In the third section of our series on killing we discussed the relativity of morality when it comes to harm in a broader sense and killing in a narrow one. We have emphasized that this does not make morality utterly ambiguous or unknowable. It just means that in the scope of centuries circumstances change and that ‘less harm’ means something else in 2014 than it did in 2000 BCE. In this section we will examine the impact of one development, namely population, together with its development in the last centuries. This will prepare the last section where we will discuss the balance of ‘harm’ in the question of abortion.
By viewing living things in their context and determining their competing interests we can start assessing what is the morally correct thing to do, more particularly in matters of life and death. This requires you to have a correct updated view of the context to assess what action would cause the most harm. If it seems this may lead to entrenched discussions about what the interactions, situation and relative value is of different living things, you would be correct. However it is better to have discussions about what is the reality, where facts change opinions, than to be arguing about necessity against Gods inflexible commands, where incompatible faiths rule. Fortunately there are plenty of facts no-one is really disputing and furthermore the sciences are constantly working to give us a better understanding of both situations as causal relations in them. For some discussions however one only needs to study things that were clearly stated centuries ago.
Unimpressed by the optimism several of his contemporaries were displaying about the future of man, a clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus started in 1798 on an essay to explain why he felt they were wrong. With it he launched a whole other scientific discipline called demography.
Mathus’ arguments were as simple as they still are inescapable. Mankind is continually improving its food procurement methods, which is however completely dwarfed by its tendency and capacity to reproduce beyond its average means of sustenance. This means that in good years and in fortunate places more people are born that on average can be sustained by food-production. In mathematical terms Malthus described that population tends to increase in an exponential manner, since each increase multiplies growth on its own. Food procurement improvements by contrast are, at best, made with linear improvements.
“The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before.”
Man is not the only animal that reproduces to the limits of its sustenance. In the wild animals that do so however are put into check by predators who find easy, weakened prey due to overpopulation. For humanity, without natural enemies, Malthus states that this ‘check’ on population is eventually carried out by famine followed by disease and war and famine again. History tends to agree with him. History is filled as such with copious amounts of suffering that, if they could be avoided, would provide ample moral pressure to do so.
Malthus got severe back-pressure on his ideas though, not in the least by contemporary atheists Engels and Marx. This may seem strange at first since Malthus’ entire theory on wages fits nicely inside the ideas Marx had on capitalism. But Malthus went far in his proposals for remediating these human tendencies. An immediate stop on aid for the poor, which some lawmakers took to heart, was required for instance. His religious views that misery was a way for God to put man into action, though not entirely incorrect, proved a bit harsh for the defenders of the proletariat.
“A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall…”
Marx argued that Malthus underestimated the gains mankind could make into sustenance improvements. He was not wrong. In the period 1950-2000 alone food production in the world rose 119% while population ‘only’ doubled. But then again Marx was indeed ultimately wrong since Malthus had never argued when improvements would end but only that they would and that in the mean time food procurement would periodically not suffice. There was a theoretical limit to procurement improvements on food while there was no such limit to reproduction. With the provision on fertilization and irrigation today largely maximized the current limit on food production is posed by the limits to photosynthesis. This may be a limit we may not attack without impunity (through genetic manipulation).
It may be no coincidence that Malthus wrote his essay when he did, at the start of the Industrial revolution. Historically we have attributed the Industrial Revolution as a response to population increase. In turn this is explained by an improvement in hygiene and therefore a lowering mortality and rising population. What is remarkable here is that Malthus, together with some contemporary authors, was one of the few people that noticed how population had increased since Classic times. So if this population explosion was easy to miss from up close, perhaps the causes for it were not as clear cut as we might think either.
There is a dark little secret to man’s history: until the high middle-ages we have commit infanticide on an unknown scale with a widespread basis. It is eventually Christianity that stopped the generality of this custom in Western Europe. So while population exploded, these ‘old ways’ of reducing pressures on food-safety were suppressed. As we addressed earlier, morality is not absolute. We certainly do not think as casually about infanticide or ritual child-killing today as was customary in many of historical societies before the Middle Ages. But if Christianity changed public opinion, it did not change the situation. If we today regard infanticide as immoral it is mainly due to the fact that we think there are alternatives that ‘do less harm’. Even as societies stomach for killing newly-born changed under Christian influence there are several ‘murder’ cases in 19th century UK where juries perjured themselves because they felt the women charged had not had valid alternatives. While we cannot imagine, looking at parents in revelation of their new-born baby, feeling anything but disgust about these ancient practices it is clear that the first reason for this practice was a clear need rather than sadistic pleasure.
Now to mitigate the ‘natural checks’ on population Malthus proposed to control it. His main suggestion being that we would stop .. you know.. act like rabbits. Moral character should induce postponed marriage and reduce fertility. Then, if we’d only stop helping the poor they would collapse sooner and not be able to increase population any longer.
Mathus did underestimate the improvements to nourishment the centuries would bring so that today we are seven billion strong. This does not reduce the fact that we got here mainly via the patterns he described and that the current global situation for food is not on par with other technological advances. In fact we may be in for a check sooner rather than later. Water is an ever diminishing resource and the part we use for irrigation is not entirely from sources that replenish. Even then in normal years 1.5 million children die from hunger joined by 6 million people that somehow already reached adulthood. Almost a billion people on this planet are regularly hungry, with the Malthusian effects on health and social circumstances to match. If we add to this the fact that population keeps rising and that food improvements are leveling out anyone can see that to the ample amounts of suffering of past and present copious more future amounts await.
So these are the circumstances of our present day: Too few whales, too many people. Does this mean we have to start lining people against a wall and pepper them with lead? No, off course it doesn’t mean that, rather on the contrary, this is what Malthus and I wanted to avoid. The question we are faced with is: how can we align resources with the human population without losing abilities in a narrow sense (the abilities of people) or even on a larger technological sense (keep the internet and other means of communication). Since killing people, full bodied able people, is not possible without inducing suffering and anguish the only alternative is, as Malthus proposed, reducing our birthrate.
Reducing birthrate is not as easy a solution as it seems though, since an inverse population pyramid with less young than elders is not without risk. Such a society requires careful managing to tend to the needs of an under-supported aging population. Another issue is the risk of asymmetric reduction of population where one group works towards global population reduction and another only works on work domination by increasing their birthrate. There is no denying that all soldiers used to be babies and having a few million more of those will give you an edge in war despite the technological advances in warfare thus far.
Justifiably Neo-Malthusians today still focus on the food situation of people in the world. Unfortunately that is a ‘luxury’ we can’t afford. Because just like in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ having too much of something on your ship usually means you do not have enough of something else and vice versa. We aren’t only short on food and water, we are short on energy, certain metals, helium and petroleum for meeting the demands of modern society. Our ‘Breadfruit’, of which we have too much, is carbon. For every new member of our species, the challenge for avoiding a runaway process of climate change, becomes a little more difficult. For every new member we need to dispense a little ‘climate-food’. And just like with food we hope we can improve upon the procurement of clean air but so far we have no reason for optimism. It is difficult to measure but already the price for global warming is estimated in the millions of lives lost. Each year sees bigger floods, harder storms, heavier bushfires and yet the only thing we can show to have warmed up to now, as predicted, are the oceans. Things will get a lot worse if we can actually start measuring global air temperatures rising. One of the problems today is that, unlike food the cost of carbon is borrowed. So much so that still there are people who deny this reality. We are starving, yet people don’t feel hunger. But like house-payments we cannot keep coming up short on the mortgage. Before late nature will foreclose on us and add another completely avoidable deposit of misery onto history’s tally.