because the person brought happiness to our lives that did not exist were we just 2 people. The world where only 2 lives existed from the start does not seem necessarily better, in my view, than a world where 3 lived and 1 died. Though at large numbers, I may adjust my preferences.

Do you have any personal conclusions that you've reached on this issue?

comment by MichaelStJules · 2021-01-18T07:41:05.988Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The procreation asymmetry is one of my strongest intuitions. Essentially, it's never worse for an individual to never be born (for their own sake, since if they're not born, nothing can matter to them), but it is worse if they are born and have a bad/miserable life. Furthermore, I don't think additional good lives can make up for bad lives, so I believe in a hard asymmetry, and am an antinatalist. Thomas's paper discusses soft asymmetries, according to which good lives can make up for bad lives, but there's no point in adding more people (for their own sake, ignoring their effects on others) if the total welfare is guaranteed to be positive (or 0).

I'm also not sure that death is bad for the person who dies, since nothing can matter to them after they die, although, like with the procreation asymmetry, I think death can be better.

I've written about my views in my shortform, here [EA(p) · GW(p)], here [EA(p) · GW(p)] and here [EA(p) · GW(p)]. I'm roughly a negative prioritarian, close to a negative utilitarian, so I aim to minimize involuntary suffering.

comment by Harrison D · 2021-01-17T18:43:57.874Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems you are ultimately arguing that "life" (whether that is measured in population, QALYs, or something else) is not the only "goal of life," correct? If by "goal of life," you are referring to a concept like morality/goodness/utility, then I think I would totally agree that population/QALYs are not the only relevant measure, and I imagine that a lot of other people would similarly agree. 

Where people do disagree is what all else counts, and what things weigh more than others. Broadly speaking, people often refer to utility as a theoretical "all-encompassing" metric of goodness/wellbeing, oftentimes referring to the (slightly) less-theoretical concept of "happiness" (e.g., pleasure vs. pain). I must admit that I'm not deeply intellectually familiar/concerned with some of the arguments over different ways to approach/interpret utility (e.g., preferential utilitarianism vs. hedonistic utilitarianism), nor do I have a strong stance on average utilitarianism vs. aggregate utilitarianism (again due mainly to a lack of perceived importance for my decision-making to choose one over the other), but I want to highlight these as concepts/debates to further explore.

To address the specific example of "woman with a good career" vs. "having more children": first, I was a bit confused by the part that says to compare the woman having a career to "saving three lives from death"; it seems like you just meant "causing three lives to exist when they would not have," correct? (There's a big difference there at least under average utilitarianism). Second, one of the reasons that "maximize the population" is not intuitively/necessarily moral is because that does not account for problems from overpopulation, including increased suffering on others who do exist. Additionally, a woman with a career might be able to save more lives by donating income to effective charities, thus increasing life by not directly having children.

comment by LuceAlexis · 2021-01-19T05:05:18.886Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Harrison,

Thank you for reading my post!

I admit I know very little about average or aggregate utilitarianism, so thank you for bringing that up--I have some googling to do. In reply to your comments:

you are ultimately arguing that "life" (whether that is measured in population, QALYs, or something else) is not the only "goal of life," correct?

Yes, I felt unease that it seemed like making "impact" seems (under this framework) to potentially be self-defeating.

Second, one of the reasons that "maximize the population" is not intuitively/necessarily moral is because that does not account for problems from overpopulation, including increased suffering on others who do exist.

Yes--that is something that is most definitely a concern! I do (try) to caveat some of my statements this way: see the last sentence. "If saving lives is the goal, then in almost every case (barring a significant drop in quality of life), we would choose the world where there are more lives."