It is no secret that Earth is on the brink of an environmental crisis. At this point in the twenty-first century, we are familiar with the problems: climate change, biodiversity loss, and generally unsustainable patterns of consumption. Yet explicit discussion of how the rising human population contributes to these environmental problems or whether we morally ought to do something to curb population growth is relatively rare, despite the significance of these problems and the crucial role that population growth plays in exacerbating them. [End Page 934]
In One Child: Do We Have a Right to Have More? Sarah Conly joins several other authors (see, e.g., McKibben 1998, Cafaro and Crist 2012, Overall 2012, Rieder 2016) in explicitly addressing the morality of procreation in light of how rising human population contributes to the various environmental problems we currently face. Conly’s conclusions are bold: she argues not only that we presently have no right to have more than one child but also that the government can permissibly enforce laws designed to limit the extent to which people procreate. In this respect, Conly’s position on the permissibility of government intervention differs from Overall and McKibben, who argue that we morally ought to limit our reproduction but do not defend the claim that government intervention would be justified.
One Child consists of seven chapters. The opening chapter contains an overview of the environmental problems we face and a discussion of the ways in which rising population contributes to them. As one would expect, this chapter serves to set the stage for the rest of the book.
In chapters 2 and 3 Conly defends the claim that we have no right to unlimited procreation. In chapter 2, starting from the claim that rights claims are based on fundamental interests, she argues that we have no fundamental interest in having children that cannot be met by merely having one child. She claims that our right to procreate might be based on an interest in having biological offspring, an interest in having a family, or an interest in “being treated as just as worthy as others to reproduce and have a family” (p. 39). The fact that we need something to live a decent life might grant a right to that something, but “even if producing a child is essential (for some people), you don’t need multiple children for that” (p. 19). In chapter 3 she argues that our general right to control the use of our own body cannot ground a right to unlimited procreation, whether that right be understood as a right to control our own property (pp. 67–71), a right to maintain our autonomy (pp. 71–90), or a right to maintain equal standing with other members of society (pp. 90–92).
After defending the view that we have no right to unlimited procreation, Conly turns to the issue of whether government sanctions are a permissible means of limiting procreation. In chapter 4 she argues that these sanctions “can be morally justified, if they are done right” and “that they can be done right” (p. 103). She moves toward this position gradually, starting with a discussion of how appropriate education can significantly influence people’s procreative preferences (pp. 106–110) and then discussing various incentives and disincentives that could motivate individuals to have fewer children, placing particular emphasis on the importance of making access to contraception easier (pp. 112–118). She notes, however, that proper education and a system of incentives and disincentives may not be enough to change our behavior, and under certain circumstances she thinks governmental sanctions can be justifiable. She stresses the role that laws play in altering our preferences of what is morally permissible (pp. 127–128): even if we believe we can escape punishment for breaking a law, the knowledge that our society has codified a law prohibiting our behavior can nevertheless motivate us not to break it. Thus, Conly views the difference between a law and a disincentive...