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Ethical reflections on population challenges

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JULY 2023

Ethical reflections on population challenges

by Dr Motsamai Molefe

MA (Developmental Studies), Phd (Philosophy)


The paper is a contribution to debates on population growth. It contributes to debates on population growth from an ethical standpoint. It draws two resources from moral philosophy to reflect on population growth issues. The first revolves ethical frameworks in environmental ethics and/or justice. Specifically, it considers the debate whether a robust approach to morality must be one that is human-centred (anthropocentric) or one that is non-anthropocentric. The insight from this approach is that it will challenge moral agents, at individual and institutional levels, to adopt ethical and policy frameworks that is more sensitive to the general well-being of the environment beyond the human good. The second ethical framework relates to the abortion debate in moral philosophy, where we consider the permissibility of abortion. We consider this debate as it might have ethical implications for managing population growth via the permissibility of the use of contraceptives. In the final analysis, the paper indicates that there are resources in moral philosophy to contribute to debates on population growth.

Key words: Abortion, Contraceptives, Environmental ethics, Human dignity, Population, Well-being


In 2011, the human population on planet Earth was just over 7 billion. A United Nations report indicates that this number could jump to over 15 billion by 2100, if the current growth trajectory continues unabated (UN, 2011; UNFPA, 2011). This would mean that by 2100 the population would have increased by over 50%.

There is no doubt that population changes have serious social, economic and environmental consequences that require our earnest and urgent attention. Some of these issues are ethical in nature, as they relate directly to questions of human dignity, well-being, or even justice itself (Cripps, 2021).

In relation to dignity, the question revolves around whether, as the population changes, individuals, cultures and institutions will provide conditions suitable for decent human habitation, where we can survive or even thrive. Or whether human beings will find themselves living under deplorable and dehumanising conditions. In relation to human well-being, the concern is whether human beings will have access to the basic needs and conditions required for their lives to go well. In terms of justice, the focus is on how we protect the interests and welfare of future generations.

As the population grows, it throws out all manner of problems for policymakers and, in the instance of this paper, for ethicists too. The central concern then revolves around developing ethically robust “policies for reducing fertility rates and … stabilising human numbers” (Coole, 2021). The motivation for seeking to stabilise human numbers, or population, is informed by the observation that there is a direct relationship between population changes and consumption (The Royal Society, 2012).

The idea of “population changes” is very broad. It encompasses more than just population growth; it also includes a variety of complex dynamics related to the population such as migration, urbanization, age structure, education structure, and so on. Human beings require access to resources – which they access from the natural environment – so that they can produce goods for consumption. The natural environment provides natural capital. And it is this natural capital, by use of technology, that is processed and converted into goods which human beings can consume to satisfy their basic and aspirational needs (Budolfson & Spears, 2021).

As the human population grows, we need to extract and use more natural resources to respond to human needs. Bear in mind that it is not only the human population that relies on the natural capital of the planet for their survival, but also many other species. The complex ecosystem functions precisely to respond to the needs of other components of the natural environment, all things being equal.

It is, however, human activity that has the most extensive impact and places extraordinary demands on Earth’s natural resources. The technical term “Anthropocene” is used to capture the extensive, fast-paced and pervasive human activity on the social, cultural and environmental components of the planet, and its demands and impact on planet Earth (Meybeck, 2013; Trevennon-Jones, 2022).

One crucial consideration related to human activities and requirements associated with human existence, in relation to consumption, is the fact that the planet is finite (Meadows et al., 1972). In other words, as the population grows and changes, the demand for natural resources grows as a result of the increase in human needs, but the planet itself is not growing – the planet does not have a limitless supply of natural resources.

To exemplify the point of the finite nature of Earth and the serious problems it presents for current and future generations in light of a growing population, consider the example of a soccer stadium. A stadium might have the capacity to carry 80,000 people. The human need to consume soccer, in this instance, can only accommodate 80,000 people. Should the population of soccer-lovers who want to go to the stadium exceed this number, the stadium would be put in a precarious situation, where it might collapse as a result of being forced to carry a number of people beyond its natural capacity.

