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01/13/2023

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Peter McLaughlin

It's worth noting that the kind of population ethics MacAskill would be most familiar with (i.e., the population ethics taught in analytic philosophy departments in places like Oxford and Cambridge) is typically taught without drawing any actual connection with the topic of *population*, or with the overlapping histories of Malthusianism, social Darwinism, and eugenics. See, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia's definition on its article on the Repugnant Conclusion: population ethics studies 'the moral value of states of affairs where the number of people, the quality of their lives, and their identities may vary.' Everything is so abstractly defined and abstractly discussed; only the name of the discipline, 'population ethics', hints at a connection with questions about population.

But, of course, you are correct that these abstract reflections about the ethics of 'states of affairs' have (historically) emerged from thinking about concrete population issues, and are (still today) deeply linked with these kinds of issues in not-too-savoury ways. My point is just that MacAskill may never have thought about it in these terms, because of the way population ethics is taught nowadays.

This, of course, has to do with Parfit's immense influence: I think you're not sufficiently harsh on MacAskill's historical claim that Parfit 'inaugurated' population ethics, but it's true that as far as MacAskill's philosophy is concerned, Parfit *might as well* have invented population ethics. As you mention, Parfit had his own reasons to try to 'screen off' the influence of religious ethics on his work; separately but for similar reasons, he also tried to abstract away from the neo-Malthusianism undertones of the questions he was asking. And so you get things like a draft explicitly entitled 'Overpopulation' being turned into a journal article and then book section about the (much more abstract) topic of 'Future Generations'.

But whatever Parfit's intentions, one of the consequences of this is that longtermism and 'existential risk' studies have been left with a rather unhealthy concern with ideas about population. Superficially, this can be seen in the recently-unveiled, utterly disgusting email Nick Bostrom wrote in the 1990s about race and IQ; but there's deeper connections to be drawn, too (some of which I drew in my MPhil dissertation).

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