How many people should we produce?

I don’t know how to answer this question. But recent posts by Tyler Cowen, Ross Douthat and Robin Hanson all suggest that the answer is “more”. Here’s the headline of Tyler’s recent article:

What Does the World Need? More Humans

Global depopulation is the looming existential threat that no one is talking about.

The world current has 7.8 billion people, and that total is expected to rise to 10.9 billion by 2100.  The population may begin falling in the 22nd century, but I wonder if it’s a bit early to begin planning for something so far out in the future, which is so hard to predict.  Back in 1970, most experts were worried about overpopulation, at a time when the world had less than half as many people as today.

What is the optimal global population?  I just completed Schopenauer’s 1200 page magnum opus on philosophy, which argues that the correct answer is zero.  At the other extreme, some argue that all human life is wonderful, pointing to the fact that even people living in horrible conditions—say North Korean concentration camps—typically do not commit suicide.  Both claims are plausible, but I’m not entirely convinced by either extreme.  I remain agnostic on the question.

We could apply the utilitarian criterion that the optimal number of humans is the one that maximizes aggregate global utility (perhaps including animal utility in the calculation.)  I have no principled objection to that approach, but I don’t see how to implement it.

People often criticize utilitarianism by pointing to the fact that utility cannot be measured.  I accept their point, but still find it to be a useful policy guide for real world public policy decisions.  While we cannot measure utility exactly, we can have well informed views that one situation has a higher utility level than another.  Thus is seems very plausible that South Korean public policies produce higher utility than North Korean public policies.  But when I use utilitarian reasoning I always implicitly hold the population fixed.  I find it almost infinitely more difficult to think about utility in an absolute sense.  How many Swiss people does it take to have the same total utility as 100 residents of rural Pakistan?  I wouldn’t even hazard a guess, and thus would be extremely reluctant to advance any public policy agenda on that basis.

Some population boosters point to polls suggesting that Americans would prefer to have more children. OK, but why don’t they?  Presumably there are some barriers related to the resources (time, money, etc.) required to raise children.  But then what are the public policy implications?  People would also prefer to have more money, bigger houses, more vacations, and lots of other good things.  Should public policies subsidize those goods?  For children the answer might be yes, as there’s a sort of “positive externality” aspect to raising kids.  But that just pushes us back to the optimal population question in the title of this post.  What is the answer?

Another possibility is that we should keep population roughly where it is, as change can cause problems.  Thus keep Japan’s population at roughly 125 million, Britain at roughly 68 million, and New Zealand at roughly 5 million, even though these three island groups have roughly equal ability to support human life.  But I’m not convinced that the disruption caused by Japan gradually declining in population and New Zealand gradually growing in population is all that bad.  Yes, you can point to downsides from population aging, but also some upsides (less crime, less traffic congestion, less pollution, more living space.)  So I’m not convinced by the claim that while we don’t know the optimal population, surely we know that population decline is bad.

People worry that Europe will turn into a sort of museum.  I love museums!

PS.  Suppose it turned out that the “correct” utilitarian answer to the question in the post title was that the world should become populated until living standards fell to those of a North Korean concentration camp, because all life is basically wonderful.  At that point I suspect Cowen and Douthat would jump ship, but Hanson would stick with the utilitarian logic of the analysis.

PPS.  I had always assumed that the Christian religion had a sort of “be fruitful and multiply” ethic, but Schopenauer points out that this is the Old Testament, and argues that the New Testament has a very different perspective.  Can anyone confirm?

PPPS.  Schopenauer’s The World as Will and Representation is highly recommended for disillusioned people.  Optimists might like his book on how to be happy, which is perhaps just as impressive, but in a radically different way.


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The costs of not maximizing aggregate utility

Many people don’t like utilitarianism. They advocate alternative (often deontological) approaches to ethics. In 2020, we saw the immense costs of some of those misguided ethical systems.

Scott Aaronson has an excellent post that begins with a discussion of why he believes our response to Covid was inexcusably slow. He discusses challenge trials of vaccines, and also a WWII-style plan to build manufacturing capacity just in case the vaccines were successful.  But he also considers possible objections to his arguments, such as the fact that moving faster imposes risks:

Let me now respond to three counterarguments that would surely come up in the comments if I didn’t address them.