The ethical questions focussed on this paper pivot on the finite status of the natural resources provided by planet Earth. If it is a fact, as I suppose it is, that the planet has a set capacity and, therefore, its resources are limited, how should we ethically respond to this situation? In other words, what moral responsibilities are engendered by the limited nature of the natural resources of the planet? This paper provides some ethical suggestions on how we might respond to the challenges posed by population changes. Specifically, given that the problems of increased consumption have to do directly with extracting more resources from the planet, the solution will encompass suggesting means – ethical ones – to manage or reduce population growth.

In pursuing the task of proposing ethical means to positively intervene in our relationship with the natural environment, its natural capital, this paper is divided into two major sections. The first section appeals to the environmental ethics framework, to inform our approach to the environment and our duties towards it, or, at least, some components of it. At the heart of the environmental ethics framework is the question of the boundary of morality. Specifically, the debate centres on whether we require an ethical framework that limits our duties to human beings or one that locates it beyond human beings.

The consideration which emerges in this section is that robust ethical frameworks that could point us towards an ethics that requires us to be respectful towards the environment, are possible, which will have serious implications for our approach to the environment, how we relate to it, and what within it counts as a resource for human consumption.

The second section focusses on the ethics of birth. It does so via the debate in moral philosophy regarding abortion and its direct relation to the question of contraceptives. It suggests practical ways, drawing from ethical perspectives, to reduce fertility.

Section One: Environmental Ethics

What is the relationship between human beings and the natural environment? One obvious answer is that human beings are located and navigate their entire lives, be it as individuals or through family, cultural groups and institutions, in the natural environment. It is our home, our only home, and we cannot begin to imagine or conceptualise human lived experience outside of it. It provides the very context for what is humanly possible.

All that I have stated above is not controversial. We could ask – a somewhat controversial question – do we have ethical duties towards the natural environment, or at least some of the non-human components in it, like animals? In other words, should we think of ourselves as having duties towards mountains, rivers, forests, animals, oceans and so on? The answer we provide to this question is important for its own sake, as it will challenge both our influential ethical theories and our attitudes about how we ought to relate to the natural environment. But this question is also crucial because it has direct implications regarding how we ought to relate to nature at an “engineering” level.

By engineering level, I mean we have to decide what technological means to use to produce goods in the world. This question is not a purely empirical or scientific question, it is also one that is deeply ethical. It involves what scholars in Development Ethics describe as “the ethics of means”. The underlying idea here is that “the technological, cultural and economical policies and actions” we exercise in the context of development must be ethically sound (Goulet, 1996; Crocker, 1991).

The ethics of means accentuates a view which rejects the claim that the ends justify the means. Economic growth, and the means we employ to achieve it, must be subjected to ethical considerations, where ethics is primary and the pursuit of economic growth secondary (Sen, 1987). The means themselves, the “how part”, which involves the choice of technology we use to achieve our production-method-and-goals, must be ethically justified. The engineering aspect, do not forget, is crucial in the process of converting natural resources to goods which human beings can consume.

So here, we are confronted by ethical reflection on two levels. On the one hand, we are asking questions about whether the whole or parts of the natural environment are objects of moral concern towards which we have duties of respect – it is this question that lies at the heart of environmental ethics. On the other hand, we have the question about how we ought to go about choosing and using technology to produce goods for human consumption – the ethics of means. Both levels of ethical reflection are crucial for how we relate to the environment. Do we relate to the environment merely as a resource? Or do we have to nurture respectful attitudes and duties towards it?

In the rest of this section, I focus on the first of these two questions – the question of (1) “who else” in the natural environment is the object of direct duty other than merely human beings? and (2) what means are ethically justified to produce goods for human consumption? I hope it is clear how both questions are central in ethically relating to a finitely resourced planet. These questions have direct implications for human consumption.

