I’m quite concerned about your cost-effectiveness analysis. It seems to have been done in a quite naive way that massively biases the conclusions.
When we do cost-benefit analysis, we need to consider both the costs and the benefits. Yet while your analysis and spreadsheet describe at length the costs of new people (financial, environmental etc.), it does not seem to analyse the benefits at all.
This would not be a big deal if these benefits were small. But they are actually very large!
Firstly, there are a lot of benefits to existing people from larger population sizes:
Existing people get the benefit of building relationships with these new people. The experience of being a parent, or a grandparent, is one of the biggest sources of meaning in most people’s lives, and this is true even for accidental pregnancies. And certainly when people grow old their grandchildren and great-grandchildren seem to provide a source of both joy and support long after they have ceased participating in much of society.
Many things have increasing returns to scale, and so are more efficient with larger populations—e.g. mass transit, factory size, power plant size.
Division of Labour—whereby people specialise in one specific area they become more efficient at it. The larger the population, the more specialisation it can support.
The new people can become inventors and scientists or artists. Because ideas can be copied with ~ zero cost, these people can provide a benefit to everyone, so the higher the population the better.
It is of course possible that these benefits might be outweighed by the costs outlined in the report. But we cannot simply assume that this is the case. As far as I can see the spreadsheet does not contain any reference to these considerations, and the report contains only a single throw-away sentence under ‘other effects we did not research’.
But even more importantly, there is a huge class of people whose interests are closely tied to future population growth: those future people! As life is good for most people, this is a major advantage. They get to experience the joys of playing and growing and love and all the other good things in the world. I think the vast majority of people in the world live good lives and do not regret being born, so this is a massive positive.
Now, some people adopt ethical views according to which future people do not count. I, along with many academic philosophers and other EAs, reject such views, but they definitely exist, and to the extent that you had credence in such views this would reduce the benefits of population increases.
However, this report does not seem to endorse such a view, because it looks at the animal welfare implications of incremental people’s entire lives—even though most of these animals have not yet been born, and indeed might never exist at all. Similarly, it considers the health benefits to newborns who have not yet been conceived. And it talks about the impacts of climate change—impacts which largely fall on future people. Given these discussions of the costs to future people/animals, it seems hard to justify not even mentioning the benefits of existence for future people.
Indeed, such concerns were actually mentioned on the CE website in the past:
One of the main metrics we focus on for this area of research is the number of unintended births averted. The cost-effectiveness of this intervention—as well as the way it is estimated—depends on one’s ethical theory. How much should we care about a person’s happiness and suffering (hedonic well-being)? Or should we ultimately value fulfilling what someone wants, whatever that may be (preferences)? If the latter, then how can we make a direct comparison between the preferences of the mother, and the preferences of a child whose birth was averted? Should the preferences of a being that will not come to existence be counted at all?
Despite this, these considerations did not seem to make it into the report—even in the ‘Limitations’ or ‘Other effects’ sections.
(And of course, even if you did reject such totalist views, the instrumental benefits of larger populations for existing generations would remain.)
As such, I would strongly encourage you to re-visit the analysis and try to incorporate both the costs and the benefits of the policy. Given the excellent work CE has done on other issues I would not want to see such an omission risk potentially promoting a negative expected value program.
Hey Larks, thanks for the great comment. I think it gets at some key assumptions one has to consider when evaluating this as an intervention. We didn’t end up going into that in this post, but happy to cover it below.I both see the scenario in which the benefits outweigh the costs (the one in which we are happy to incubate this charity), and I also see scenarios where the costs are higher than the benefits (in that case we wouldn’t recommend it). Specifically:
Existing people get the benefit of building relationships with these new people.
When you consider the context of the families that an intervention such as this would be impacting I think the benefits you layed out are a lot smaller (to the point they do not largely change the calculation). They are typically families with large family size (my expectation is that the 4th child or grandchild does not carry the same weight as the first, particularly when it comes to long term support of the family).
They are also typically in low-income jobs with limited specialization (often family planning is most needed in families earning income from primary agriculture). I expect that averting unwanted pregnancy frees up the income of the household to spend on the current family, e.g. on more education opportunities or a more nutritious diet that has further positive flow-through effects on the family. I think this same education confounder also cross-applies to creating more artists and scientists. It’s not at all clear to me that net higher population vs higher average education but smaller families would result in this.
Many things have increasing returns to scale, and so are more efficient with larger populations
Although I have some sympathy for the economies of scale arguments, I think depending on the country the efficiency effects of having a very young or rapidly growing population trade off against this in quite an unfavourable way. I also think there are less economies of scale in less connected and more rural settings. (E.g. things like electricity or water have limited scale in these locations.) I also expect these benefits to be quite small relative to the current factors we consider.
It is of course possible that these benefits might be outweighed by the costs outlined in the report. But we cannot simply assume that this is the case.
When we are modelling cost-effectiveness on that sheet we are not aiming to take into account all of the externalities, but rather compare between interventions within family-planning, so you probably won’t find them there. We would use a different methodology to take them into account. But I take your point about the broader cost-benefit considerations.
As life is good for most people, this is a major advantage. They get to experience the joys of playing and growing and love and all the other good things in the world.
