Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Population Trends: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

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

The problem with contemporary population trends in the developed world (see Population Consequentialism) is that they present a classic prisoner’s dilemma. Such a dilemma occurs whenever a group of disadvantaged persons (such as prisoners) could benefit if they all acted in a certain way, but because none of them have confidence in the others, each one acts purely for his individual good instead.

No couple today, no matter how deeply concerned about the graying of the social order, has any confidence that if they were to have a large family anyone else would do the same. The line of thought goes like this: “If we make the sacrifices necessary to bear and raise four or five or more children, we’ll suffer the material consequences without any significant possibility that enough people will do the same thing to create a materially healther society in the long run.”

This crisis of confidence almost invariably leads to short-term selfishness. That’s why the decision to have larger families must come from a deep-seated love of life and respect for family, and not from demographic trends or statistics. Or to put it another way, young couples need to stop thinking like prisoners. Instead, they must cultivate a desire to act from more deeply spiritual motives, and in response to a richer and more important set of goods that money cannot buy.

To act from such spiritual motives requires deep interior freedom. To be constrained always by concern for personal material consequences is, in fact, to be enslaved. This is what makes the prisoner’s dilemma so instructive. For the dilemma is insoluble only as long as we permit ourselves to be defined as prisoners. As soon as we are prepared to act according to principles which transcend our particular sort of enslavement, other options become possible. We are no longer predictable. What is a dilemma for someone else is no longer a dilemma for us.

St. Paul placed this message at the heart of his exposition of the Christian Faith: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Aug. 04, 2010 3:01 PM ET USA

    Although semi-retired, I still work as relief staff at a shelter for homeless youth. The thoughts Dr. Mirus expresses above would be embraced by a large proportion of these youth, were it not for the sad fact that any staff member disseminating such ideas would be fired for political incorrectness. Pray that we may be granted opportunities to put the lamp where it can be seen. This incisive article should be mandatory reading for every youth on reaching his or her 18th birthday.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 04, 2010 12:31 PM ET USA


  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Aug. 03, 2010 7:23 PM ET USA

    Interesting to me... the average net number of children per household in the USA is below 1 child. The average family size among homeschoolers is 3+. These kids perform above avg. on all standardized testing. Don't be bashful moms and dads... You can do it!!! Consider, one study found that students whose parents are certified teachers performed no better than other students and that neither parental income nor parents' educational background had a significant impact on student performance.