The first question involves concerns about what we may consume in the natural environment. The second question involves concerns about how we go about producing the things we may consume. Underlying these questions about how to relate to a finite planet and its resources are the values of dignity (respect), human well-being and intergenerational justice. These values are directly connected to human survival or even flourishing, for the current and future generations.

For the sake of focus, in relation to the environmental ethics, I limit myself to the case of animals. The inquiry is centred on whether we are ethically justified to continue regarding them as a mere resource for human consumption. I select this question because it has direct implications for the environment and climate change insofar as the choice of what we consume and the methods of production we use have environmental costs. Some options have high and some low environmental costs. The question of environmental costs is crucial because it requires us to choose options that are sustainable.

Moreover, my focus on animals might offer us a useful way to think about our duties to other finite resources in the environment as we proceed to search for a robust ethical framework in relation to managing finite natural resources.

Our Relationship with Non-Human Components in Nature (Animals)

The central question for our consideration here is whether we should see ourselves, being moral agents, as having duties towards non-human components in the environment, or even the environment itself. This question arises because of the negative consequences our attitudes and conduct has had on the natural environment. The large-scale degradation of the natural environment could be traced, in part, to our moral theories and the attitudes they foster in us towards it.

The concern raised in the literature on environmental ethics is that many of our ethical theories circumscribe the enterprise of morality strictly to human-to-human relations. That is, ethical concerns are strictly limited to issues revolving around human well-being and/or dignity.

The implication of such an approach to ethics is that it tends to exclude all other elements of the natural environment from the moral purview, and without a place in the moral community, they remain exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of use or, even, abuse. What is worse, such (ab)use of other non-human elements cannot be condemned, as it is not immoral, since the environment is not a proper object of moral obligations.

There are at least two prominent ethical theories that have come to shape our relationship with the environment and its contents. One is religious: a Christian ethical perspective that accounts for the highest value in the world in terms of human beings as bearers of the divine image (Schroeder & Bani-Sadr, 2017). With this view, only human beings bear the divine resemblance which creates responsibilities of respect towards them. Since almost all of nature is devoid of the image of God, it is not an object of moral concern.

Another theory is secular, and it explains the highest good in terms of rationality, where only entities with the capacity for rationality belong to the community of respect (Rosen, 2012). The upshot of such religious and secular ethical views is that we can “fill the earth” without any concern, and we can go on to “subdue it”, that is, extract as much as is possible from it – for our consumption – without any concern (Jamieson, 1996). These influential moral theories have tended to be human centred in ways that foster attitudes of total disregard towards the environment.

Environmental ethics emerges as a concern and response to these human-centred theories and the negative attitudes they foster in society towards the environment (Brennan & Lo, 2002). The moral intuition behind many scholars’ criticism of and scepticism towards human-centred ethical approaches is that on the one hand, it does not tell us the whole story about the nature and scope of our duties towards the planet. The intuition is that surely our moral debts ought to go beyond human beings.

On the other hand, human-centred moral theories reflect a false story about the environment and other non-human inhabitants in it. Theories and policies that limit the scope of morality to human beings and their well-being are described as “anthropocentric” (Grey, 1993; Almiron & Tafalla, 2019). The idea of “anthropocentrism” literally means the policy or ethical theory under consideration is human centred, which implies that only human interests, well-being and goals should matter in our moral calculus (Behrens, 2011). All other elements of the environment can be rightly regarded as a mere resource for human consumption, or tools to make such consumption possible.

If all value is intrinsically connected only with the human good and the environment in its totality is reduced to a mere resource, then there is no ethical limit to the extent of the damage that can be done to it. Environmental ethics emerges precisely as an objection to this kind of theorisation about the environment and its non-human components. It is an attempt to elevate the imagination of our moral systems to carefully think about the place of the environment in our moral schemes.

One way to appreciate the possibility that environmental ethics could challenge us to rethink the place and status of the environment in our ethical frameworks, policies, attitudes and conduct, is by focusing on animals for heuristic purposes. I focus on animals, and I include fish in the community of animals, for the sake of making a point about how environmental ethics could challenge us to rethink what falls within the scope of human consumption and our general attitudes towards the environment.

