John Humphrys - How Many Children Should We Have?

August 02, 2019, 11:19 AM GMT+0

Prince Harry seems to believe that people should have no more than two children. Larger families, he implies, are incompatible with sustaining the planet as a place where human beings can go on living. Others see this as a far too narrowly utilitarian approach to a fundamental issue about what it is to be human. So what is the ethical answer to the question of how many new people we should bring into the world?

The prince was writing in the September edition of Vogue magazine, guest-edited by his wife, Meghan. He had interviewed Dr Jane Goodall, the veteran conservationist and primatologist, about the natural world and the harm that humans are doing to it, not least through climate change. She pointed out what she believes is the paradox that ‘the most intellectual creature that’s ever walked the planet … is destroying our only home’. Harry himself wrote that he has always believed that human beings only ever ‘borrowed’ the Earth, and so have responsibility for sustaining it. He says he’s felt this even more since the birth of his son, Archie, in May.

Their exchange went on:

Harry: ‘I’ve always wanted to try to ensure that, even before having a child and hoping to have children …’

Goodall: ‘Not too many!’

Harry: ‘Two, maximum!’


That has been interpreted as endorsing the view held by many people that it is wrong for couples to have more than two children. The argument behind it is quite simple: having more than two children contributes to the growing world population and population growth is what is ‘destroying our home’, in Dr Goodall’s phrase. That destruction is manifest in many different ways including the wiping out of natural habitats, the extinction of species, the depletion of natural resources and the rise in average global temperature, all of which are exacerbated by the exponential growth in the world’s population over recent centuries.

The number of people living in the world has doubled since 1970 and although the speed of growth is starting to slow down, there is still a huge further increase in the pipeline. The most pessimistic forecast suggests that homosapiens may become the only species that wipes itself out by wilfully destroying its own habitat.

Of course concern about population growth is not a recent phenomenon. Back in 1798 the British economist, Thomas Malthus, anonymously published his Essay on the Principle of Population in which he argued that there is a natural tendency for populations to increase at a faster rate than the means of subsistence necessary to keep them going. Population growth therefore needs to be tempered by birth control.

Malthus’s chief concern was quite simply that soon there would not be enough food to go around. But his alarm was brushed aside and his theory seemed to be disproved by events. Improved technology in food production saved the day by increasing yields at a faster rate than the population was rising. Human beings sighed with relief and started to assume that Malthus had been disproved for good. But it may be too early to come to a settled judgment. Certainly there are those who think he will ultimately be proved right and not just in relation to food. Human demand on the Earth’s resources more generally will become unsustainable, they argue, if population increase continues on its current trajectory.

With such a prospect in mind, some go further than arguing that we should restrict the number of our offspring to two. They argue that the responsible, ethical thing to do is to have no children at all. The most obvious justification for this radical course is that, however small such a contribution would make, it would constitute the most that any couple could themselves do to try to turn the tide of population growth. But some make a further and perhaps more arresting point.

It is, put starkly, that it is an act of cruelty to a child to bring it into the world we are now creating. What lies behind this idea is the belief that population growth as we are seeing it can end only in tears. Or rather: tears aren’t the half of it. The course we are on is destined to lead to massive economic upheaval, huge uncontrollable migrations, the breakdown of law and order, and violence and bloodshed on an unimaginable scale.

Dr Goodall herself, although not putting it in such apocalyptic terms nor explicitly endorsing a ‘no-children’ policy, expressed some of this alarm in her interview with Prince Harry. She said: ‘We’re part of the natural world and if we can’t learn to live in harmony with it, then this is going to get worse. There will be more conflicts, people fighting over the last fertile land, the last fresh water.’ To some people, if this is the future we are preparing for ourselves, then it is nothing less than cruel to produce children who will have to live and suffer in it.

Others reject this for two reasons. One is that it’s just all too doom-laden. The other is that it lays claim to a predictive knowledge we cannot possibly have. The future rarely turns out as we forecast it. Human beings have always been resourceful in dealing with problems that face them, including seemingly insuperable ones, and there is no reason to suppose we won’t go on being so. Even now, however late it may be, we are beginning to get to grips with climate change and it is far too soon to throw up our hands and say we are all doomed. Malthus could go on being proved wrong for a long time yet. And what we actually need is more young people, more intelligent, knowledgeable and enterprising than their predecessors and who may well prove capable of successfully dealing with the mess we are bequeathing them.

But there is an even more fundamental argument against restricting the number of children we have to two, let alone having none at all. It is that life is the most precious thing on Earth. Its value can’t be weighed in a calculus about how, say, climate change should be tackled or the natural world be protected, vital as such issues may be. Its value is absolute.

The most absolutist position is that embraced by the Roman Catholic Church. The fundamental basis of its argument against contraception is that human life is a good in itself; indeed it is sacred. So it is always wrong to prevent the creation of human life just as it is wrong to kill.

Of course that doctrine is hotly disputed, not least among Catholics themselves. But it provides the extreme opposite case about how many children, ethically, we should bring into the world. Is it, as Prince Harry seems to believe ‘Two maximum!’? Is it none? Is it unlimited? And how should we approach answering such a fundamental question?

What’s your view? Let us know.

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