I do think you have hit on the really key assumption that can change one’s model of family planning though. “Life is good for most people”. We spend a considerable amount of time and work thinking about it and I agree that there is a lot of moral and epistemic uncertainty around the issue. It is probably the hardest thing to take into account when it comes to the assessment of moral weights of various outcomes. Depending on how one takes it, it can either result in 60 years equivalent of utility or disutility. However, I think again we have to look at the population very closely. Populations that do not have access to family planning information or counselling are more likely to have lower happiness levels. The country our last family planning charity chose to work in is Nigeria, where the average happiness goes up and down between 5 and 6 out of 10. Another country we recommend is Senegal, where the numbers are even lower. But I would say even this data is not precise enough as even within countries populations without access to family planning are typically far lower income than average. Also, the child whose existence would be prevented would be a child the family would prefer not to have, and this seems likely to have an effect on the average happiness of both the child and the family. We know the SD of happiness in Nigeria is pretty large ~2.5 (this variation is also typical across other locations). It’s hard to know exactly what happiness that person would have over their life. It could easily be in the 3-4/10 range. If you think a year lived at 3-4 is net positive and something you would want to create more of, then indeed this is a huge factor against family planning. If you think its net negative then its a huge factor in favour. I think this is one of the key ethical questions. It comes down a lot more to do with positive vs negative leaning utilitarianism and how you view various weightings of subjective well being. This is a factor we considered a lot when thinking about it and although I think there are defendable different perspectives our team generally came down on the side of this effect being a net positive for family planning (some more info here). I do think we could have made improvements to the report to make some of these judgement calls more clear and bring people’s attention to the factors that affect the analysis significantly. We do tend to discuss these considerations and outline when the results of the general judgement about family planning may differ according to some ethical or empirical differences in much greater depth with incubatees who are considering working in these areas and it’s indeed a complex issue, because of this we have typically found it it easier to discuss it in conversation rather than in writing. I agree that the report could have been better written to take that into account.
As life is good for most people, this is a major advantage.
Seems you’re implying that life is net-good for most people globally? Do you have a source for this as I always assumed the opposite (but would love to be proven wrong)?
Larks, as much as you consider the provided cost-benefit analysis to be “naive”, I am afraid the same applies to several of the counter-points you mentioned. Could you please give some sources that support (a) your claims and (b) are broadly generalizable or generalizable to a degree they should support policy? Specifically, I think some of your assumptions you just take as given even though there is a lot of high-quality evidence to the contrary. I was also a bit disappointed that you did not want to answer on the below issues when you made that identical post the first time around. It seems to me like it is informed by an inherent pro-natalist view without the proper analysis of underlying issues and well-established complexities to the contrary. For the four bullet points in your post, I would like to provide counter-arguments (which I would be happy to discuss if you’re interested) why they might not be correct and would greatly appreciate if you could provide generalizable evidence supporting your bullet points:
“benefit of building relationships with these new people”:
What is the EV here? Does this scale linearly with the amount of people that come into existence? Do you have any sources for the amount of “additional happiness” vs “additional suffering” caused by these humans to other life-forms (cf. average global meat and fish consumption)? There are various studies that basically say that the relation between “children” and “happiness” is complicated at the very least, for example seen in the following articles. All in all, happiness for parents mostly decreases while they actively rear children, for example:
Are People Who Have Kinds Happier? Not really.
Dan Gilbert has some good statistics on marital satisfaction in “Stumbling upon Happiness”, posted e.g. here: https://twitter.com/kiminsalaco/status/883493590638448640
This depends on the kind of growth and whether the government and economy of a country with a growing population can adequately supply all these points you mentioned. Many countries only experience a real bump in development due to the Demographic Dividend, i.e. when birth rates fall (s. for example Johns Hopkins University and Wikipedia). In many countries, unsustainable population growth depletes financial resources of governments and prevents long-term strategic investments by tying budgets to short-term social support. The same applies to families: Family income only increases with more family members once these new family members reach working age. Before that, they do not have more, but less money to spend on the individual, including education and training. In other words: Growth in population is not good for a country per se. It needs to be sustainable and supportable (by government and family budgets) for a country and its population to profit. Many countries such as Rwanda only really developed once they managed to profit from the Demographic Dividend, as established in countless peer-reviewed articles.
This only holds true if the society that grows can provide adequate education opportunities to support the specialization you mentioned. Good counter-examples to your argument are, in fact, the fastest-growing populations we know: Sub-Saharan countries. If your argument was generally true, countries such as South Sudan, Angola, Malawi, Burundi, Uganda, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali should experience greater degrees of professional specialization. Do you have any evidence to support this? I would be very happy to see it!
Do you have any studies here that show the likelihood of people in the fastest-growing societies by birth numbers becoming inventors or scientists?
The scientific publication that has received the most supportive signatures from scientists ever, the World Scientists’ Warning To Humanity, specifically urges world leaders to reduce human population growth. Quoting from Wikipedia which provides the primary source:
The Second Notice has more scientist cosigners and formal supporters than any other journal article ever published.
The Second Notice specifically states:
By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.
Do you think that this notice is generally biased or naive?