The issue of animals (and fish) is crucial because they are an important aspect of our culture in terms of consumption, but we have tended to ignore ethical concerns around our duties towards animals. Notice that the Royal Society report on population and its impact on the planet make this point about animals and fish as a requirement for human consumption:

A greater number of consumers exist than ever before because of population growth. Economic development has meant that the material needs of societies have become more complex, reflecting aspirations as well as basic needs. Over the last sixty years total fish production has increased nearly fivefold … and total world meat production fivefold ... (2012: 11).

A serious ethical and policy implication related to such increases in the production of fish and animals is its environmental costs. Note, for example, that a recent study on the environmental costs of meat-and-fish production indicates that “the highest impact production methods were beef production and catfish aquaculture” (Hilborn, 2018). They used four metrics – energy use, greenhouse-gas emissions, release of nutrients, and acidifying compounds – to measure the environmental cost of meat-and-fish production, among others.

At an environmental policy level, it occurs that we need to be intentional in terms of supporting the production of certain foods and we equally need to distance ourselves from others precisely because of their associated high environmental costs. Meat production, as indicated in this study, has a high environmental cost in as far as it has adverse consequences for the environment.

In this light, environmental ethics could come in handy in relation to challenging our cultural, institutional and individual attitudes and conduct in relation to animals (and possibly fish) production and consumption. Environmental ethics operates with the moral intuition that our exclusion of animals, for example, from the community of respect, is premised on arbitrary and unjustified human prejudice and greed.

Some scholars of ethics argue that animals do reach the minimum threshold for moral consideration warranting moral attention and respect (Regan, 1987; Singer, 2009; Behrens, 2011; Horsthemke, 2015; Metz, 2017). There are several ways to capture the minimum threshold for inclusion in the moral community, where “one” (whatever object or entity that might be referring to) may be worthy of moral recognition and respect.

One influential model proposes “rationality” as a minimum standard for inclusion for moral candidacy. The problem with appealing to rationality is that it does not only exclude animals from the moral community. It excludes more than our moral intuitions and standards would permit, since it also disturbingly excludes infants and people living with serious mental disabilities (Kittay, 2013). Very few of us believe that people living with serious cognitive disabilities are not objects of ethical respect in their own right. However, taking rationality as a standard of being a member of the moral community has the unpalatable implication of excluding beings we would naturally include as objects of ethical concern, such as infants.

Another influential moral theory proposes “sentience” as a minimum threshold for inclusion in the moral community (Singer, 2009). Sentience refers to the ability to experience suffering and/or joy. With this view, the worst evil in the world is pain and suffering, and the good involves joy or happiness (George & Lee, 2009). The implication of this view, which is more inclusive than typical anthropocentric theories, is that animals do have a moral standing, and, as such, deserve moral recognition, protection and respect. It is in this light that Tom Regan commented:

I regard myself as an advocate of animal rights — as a part of the animal rights movement. That movement, as I conceive it, is committed to a number of goals, including: the total abolition of the use of animals in science; the total dissolution of commercial animal agriculture; the total elimination of commercial and sport hunting and trapping (1987: 179).

I may not entirely agree with Regan regarding the first point on the use of animals in science. I do, however, believe many of us can agree with him on the points involving commercial animal agriculture, more so that we know its environmental costs, and the use of animals for hunting and entertainment.

The underlying concern and objection informing animal ethics and animal rights movements is that animals, as components of nature, “are not merely a resource for human consumption”, but they warrant respect in their own right so they can pursue a good life according to the possibilities inherent for their species (Nussbaum, 2017). An animal free from unnecessary human interference can go and live its life to the fullest.

To think of animals as objects of ethical concern, and not as mere resources for human consumption, has serious implications for human consumption and the environment. For example, Peter Singer, in his elaboration of animal liberation observes that the acceptance of the moral idea that animals are not a mere resource for human consumption – they can suffer or enjoy their own lives in their own-species-related way – has revolutionary implications for human beings and consumption tendencies. He observes that it will cause a massive change in our fridges, eating tables, restaurants, forms of entertainment, as animals and meat will no longer be a part of our diet. The entire meat industry would have to close down or drastically be reduced in respect of the rights of or duties we owe to animals.

