EAERE 2017
Athens, Greece
28 Jun - 01 Jul 2017
23rd Annual Conference
of the European Association
of Environmental and Resource Economists

Partha Dasgupta

Speaker: Sir Partha Dasgupta, Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Cambridge


Title of Lecture: Reproductive Rights and Environmental Externalities

Professor Dasgupta’s lecture will combine ideas from two of his pieces of current research, the extracts of which appear below. The second piece of research was conducted jointly with Aisha Dasgupta.


Abstract 1:

It has long been known that in finite economies the Utilitarianism of Henry Sidgwick commends large populations. It has been known also that the stronger is the aversion to inequality in the standard of living the lower is the optimum living standard, and that it tends in the limit to Sidgwick's "hedonistic zero". A version of the latter feature of the theory was subsequently named the Repugnant Conclusion (RC). Most escape routes from RC have invoked the language of "gains" and "losses", which are familiar notions in social cost-benefit analysis. Those notions have been found to lead to paradoxes involving the Non-Identity Problem. A notable escape route from RC, Critical-Level Utilitarianism, hasn't invoked the language of benefits and harms but has insurmountable problems of its own. In this paper I start with Sidgwick's theory in its pristine form - the maximization of the sum of utilities - but recast it in a contemporary language: the ground of binding reason is taken to be "well-being", not "happiness" or "agreeable consciousness". Sidgwick erred in his interpretation of the hedonistic zero, which may explain why the pro-natalism inherent in his theory has been found to be repugnant by philosophers. Problems with Utilitarianism lie elsewhere. An example is presented which invites an additional but relatively mild notion of person-hood into any theory that says that personal well-beings should be the basis for ranking states of affairs. The revised formulation, Generation-Relative Utilitarianism, or to put it more broadly, Generation-Relative Ethics, arrives at intuitively agreeable population policies in economies with finite resources. It has however been argued that the theory is incoherent because it does not yield a binary relation between states of affairs. I show that the incoherence arises only when states of affair are not specified with care. The theory is then used to understand the nature of loss that would be suffered in the face of human extinction. Generation-Relative Utilitarianism is shown to arrive at the view that each generation is a trustee of the capital it inherits from its predecessor.


Abstract 2:

Externalities are the unaccounted for consequences for others of actions taken by one or more persons. They are symptoms of institutional failure, which is why they cannot be eliminated without collective action. When externalities are adverse, the moral directives flowing from them can clash with the exercise of personal rights. In this paper we identify a class of environmental externalities in the contemporary world that accompany procreation. We also identify externalities that are allied to socially embedded preferences for family size. Those preferences can give rise to a heightened demand for children, which exacerbates the adverse environmental externalities present people impose on future generations. We show that current indicators of sustainable development undervalue the contribution of family planning programmes. Crude but suggestive estimates of the demand humanity currently makes on the biosphere are used to show that adverse environmental externalities accompanying new births are significant. We provide very rough estimates of the size of the global population that the Earth system can support at a good standard of living. Our analysis is designed only to raise questions that have been neglected, we do not explore policy implications. Much remains unsettled.

Last update on November 10, 2016