Time and the Generations By Partha Dasgupta

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Time and the Generations: Population Ethics for a Diminishing Planet (Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series) By Partha Dasgupta


Book/Novel Author: Partha Dasgupta

Book/Novel Title: Time and the Generations




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How should we evaluate the ethics of procreation, especially the environmental consequences of reproductive decisions on future generations, in a resource-constrained world? While demographers, moral philosophers, and environmental scientists have separately discussed the implications of population size for sustainability, no one has attempted to synthesize the concerns and values of these approaches. The culmination of a half century of engagement with population ethics, Partha Dasgupta’s masterful Time and the Generations blends economics, philosophy, and ecology to offer an original lens on the difficult topic of optimum global population.After offering careful attention to global inequality and the imbalance of power between men and women, Dasgupta provides tentative answers to two fundamental questions: What level of economic activity can our planet support over the long run, and what does the answer say about optimum population numbers? He develops a population ethics that can be used to evaluate our choices and guide our sense of a sustainable global population and living standards. Structured around a central essay from Dasgupta, the book also features a foreword from Robert Solow; correspondence with Kenneth Arrow; incisive commentaries from Joseph Stiglitz, Eric Maskin, and Scott Barrett; an extended response by the author to them; and a joint paper with Aisha Dasgupta on inequalities in reproductive decisions and the idea of reproductive rights. Taken together, Time and the Generations represents a fascinating dialogue between world-renowned economists on a central issue of our time.
HE ESSAY Birth and Death: Arrow Lecture—henceforth, Arrow Lecture—is a much revised and expanded version of some ideas I explored in my Kenneth Arrow Lectures at Columbia University (2011) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2012), in my Munich Lectures in Economics (2011) and the Humanitas Lectures at the University of Oxford (2012), and in a paper with the title “Birth and Death” that I prepared for circulation in April 2016. Valuing potential lives and the related notions of optimum population and optimum saving have intrigued me ever since I was a graduate student, and I am grateful to James Meade for arousing my interest in them, and to Amiya Dasgupta and James Mirrlees for encouraging me to continue pursuing them.1 In one of the chapters of my doctoral dissertation (1968), I followed the Utilitarianism of Henry Sidgwick and took the good (“the ground of binding reason”) to be the mathematical expectation of the sum of utilities of all who are ever born (Sidgwick, 1907).2 I then applied the Utilitarian calculus to a series of economic models of increasing complexity and derived both the optimum size of each generation and the rate at which each generation should invest for future generations. That exercise also yielded the optimum living standard of each generation.3 The models served as mathematical laboratories. My idea was to experiment with alternative worlds so as to try Classical Utilitarianism on for size. (I am following Rawls, 1972, in calling Sidgwick’s version of Utilitarian thought “Classical Utilitarianism.”) The exercises uncovered the interplay of the possible and the desirable in Sidgwick’s theory. In a canonical class of models, optimum population was found to be large; the living standard supporting optimum population was shown to be proportionately not much higher than the standard of living at which life is neither good nor not-good. I left the matter there because I didn’t have the expertise to explore the borderline living standard, which Meade (1955) had called “welfare subsistence.” But the notion of “hedonistic zero,” or the quality of life at welfare subsistence, is central to population ethics. We confirm here that a great deal of importance rests on the quality of life at welfare subsistence. Sidgwick had discussed it when developing Utilitarianism, but his treatment of the subject was not without problems. Mine was an exercise in applied theory. I put Classical Utilitarianism to work in worlds facing explicit resource constraints. The research strategy in my dissertation differed sharply from the one that has been pursued subsequently by Derek Parfit and those following him in their explorations in population axiology. Parfit saw ethical paradoxes in Sidgwick’s Utilitarianism, which is why characterizing those paradoxes and looking for escape routes have come to dominate the writings of Parfit and thinkers following him. But even though the way Classical Utilitarianism accommodates welfare subsistence is central to those paradoxes, Parfit and those following him have made little attempt to study life’s experiences at that borderline space. The authors have insisted that life there is neither worth living nor not worth living, but they haven’t offered us an account of the notion that can be used for applied work.4 As a working economist it has also been a puzzle to me that they haven’t found a place for the socio-ecological constraints under which population axiology should be tested. The paradoxes were built entirely on hypothetical worlds, with no recognition of the biogeochemical processes that shape our world. It seems to me, though, that no system of ethics should be expected to yield unquestionable directives in all conceivable circumstances, even to the same person. If we are to arrive at satisfactory policies, a suitable accommodation has to be found for the anthropologist’s findings, the demographer’s projections, the economist’s constructions, the environmental scientist’s warnings, and the philosopher’s sensibilities. So it has struck me that Parfit had studied the subject entirely within the confines of the Fellows’ Common Room. That is why readers will find sharp criticisms of Parfitian concerns in the Arrow Lecture.





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