This ethical revolution in relation to our attitudes about animals would radically challenge us to rethink animals and fish as a resource for human consumption. The implication is that to mitigate the increasing consumption of meat and fish, which has a high cost on the environment in terms of energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, release of nutrients, and acidifying compounds, we may seriously have to consider promoting and educating about less costly food types and production methods. In this light, policymakers may have to promote more plant-based food choices, as they tend to be less demanding and costly on the environment, and they promise to have positive consequences for human well-being now and in the future.

The one interesting conclusion we might draw from this rough discussion of environmental ethics, is that it offers us a positive way to approach the planet and the resources it offers. Environmental ethics requires us to abandon anthropocentric moral theories and policy options in relation to the planet.

One consequence might be the promotion of plant-based foods and their accompanying low production costs in relation to the environment, which might have positive consequences for the environment and future generations. This means, our policy options in relation to consumption and production of food could be interpreted within a non-anthropocentric framework, which requires us to take a generally humble and respectful attitude towards the environment.

The pressing implication gleaned from environmental ethics concerns what in the natural environment counts as a resource for mere human consumption. Here, we suggested that some interpretations insist on the general removal of animals as a resource for human consumption. One wonders what else an extensive analysis of environmental ethics might reveal in relation to what counts as a resource and the kind of attitude we ought to have towards the environment.

There are two other useful moral-theoretical frameworks associated with environmental ethics, which might be helpful in terms of rethinking our attitudes towards the environment. Here, we might distinguish between weak anthropocentrism as opposed to the strong versions of it – the latter are represented by the religious and secular theories mentioned above.

Bryan Norton (1984: 131) recommends weaker forms of anthropocentrism in as far as they “provide a basis for criticising individual, consumptive needs … providing an adequate basis for environmental ethics”. The insight here is that it is not only human interests that matter, we also need an approach to the environment that will be robust enough to identify and criticise greedy, excessive and often unnecessary human consumption, and that will foster respectful attitudes towards the environment (Passmore, 1974; Bookchin, 1990).

This form of anthropocentrism is weak in that it recognises that some elements of nature, like animals, might have value in their own right, but it still assigns greater value to human beings. In other words, in a trade-off situation where one has to choose between saving a human being or an animal, all things being equal, one ought to save a human being because they have greater value.

Very close to weak anthropocentrism is the “enlightened anthropocentrism”, which, like stronger versions of anthropocentrism, only locates value in human beings (Brennan & Lo, 2002). Unlike strong anthropocentrism, it recognises our general strong indirect duties towards the environment. This view requires us to be kind and respectful towards the environment because how we relate with it has direct consequences for human well-being.

From this view, we might have to minimise our consumption of beef in order to manage its environmental costs and consequences. From this perspective, it is not wrong to eat meat per se, it is, however, imprudent to do so in large scale, which might end up harming the well-being of present and future generations.

Weak anthropocentrism also has direct implications for the second question involving the means, or the how part, of producing consumptive goods. The general crucial point facing governments and policymakers is the awareness that we have an ethical duty to be critical and ethical when we exercise options for pursuing our goals of development or economic growth (Crocker, 1991).

The Industrial Revolution was extremely costly, ethically speaking, for many aspects of the natural world. The most important goal of industrialisation was economic growth, but the growth came at a high cost to the environment and human beings. We saw in it the worst forms of environmental degradation and human exploitation. Efficient production plants were established everywhere in Europe and the Americas without any sensitivity to the environment and the damage done to it. The mantra was development or economic growth.

Weak anthropocentrism promotes policies that require us to take approaches to economic growth that are sensitive to people’s cultures, by way of encouraging their participation in decision-making, respecting other non-human communities on the planet – animals, rivers, mountains – so that Earth remains habitable and beautiful.

