Centre for Development Economics
Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics


Making People Happy or Making Happy People: Population Issues in Empirical Social Choice and Welfare 


 Dean Spears

 Centre for Development Economics

Thursday, 16th April 2015 at 3:00 PM

Venue : Seminar Room (First Floor)
Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics

All are cordially invited

Is a larger population of people living good lives a better population, all else equal? This question is central to population issues in social welfare, ethics, and policy. Many answers in the philosophical literature typically assume the “intuition of neutrality:” if a policy choice results in the birth of additional people living good lives, these extra lives are irrelevant to any evaluation of the policy. Some theoretical approaches by economists, in contrast, have incorporated a utilitarian preference for more people living good lives, all else equal. Despite the frequent assertion that belief in population size neutrality is intuitive, no prior empirical behavioral study has examined the extent to which people indeed believe it or choose in accordance with it. This paper applies the questionnaire-experimental method, an increasingly actively used approach to empirical studies of social choice, to investigate whether participants’ policy choices are neutral with respect to population size. In four experimental studies, participants choose between a policy offering a smaller, richer future population and a policy offering a larger, mean-poorer population. Many participants choose the larger population. Participants are more likely to choose the mean-poorer population when its size is larger and when its total well-being is larger. Female participants are less likely than male participants to choose larger populations. Although this experimental study cannot itself resolve important open questions of population ethics and policy, the results suggest that theorists should treat cautiously any assumption that belief in the neutrality of population size is intuitive or universal.

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