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by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.
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Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

Ethics, Population Trends and Wellness Prospects for the Civilized World of the Future

Friday May 14, 2004


Albert Einstein once remarked, "Relativity applies to physics, not ethics." Lesser minds, like mine, suspect otherwise. Ethics come into play every time free choices must be made in situations involving moral issues. You and I and everyone else are shaped by cultural norms and rules (laws, codes, regulations, commandments and so on), but personal ethics also affect our choices. Such choices are guided in part by our sense of moral intuition. We tend to credit our ethical standards with tempering our tendencies to rape and pillage, and to refrain from greed, self-aggrandizement, hubris and the like. Ethics are a large part of current controversies on topics like cloning, abortion and genetic engineering (gene therapy and eugenics, in other words). Much involved in such issues is still outside the boundaries of settled law or national consensus. Ethics are often relative, to lots of things.

Today's DR is about world population trends--and the ethical issues raised by certain new developments. A question to consider is this: "Should something be done to protect or boost the gene pool?" Due to genetic experiments during the Third Reich and the attendant revulsion at Nazi bioengineering, anything that sounds like eugenics usually elicits negative reactions. However, the topic in this instance is not culling "undesirables" but rather promoting what most of us in Western society see as good values and desirable ethics. By good values/ethics, I mean specific qualities associated with modernity and secular societies (as opposed to Osama bin Laden-like values)--democratic forms of governance, tolerance for diversity, enthusiasm for freedoms (freedoms of speech, religion, assembly), rights of minorities, equal rights for women and the like.

What's happening is that population trends do NOT favor the continuation of democratic qualities a few generations down the road. While certain expected population changes will benefit Western and all other societies in the short run, these same trends imperil the prospects of freedom (and thus wellness) a few generations hence. Unless, of course, ethical choices lead to policies that alter such trends. 

Thinking about the implications of population trends from such perspectives raises new questions of an ethical nature, such as "Is it right to seek influence over trends in accord with OUR ethics (Western culture, in other words)?" It certainly is in my book, but that's because I'm an enthusiast for democratic values and because I'm hostile to fundamentalist religious values linked to the power of the state. What do you think? Is it appropriate and useful to raise such questions, to project the consequences of anticipated changes and to encourage debates about ways to reshape trends we don't favor? If there is harm in such deliberations, what is the harm?   

Let's look at the trends, and you will understand why I'm asking these questions. Let's start with a question: How long will it take for the world's population, now at 6 billion, to double? Phillip Longman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Empty Cradle (Perseus, 2004), claims half of all Americans guess 20 years or less. The correct answer might surprise you: "Probably never!" The key reason is that declines in fertility have spread to every corner of the globe. In an article in Fortune Magazine (April 5, 2004) entitled "Which Nations Will Go Forth and Multiply?", Longman explains what these trends suggest about the future of Western society. I'll summarize his key points, then address a few ethical choices raised by such developments.

The good news is that Thomas Malthus (Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798) might have been mistaken. Related fears associated with a "population bomb" including "apocalyptic scenarios of famine, pestilence, war, and environmental collapse brought on by overcrowding," are less likely than once thought. Lower fertility levels entail economic benefits (witness the recent advances of India and China), since fewer children mean less dependency and the freeing of resources for investment and adult consumption. This is the "demographic dividend."

The bad news is that those who are best adapted to urbanization and globalization will tend not to reproduce, while those who despise values of modernity will. The children of the future will grow up in societies that, in Longman's phrase, "are at odds with the modern world-who either 'don't get' the new rules of the game that make reproduction an economic liability, or who believe they are commanded by a higher power to procreate. Such a higher power might be God, speaking through Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed, or some latter-day saint, or it might be a totalitarian state. Either way, such a trend, if sustained, could drive human culture off its current market-driven, individualistic, modernist course, gradually creating an anti-market culture dominated by fundamentalism--a new dark ages."

I don't know what you think about this, but I'd say the bad news outweighs the good in Longman's scenario. He concludes by noting, "If modern secular societies are to survive, they must somehow enable parents to enjoy more of the economic value they produce for everyone when they sacrifice to create and educate the next generation.

Now you can appreciate why ethics come into play on issues such as shaping population trends. What does your moral intuition suggest on this matter? What CAN and OUGHT TO be done to protect the gene pool? How shall we shape population trends that will favor the continuation of modern, secular and democratic qualities generations hence? Maybe it's time for discussions and debates about ways to reshape population trends we don't favor. The harm, in my view, is greatest if we do NOT have such discussions. The time for policy reforms is before a new dark age is seen as inevitable. 

Of course, in the long run we'll all be dead, so look on the bright side and be well.

Domain: mental
Subdomain: factual knowledge

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