1.  The Argument from Actual Risk. Every time this subject arises, someone patiently explains to me that, since a vaccine gets administered to billions of healthy people, the standards for its safety and efficacy need to be even higher than they are for ordinary medicines. Of course that’s true, and it strikes me as an excellent reason not to inject people with a completely untested vaccine! All I ask is that the people who are, or could be, harmed by a faulty vaccine, be weighed on the same moral scale as the people harmed by covid itself. As an example, we know that the Phase III clinical trials were repeatedly halted for days or weeks because of a single participant developing strange symptoms—often a participant who’d received the placebo rather than the actual vaccine! That person matters. Any future vaccine recipient who might develop similar symptoms matters. But the 10,000 people who die of covid every single day we delay, along with the hundreds of millions more impoverished, kept out of school, etc., matter equally. If we threw them all onto the same utilitarian scale, would we be making the same tradeoffs that we are now? I feel like the question answers itself.

And it’s not just vaccine development; we’ve also prioritized “ethics” over saving lives in the distribution of the vaccine:

Update (Jan. 1, 2021): If you want a sense of the on-the-ground realities of administering the vaccine in the US, check out this long post by Zvi Mowshowitz. Briefly, it looks like in my post, I gave those in charge way too much benefit of the doubt (!!). The Trump administration pledged to administer 20 million vaccines by the end of 2020; instead it administered fewer than 3 million. Crucially, this is not because of any problem with manufacturing or supply, but just because of pure bureaucratic blank-facedness. Incredibly, even as the pandemic rages, most of the vaccines are sitting in storage, at severe risk of spoiling … and officials’ primary concern is not to administer the precious doses, but just to make sure no one gets a dose “out of turn.” In contrast to Israel, where they’re now administering vaccines 24/7, including on Shabbat, with the goal being to get through the entire population as quickly as possible, in the US they’re moving at a snail’s pace and took off for the holidays. In Wisconsin, a pharmacist intentionally spoiled hundreds of doses; in West Virginia, they mistakenly gave antibody treatments instead of vaccines. There are no longer any terms to understand what’s happening other than those of black comedy.

Everyone is entitled to choose their own preferred ethical system as a guide to their daily life.  But there is only one reliable ethical system to be used in public policy—maximizing aggregate utility.  As soon as you ignore that goal, you end up killing lots of people for no good reason.

In retrospect, none of this should have been a surprise (although I admit to being caught off guard.)  I had assumed that our disgraceful policy of banning kidney markets was a one-off exception.  Now I see that the same instinct that leads to tens of thousands of excess deaths of people with kidneys disease also pervades our entire public health system.

Aaronson understands that this failure goes well beyond one individual or even one country; it’s a broader failure of society:

Furthermore, I could easily believe that there’s no one agent—neither Pfizer nor BioNTech nor Moderna, neither the CDC nor FDA nor other health or regulatory agencies, neither Bill Gates nor Moncef Slaoui—who could’ve unilaterally sped things up very much. If one of them tried, they would’ve simply been ostracized by the other parts of the system, and they probably all understood that. It might have taken a whole different civilization, with different attitudes about utility and risk.

At the same time, I do believe that utilitarianism is gradually gaining ground.  But there’s still much more work to be done.

HT:  Matt Yglesias


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Praise and blame

David Levey directed me to an excellent essay by Agnes Callard, which reviews several books that are critical of meritocracy. While I share many of her criticisms, I’m not persuaded by her recommendations:

The question of who we praise and who we blame is not a scientific question, but an ethical one; there is no way to answer it except by deliberating seriously about the kind of society we want to live in. In that spirit, I want to propose a new candidate for what the “the compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position” should look like. First, we should incline toward crediting people for their achievements as being genuinely their own, the justly earned fruits of hard work and diligence, deserving of pride and a sense of accomplishment. Second, we should incline toward explaining away failures on the basis of genes, socioeconomic obstacles, bad luck, and so on—things beyond their control—in such a way to make clear that the attitude called for in response to failure is sympathy and readiness to assist. The successful should be proud of themselves, and when they see others fail, they should think: there but for the grace of God go I.

I fully accept the philosophical position that we don’t get to choose which person we become.  Nonetheless, I wonder if she is too hasty in dismissing the value of “blame”.

