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Population Consequentialism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 02, 2010

Consequentialism—or the idea that the morality of an act is determined solely by its consequences—is not a viable moral theory, but sometimes it can come in handy. This is particularly true when one can draw a clear connection between certain practical problems and bad moral behavior.

In any given person’s life, clearly, the decision to have a child (or another child) can have either good or bad “consequences”, at least insofar as we’re able to measure these consequences, which is not very far. But for larger social groups or whole societies, the material consequences of the essentially moral failure to reproduce generously have become all too evident over the past generation.

According to the 2010 World Population Data Sheet published by the Population Reference Bureau, the number of working persons worldwide for every person age 65 or older has declined since 1950 from 12 to 9, and the number is projected to continue to decline to just 4 by 2050. Developed nations are being hit the hardest because of their extremely low birth rates (the undeveloped world is far more generous when it comes to having children).

For example, today the “elderly support ratio” in Japan is just 3—that is, there are just three working persons for each person 65 or older in Japan, the lowest in the world. And by 2050, Japan’s ratio is expected to be 1 while Italy and Germany are both projected to have a ratio of 2. The results of this trend include marked decline in productivity, dramatically increasing tax burdens and, for the elderly themselves, far longer working lives, loss of benefits, or—let’s face it—loss of life.

These figures are stark enough, but an understanding of how economies work makes them worse. In the long run, successful investment always requires a large and growing new generation, a generation capable of making something out of the invested capital, and a generation sufficiently numerous to provide ample buyers in the market. Investors have to find that combination somewhere, and increasingly they will find it only in undeveloped countries. Thus the developed world’s wealth will migrate rapidly, providing economic opportunities anywhere and everywhere but at home.

Consequentialism is certainly a bad moral theory, yet material consequences are an important part of reality that needs to be understood. Such consequences may not ultimately determine morality. But only a colossal fool would continue to ignore them altogether.

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  • Posted by: Wild Bill - Aug. 02, 2010 4:39 PM ET USA

    Not to drag you too far from the main point of this article, it might be helpful to know in what way Consequentialism is bad moral theory. It's pretty much the way our parents and the sisters at school taught our generation: you reap what you sow. It doesn't always work out because of the law of unintended consequences but it's a pretty reliable pattern for living. Perhaps that's another article. Thanks for this one.

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