Section Two: Ethics of Birth

This section focuses on another aspect that directly affects population growth: fertility rates. If we are serious about managing population growth and changes, it is absolutely essential for us to have clear ethical and policy thinking around matters relating to fertility.

To properly situate the discussion of ethically reflecting on birth and fertility, I look to the debates in moral philosophy on abortion. I do not enter this debate for its own sake, I engage in it because it is directly related to the question of pregnancy, birth and contraception, which speaks to the theme of population growth. The discussion on abortion is important in contexts where you have unwanted pregnancies due to poverty, lack of economic opportunities, no access to contraceptives, and general lack of decent sexual education (Royal Society, 2012; Bongaarts et al, 2012).

Reflecting on debates pertaining to abortion and contraceptives is vital if we are to make progress in addressing population growth, considering researchers predict that the human population might increase to up to 15 billion by 2100. It is also worth noting that as much as over 50% of this increase might come from Sub-Saharan Africa (Royal Society, 2012). We need to have policies grounded in clear ethical perspectives regarding how to reduce fertility rates.

The first pressing ethical question focuses on whether abortion is ethically permissible or impermissible. The aim here is not to come up with a definitive or final statement on this debate, but to show how it might contribute on deliberations and policies aiming to manage population growth in ways that are ethically robust.

The question pertaining to the permissibility/impermissibility of abortion (and contraceptives) is important for its own sake, as it will normatively guide us regarding our duties, or lack thereof, towards foetuses. This question is also significant as it relates directly to questions of population growth, where it might play a crucial role in informing robust family planning strategies and programmes that will speak directly to reducing fertility rates.

To get a concrete sense of how abortion debates affect population policies, consider the implications of this debate. If abortion is morally justified, that is, if it is permissible to terminate a foetus, then a robust family planning policy might include the roll out of accessible and affordable, if not free, abortion clinics to manage population by responding to unwanted pregnancies. It might also require expanding access to reliable and healthy contraceptives.

If, however, abortion is impermissible, then it also has direct implications for our strategies and programmes to manage fertility rates in the world. Thus, ethical considerations relating to abortion are crucial because we are informed that:

Voluntary family planning is a key part of continuing the downward trajectory in fertility rates, which brings benefits to the individual well-being of men and women around the world (Royal Society, 2012).

To get a sense of how ethics might help to reflect on issues of the ethics of birth and to reduce fertility rates, we have to explore ethical theories, albeit our exploration aims merely to be cursory. To begin, we can distinguish between religious and secular theories of abortion. It is worth noting that it is largely religious theories of value that usually forbid abortion. For example, Christian ethics tends to consider abortion to be immoral, and therefore impermissible. Catholic ethics considers abortion to be an instance of murder, which violates the divine commandment that forbids killing (Tooley, 1972). Many of these theories depart from the assumption that from conception, at the embryonic stage, we are dealing with a being that bears divine worth (Morgan, 2013).

On the other hand, secular views generally consider abortion to be permissible, particularly before the first or second trimester, since the foetus has not developed crucial value-endowing properties like sentience (Metz, 2012). There are scholars, however, who consider abortion to be permissible throughout the entire pregnancy, thus granting women power to be the final arbiter over whether to abort or not (Warren, 1997).

It is also interesting to notice that there is a continuity between a moral theory in relation to its recommendation, whether it permits or forbids abortion and its stance on the permissibility of contraceptives. If, for example, as most religious views tend to do, it does forbid abortion, it will also quite naturally forbid the use of contraceptives. If, on the other hand, as do many secular theories, it does permit abortion, then it will tend to allow individuals to use contraceptives.

So, the debate on abortion should generally be understood to have serious consequences for our moral use – permissibility or impermissibility – of contraceptives, which has direct implications for implementing robust family planning education and programmes. With more societies, however, including those in developing countries, coming to embrace secular cultures, they are more open to abortion as a way to manage the problem of unwanted children. Moreover, it is very important to appreciate that questions of abortion and contraceptives can be mediated at a cultural level.