Most economic models have a certain degree of symmetry.  Thus while it’s not impossible that praise for good behavior makes sense and blame for bad behavior is unwise, a priori I find that claim to be rather unlikely—if only because in that world the withholding of praise becomes a sort of blame.

As a utilitarian, I see two arguments for blaming people.  Blame can be justified when bad behavior causes external harm.  Thus you might yell at someone in a park who throws trash on the ground instead of putting it into a bin.  Fear of being blamed makes people behave better.  Second, people might not be fully mature, and thus might not understand that certain behavior is not in their long run interest.  This is especially true of children, which is why they get criticized more often than adults.  It’s “for their own good.”  This is what people mean by “tough love”.

While adults are in many ways (not all) more mature than children, I’m not sure anyone ever fully grows up and becomes 100% mature.  Even adults often engage in behavior that we think of as child-like, such as shirking an unpleasant duty or eating a big sweet dessert when we are on a diet.

Most counterproductive behavior, that is behavior that causes external harm or internal harm, is caused by a mixture of genes and environment.  This includes behavior that leads to poor outcomes in academics, health, wealth, interpersonal relations, and the violation of laws.  Genetics makes some people more predisposed to drop out of school, get diabetes, become poor, cheat on their wife, and rob banks.  But behavior is also affected by environment.

The easiest way to see this distinction is to compare a problem cross sectionally and over time.  At a point in time, genetics largely determines who is obese and who is not.  And yet the rise in obesity in recent decades probably reflects a change in our environment.  Ditto for changes in the crime rate, the poverty rate, and other variables.

So far I’ve been arguing that there is a case for engaging in both praise and blame.  Nonetheless, I suspect our society engages in too much blaming.  For example, while I suspect that “fat shaming” would “work” in the limited sense of slightly reducing obesity, I also believe that it would do more harm than good.  Blame imposes psychic costs, which would likely outweigh the small reduction in obesity that would result from fat shaming.  For similar reasons, I don’t believe it is wise to criticize others for having “affairs”, unless we are personally affected.

On the other hand, there are lots of cases where blame is appropriate.  Crime is the most obvious case, as we are all negatively affected when others engage in stealing and killing.  The trickiest case is behavior that reduces productivity in a welfare state.  You can argue that we should blame people for not studying, or being lazy, or abandoning their wife, or using illegal drugs that reduce their productivity.  It all comes down to the question of whether the direct psychic harm of blaming people for bad behavior is greater or less than the gain from improved behavior that would result as people try to avoid future criticism.

Praise is sort of like eating a healthy food that also tastes great.  It has directly positive impact on utility, and an indirectly positive effect as well.  Blame is like a medication with nasty side effects.  The threshold for engaging in blame is much higher than praise.  If that’s what Callard is saying, then she’s right.

To conclude, while I’m not persuaded by the specific argument made by Callard, I end up in roughly the same place—for utilitarian reasons.  Our society is probably a happier place if adults don’t frequently blame other people for not meeting their standards of self-control and hard work.  But some level of criticism may be appropriate, particular from those with close interpersonal relations, that is, those who might be especially negatively affected by someone’s behavior.


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Special treatment for the powerful?

Should powerful people be treated differently? Should they get special treatment? Should their bad behavior be more easily excused? It seems to me that there are two arguments to consider:

1. Decisions made by powerful people are more consequential for all of us.
2. Societies operate more effectively if there is an egalitarian sense of solidarity.

With the first argument, one might want to excuse occasional bad behavior, as there could be a great cost to replacing a powerful person with someone less skilled. Here you might think of the famous case of General Patton slapping a soldier suffering from shell shock, or General McArthur’s attempt to undercut Truman’s authority in Korea. Neither is a perfect example of this dilemma, but in both cases these two issues come into play to some extent.

Another example is presidential scandals. I’ve seen several examples in my lifetime that would have led to the individual being fired from his job if he were less powerful. This sense of the leader being above the law is of course much more pronounced in less developed countries, or in pre-modern times in the West.

One can also find some evidence of the solidarity principle at work. US presidents earn a salary of $400,000. While that is well above a middle class salary, it’s still a sum that average people can visualize–perhaps they know a doctor or lawyer with that income–unlike the eight figure salaries of top corporate executives. This may be society’s way of making the president seem less special.

