Spring 2020

Future People Puzzles

Listed in: , as COLQ-252


Joseph G. Moore (Section 01)


What are our obligations to future generations of human beings? This question has pressing implications for everything from climate change policy to the accumulation of national debt. Perhaps we owe nothing to future people, since they don’t (yet) exist, or since their future identities depend upon our actions. But if we reject these lines of thought, as most of us do, then how exactly should we weigh the well-being of future people against the lives of those currently living? Should we apply some sort of “discount rate,” and if so, which one? Should we aim for a future population whose well-being is maximized, or should we apply some other standard, perhaps one that includes considerations of justice? Even more fundamentally: are we right to think that human life is, on balance, a positive thing, or are we under an “anti-natalist” obligation not to bring more people into this world? (And how should non-human animals and the environment-as-such figure into our thinking here?) Finally, how might a policy based on answers to such questions be weighed against other factors, such as our reproductive rights, or procedural and historical considerations?

These questions have been the subject of recent work by philosophers and social scientists in the emerging and fascinating field of population ethics. In this colloquium, we focus on several theoretical puzzles that lie at the heart of this area of inquiry. In conjunction with the professor’s own research on these issues, students will be introduced to the central puzzles of population ethics, and then guided through the process of developing their own research projects.

This course is part of a model of tutorials at Amherst designed to enable students to engage in substantive research with faculty in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

Open to sophomores and juniors interested in research. Limited to 6 students. Spring Semester. Professor Moore.

If Overenrolled: priority given to juniors then sophomores, and to declared Philosophy or Environmental Studies majors, or students with previous course work in these fields.


Attention to Research, Attention to Writing


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2020