Many African cultural beliefs, for example, tend to look unfavourably on abortion. Often, upon careful analysis, it will emerge that these cultural groups forbid abortion not so much on ethical grounds, but on the basis of controversial metaphysical commitments. I consider the metaphysics involved controversial not in a pejorative or patronising sense, but in light of our intuitions informed by science and the plurality of competing and contradicting views on such topics.

To get a sense of controversial metaphysics, consider the case of an African practice which requires that those who are serving a king should be killed on the day of his burial and be buried with or around him, so as to accompany and continue serving him in the afterlife (Wiredu, 1996). What is controversial in this practice is the belief, a metaphysical one, that there is an afterlife. Note, my claim is not that the belief is false, I am simply claiming that it is controversial. It is upon this controversial belief of the afterlife – and that the king would still need his vassals around him to serve and attend to him in light of his status as a king – that the practice of killing people and sending them off as servants to attend to the dead king in the afterlife was justified and generally accepted.

Analogously, some beliefs about the permissibility of abortion in some regions might rest on such cultural or metaphysical beliefs. Note, for example, that African scholars tend to construe an African community as constituted by three distinct members: the unborn, the living and the living dead (Magesa, 1997; Bujo, 1998; 2001; Ramose, 1999). The category of the unborn is taken to be an actual community of those that have not yet made it into the real world but will be joining it in the near future. We also have the community of the living, you and me. The third community consists of those who continue to live after their physical death as spiritual members of the community.

From this African view, abortion is impermissible because it harms the unborn, who are living in a state of readiness to join the living (Molefe, 2020). It is upon this controversial view about the existence of the community of the unborn that many individuals and groups in Africa believe in the impermissibility of abortion and contraceptives (Tangwa, 1996; Bujo, 2001).

Here, I wish to propose an approach which might assist us to resolve the challenge posed by cultural beliefs that may forbid abortion. This intervention does not suggest that we should not have robust discussions about abortions, its implications for family planning, and our strategies to manage population growth. These debates are important, but it is crucial to underscore the relation between religious and secular ethical theories and the inclination to forbid or permit abortion and contraceptives.

My intention is to suggest ways in which conceptual clarity might be useful to distinguish proper moral and metaphysical issues. It is easy to conflate cultural or metaphysical for proper ethical issues. The examples of the practices of servants of the king being killed to accompany their king challenge us to separate pure ethical from metaphysical issues. I take it many of us might contest this practice, even among Africans, at several points.

For starters, one might question the metaphysical presupposition that informs this practice – the belief in the afterlife. One must rightly ask critical questions, without being condescending toward those who embrace the belief, concerning why we should accept that there is an afterlife in the first place. Asking this question is important for its own sake because it might teach us a lot about what we believe about the world and our destiny as human beings. It might lead us to think critically about the implications of our deeply held beliefs.

One might also question the ethical implications of such a belief in terms of whether they coincide or diverge from our deeply held moral intuitions. In other words, we might ask whether it is morally correct to kill another person so that they can accompany another one. Here our concern is to evaluate the ethical appropriateness of the practice of killing innocent persons and cutting their lives short for the sake of another.

The point I am trying to make, in a roundabout way, is the importance of not only education in general, but also proper ethical education. Education about the debates inherent in our varied cultures and beliefs on issues that might affect policy and our goals for managing population growth. The theoretical challenge I am bringing to attention is the ability for us, as we evaluate cultures on controversial issues like those of abortion and contraceptives, to distinguish mere metaphysical from proper ethical issues.

But although in most instances we should take upon ourselves a duty to be sensitive and respectful towards the diversity of human cultures and their metaphysical beliefs, we should never elevate cultures to be an ethical standard. We should also note that some cultural beliefs are objectionable on ethical grounds – killing servants to accompany the king, for example.

Even in the debates on abortion, as societies adopt secular approaches like those anticipated in human rights policies, we will be able to set up proper family planning services that are compatible with rolling out abortion clinics and making contraceptives easily accessible. Moreover, in the evaluation of our cultural beliefs, in relation to abortion and contraceptives, we should be careful of the undue and continued influence of cultural norms riveted on the undemocratic values of patriarchy and unscientific basis (Gillighan and Snider, 2018).