On the other hand, the US president receives a “total compensation” that is arguable the highest on Earth. He lives in the best house, has the best transport, the best bodyguards, the most deferential servants, dinner parties with the most distinguished guests, etc. Even Jeff Bezos can’t easily replicate that consumption bundle.

At first glance, it might seem like the utilitarian position would be to provide special treatment to the powerful, as their decisions are so consequential. In fact, all good arguments are utilitarian arguments. Countries with a high degree of social cohesion and solidarity tend to do better in terms of governance. A place like Denmark is less likely to offer special treatment to its leaders than the Congo or Syria, and more likely to be better governed.  That fact is also of relevance to utilitarians.

I suspect there are no hard and fast rules here, which apply in every single case. As a general principle, there are some clear social benefits to creating a society where each person is viewed as having equal value, and no one is exempt from the rules. On the other hand, there may be individual cases where applying this principle strictly means that society is shooting itself in the foot.

It’s sort of like torture.  Have a general rule against torture, but if there’s a ticking nuclear bomb in NYC . . .


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Is utilitarianism WEIRD?

I suspect it is, at least in the sense of WEIRD as a now trendy acronym for western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies.

One criticism of utilitarianism is that it implies that we should value the welfare of far away people just as much as we value the welfare of our own family and friends. This, it is argued, goes against human nature.

I agree that it goes against human nature, but I don’t believe that makes it a bad idea. If someone insults me, my human nature is to punch him in the face. Throughout most of history, in most parts of the world, that’s exactly how many people would respond. If they were aristocrats, they might challenge them to a duel.

In rich societies we have tended to move past fighting duels over insults. We’ve risen above out natural instincts, at least in some respects.

Razib Khan recently made this observation:

In The WEIRDest People in the World Harvard’s Joe Henrich makes the argument that the Western Christian Church’s destruction of extended family networks led to the rise of the West. I won’t recapitulate the argument which I’ve outlined elsewhere. But the idea is rather persuasive.

Before proceeding, let’s stop for a moment and consider just how weird this theory is.  Many conservatives (not all) hold the following two beliefs:

1. Strong family values are the bedrock of western civilization.

2. Western civilization is superior to most or all other cultures.

Wouldn’t it be surprising if the success of western civilization were based on the rejection of strong family values?

In many parts of the world you are expected to offer a job to a cousin over a slightly better qualified stranger.  Many of those countries have higher levels of corruption than rich western nations.  And this is not just about Europe vs. non-white countries.  Sicily has stronger extended family networks than Sweden, and is less prosperous.  So one can make similar distinctions even within Western Europe.

The claim that each person’s wellbeing is equally important is a truly radical idea.  Conservatives upset about my dismissal of “family values” might take some solace in the thought that this radical idea may have come from Christianity.  In contrast, utilitarianism is often viewed as a sort of bloodless, secular worldview—almost inhuman. But if the WEIRD hypothesis is correct, then perhaps society can to some extent overcome its natural instincts, and move at least some distance down the road toward valuing everyone’s wellbeing equally.

To be sure, some bias toward family and close friends might be optimal from even a utilitarian perspective, as we are social animals. Babies come into the world defenseless, and hence a strong nuclear family is a useful institution.  Perhaps in pre-historic times a strong extended family was useful to survival, but in modern WEIRD societies there’s no great benefits in extended kinship networks, beyond the nuclear family.  It’s all about balance, and how that balance changes as society evolves and becomes more urban and specialized.

I have not yet read Joe Henrich’s new book, but for those whom have I pose this question.  Is it possible that at least a part of the claim that western societies have become WEIRD another way of saying that western societies have become increasingly utilitarian?  That is, do we increasingly view everyone’s welfare as equally important?

Now I’ll go out on a limb with one further thought—admittedly wildly speculative.  What if Christianity led to utilitarianism, and utilitarianism led to the rejection of certain non-utilitarian ideas in the Bible?  (Stoning adulterers, prejudice against gays, usury is bad, etc.) This is analogous to the view that capitalism leads to prosperity, which leads to social liberalism, which leads to a rejection of the Protestant work ethic that supposedly led to capitalism.  As I said, all wildly speculative.


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