Friedrich Hayek once observed that the word “social” destroys the meaning of whatever it happens to modify. Take your pick: “justice,” “studies,” “media,” “work,” etc. Hayek was possessed of boundless disdain for a word that he said transforms whatever it amends into its antonym. This maxim is still applicable today, but the “weasel-word” space is becoming competitive. It’s increasingly apparent that the prefix “bio” performs roughly the same function, particularly when it’s grafted onto the word “ethics.”
The Washington Post treats us to an example of how this modification adulterates its targets by confronting us with the work of Travis Rieder, a Johns Hopkins University “bioethicist.” Rieder implores anyone willing to listen to him—an audience that includes some of the nation’s most august institutions and influential thought leaders—that it’s your moral duty to save the world by not having children.
“You have a good moral reason to be part of the solution, not part of the problem — even when your part is infinitesimally small,” he told Post reporters. Not only do your children contribute to the problem of climate change by dint of their very existence, but the little nibblers will still menace the rest of us even if the climate became static overnight. What, he asks, “about their food use and their freshwater needs?” Better they should never have the chance to use or want altogether.
“Any children we have in the developed parts of the world will be incredibly environmentally expensive,” he continues. “And they might go on to have kids who also consume more than their fair share.” And so on, until we’re living in a Hobbesian nightmare, all due to your immensely selfish desire to procreate.
To the Post’s (modest) credit, reporter and analyst Shannon Osaka delved into the “unsavory history” around population control. Her paper deemed the issue “complicated,” but it is not. The idea’s origins are predicated on bunk science. Those who are attracted to this Malthusian idea have made prediction after prediction about how overpopulation will produce scarcity and hardship, though they rarely suffer consequences for being consistently wrong. And theories like those Paul Ehrlich’s explicated in his 1968 book Population Bomb have justified just about every eugenicist abuse of the human species in the post-War period.
Of course, we’re not just talking about the developed world. Indeed, when it comes to population control, we’re rarely talking about just the developed world because that’s not where the population is growing. From the “voluntary” sterilization of Puerto Rican women to USAID’s campaign to punish “larger families” to the efforts of authoritarian regimes in South and East Asia to neuter men and penalize fecund women, the history of this idea is anything but “complicated.”
Some who are squeamish about the policy prescriptions to which the “overpopulation” theory of climate change’s proponents must commit themselves insist that affluence and prosperity, not population alone, promote the conditions that lead to more emissions and, thus, climate change. The anti-prosperity agenda also gets it wrong. Market forces and innovation have contributed more to the mitigation of environmental damage than any draconian program of resource hoarding (which is all that population control is) ever has. People contribute to demand, which establishes incentives for innovation. Innovation contributes to prosperity, which leads the prosperous to demand better conditions. And they get results. There is a measurable link between a growing middle-class expansion with that society’s demand for and the creation of environmentally friendly technologies, regulations, and public policies.
Being a “bioethicist” means never having to care about any of this, what the unsophisticated might have once called plain old “ethics.” It’s not like Rieder hasn’t had the time to peruse the literature around his policy preferences. He makes an appearance in my latest book, The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives War on Fun, for promoting his theory of the “small family ethic” as far back as 2016.
“Here’s a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them,” Rieder told NPR reporters at the time. He was joined by his wife, who related her melancholy tale of desperately wanting a large family but being talked out of it by her “philosopher” husband. I detail a number of similar stories in my book; young women who long for the personal satisfaction and societal contributions they would make as mothers but were scared or shamed out of the prospect by “bioethicists” and the like.
It’s unclear what is ethical about any of this. The dubious fearmongering that robs people of joy? The promotion of pseudo-academic garbage that serves only to justify programmatic dehumanization and misanthropy? The abject economic illiteracy? If the suffix makes no sense, neither does the prefix. “Bio” is derived from the Greek word for “life” or “living,” which Reider doesn’t see as an unalloyed good.
We’re left with a contradiction in terms so manifold it’s hard to justify its continued existence. No doubt, professional “bioethicists” like Reider would protest, citing the many contributions his profession has made to his field, the comfort his lifestyle provides him and his family, and the ways in which the many associations they make improve the lives of everyone in their orbits. And it would be a powerful and convincing argument. It’s just a terrible shame he would deny that same opportunity to generations yet unborn.