Often, human cultures frown on abortion and contraception because there is a tendency, sponsored by patriarchy, to reduce women to mere makers of children. It is for this reason that we need to imagine robust education contexts and programmes for both women and men, which are emancipatory in their orientation and empower women to take charge of their own lives, which surely ought to involve voluntary family planning options. The research clearly indicates that there is a relationship between access to education and women’s attitudes towards family planning, abortion and contraception, which will definitely have implications for population growth (Potts et al., 2009).

The expansion of meaningful access to education for women, in particular those living in areas with high fertility rates, who have the potential to contribute greater proportions towards population growth, will have a telling consequence. As education and economic opportunities open and expand for women, we might expect positive developments in relation to our efforts to manage population growth. Martha Nussbaum (2004: 327 - 328) in an interesting paper, Women’s Education: A Global Problem, makes the following remarks:

Women’s education is both crucial and contested. A key to the amelioration of many distinct problems in women’s lives, it is spreading, but it is also under threat, both from custom and traditional hierarchies of power and from the sheer inability of states and nations to take effective action. In this article, I shall try to show, first, exactly why education should be thought to be a key for women in making progress on many other problems in their lives.

I think Nussbaum is correct to identify the education of women, or the lack thereof, as a global problem. Many societies and countries still fail to equalise women by empowering them through access to robust and meaningful education, and to create conditions through which they can liberate themselves from the shackles of traditional hierarchies of power. It is through access to education and economic opportunities that women can make progress in resolving many challenges facing them such as poverty and gender-based violence.

The suggestion being made here is a macro-ethical-and-political one, where global and local policymakers need to prioritise the education of women, as a group, particularly those from poorer regions of the world. The prioritisation of women in education is decisive in as far as it has direct implications for solving many problems in the world.

Two of those problems stand out in the context of our discussion on population growth: one is that between one to two billion people living in extreme poverty and the other is high fertility rates. With regards to the first, there is an urgent need to pull the over one billion people out of the absolute poverty they currently live in. This we need to do in ways that raises consumption without further depleting limited natural capacities.

The second problem resonates with the observation that as we meet the sustainable development goals, and, as women gain access to education, fertility rates tend to drop (Royal Society, 2012). Hence, the macro-ethical intervention to prioritise their education will go a long way in our quest to addressing population growth, by addressing their access to education and economic opportunities.


This paper offered cursory ethical reflections on issues of population growth. Its discussion was situated within the context of seeking to achieve the goals of reducing population growth and understanding how to respond to the increasing depletion of our finite resources. To do so, it suggested that environmental ethics and the ethics of birth might offer useful ways to respond to challenges posed by population growth.

In relation to environmental ethics, I suggested how it could point us to earth-friendly policies, which might challenge us to rethink some of our habits and cultures that rely on the production of meat and fish, which has relatively high costs for the environment. The weak and enlightened versions of anthropocentrism might also challenge us to take a humble and sensible approach to the environment for the sake of ensuring the well-being of the current and future generations. Such approaches could involve making more judicious choices in relation to how we relate to the finite resources of the planet, and how we might maximise them for the benefit of all, including future generations and non-human elements in nature.

In relation to the ethics of birth, I pointed to the relationship between abortion and contraceptives. If a moral theory forbids abortion, it is also more likely to forbid the use of contraceptives. While if it does permit abortion, it is also more likely to permit contraceptives. In addition, I indicated that religious ethical theories and traditional societies tend to forbid abortion, whereas secular and more modern societies tend to permit it.

This general awareness of the debates about abortion is important because it will inform how policymakers frame their efforts to promote a robust culture of family planning, which has direct implications for increasing or decreasing fertility rates. I concluded the last section by accentuating the importance of education, particularly for women, in addressing poverty and fertility rates. The more women have access to meaningful education and economic opportunities, the more they may adopt different family-life options, and this may drastically reduce fertility rates.


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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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