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Liberty, Harm and Utility: What J.S. Mill Would Say About China’s Birth Control Program Jing-Bao Nie, BMed, MMed, MA, PhD Bioethics Centre, University.

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Presentation on theme: "Liberty, Harm and Utility: What J.S. Mill Would Say About China’s Birth Control Program Jing-Bao Nie, BMed, MMed, MA, PhD Bioethics Centre, University."— Presentation transcript:

1 Liberty, Harm and Utility: What J.S. Mill Would Say About China’s Birth Control Program Jing-Bao Nie, BMed, MMed, MA, PhD Bioethics Centre, University of Otago, New Zealand (adjunct) Hunan Normal University and Peking University, China

2 The Role of China in the Historic Achievement in Reducing Poverty

3 Two Human-Made “Miracles” in China Rapid economic growth Rapid decline of fertility rate

4 Two Strategic National Policies Gaige kaifan 改革开放 (the reform and open policy) ◦ From jihua jingji (planned economy) to market economy ◦ Relaxed state control over society Jihua shengyu 计划生育 (the population control policy) ◦ Two essential wings and one central goal  To control the quantity of population  To improve the quality of population  “Fewer but healthier births” ◦ Known as the “one-child policy”  Officially translated as “family planning” ◦ From relatively laissez faire to unprecedented state control  Literally, “planned reproduction”

5 China’s Birth Control Program A massive project of social engineering by a authoritarian state “China’s longest socio-political campaign” The most ambitious and intrusive population program ever undertaken in human history Enormous and numerous challenging social, political, cultural and ethical issues In traditional Chinese outlooks Eg. Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism) In Western theories Eg. Classic Marxism, Liberalism, Communitarianism, Feminism What J. S. Mill would say? A dialogue between a major Chinese social practice and a prominent Western moral and political theory Liberty, Harm and Utility

6 The Matter of Liberty International Responses to the Chinese program ◦ Commendation ◦ Criticism and condemnation The liberty principle ◦ “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” Difficulties ◦ Primary vs. secondary liberty  How fundamental is the reproductive liberty? ◦ Private vs. public sphere  Reproduction is never “self-regarding” only ◦ The problem of harm

7 The Matter of Utility The Chinese official justification ◦ To promote “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of Chinese people” ◦ A rational supported by the majority of Chinese The liberty principle based on the ethical principle of utility The difficulties ◦ How to calculate happiness involved ◦ How to calculate suffering and pain involved

8 China’s Birth Control Program: The Claimed Success Poverty reduction and living standard through prevention of over 300 million births Is the fertility decline a result of the program? If so, to what extent?

9 China’s Birth Control Program: A Pyrrhic Victory Extraordinary human and social costs ◦ Actual social and financial costs ◦ Social suffering it has caused  Coerced sterilization  Coerced abortion  Costs mostly beard by women  Violence and conflicts Dire long-term consequences ◦ “The single child” syndrome ◦ Abnormal sex ratio at birth  40 million “missing females”resulted mainly from sex-selective abortion ◦ Abnormal structure of population  Shortage of labour  Elderly care ◦ Negative impacts over rural residents  The structured rural-urban injustice and inequality

10 The Matter of Harm The harm principle The difficulties ◦ Is overpopulation really a serious social problem? ◦ Is bringing more than one child into the world really a burden to society?

11 Mill’s Thoughts on Population Control If the opinion were once generally established among the labouring class that their welfare required a due regulation of the number of families, the respectable and well-conducted of the body would conform to the prescription, and only those would exempt themselves from it, who were in the habit of making light of social obligations generally, and there would be then an evident justification for converting the moral obligation against bringing children into the world who are a burthen to the community, into a legal one; just as in many other cases of the progress of opinion, the law ends by enforcing against recalcitrant minorities, obligations which to be useful must be general, and which, from a sense of utility, a large majority have voluntarily consented to take upon themselves. (Principles of Political Economy, Book II, Ch vii, ξ 2,Emphysis added)

12 What Mill Would Say About China’s Program? His serious concerns ◦ Liberty of thought and discussion ◦ Consent of people ◦ State coercion and violence ◦ Government intervention over society Supporting the Chinese program in principle ◦ Concern about poverty ◦ Not giving adequate attention to the human and social costs paid for the sake or in the name of common demographic good Chinese practice indicating some key theoretical difficulties in Mill’s moral and political philosophy ◦ Social utility vs. individual liberty

13 Beyond Mill’s Liberalism The primacy of liberty and justice ◦ Rawls’ liberalism  Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. … Therefore in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests. (A Theory of Justice, ξ1) The essential importance of community What would contemporary Western liberalism and communitarianism say about China’s birth control program?

14 Acknowledgements The research has been conducted as a part of a larger project, “Predicaments of Social Engineering: The Ideology and Ethics of China’s Birth Control Program”, supported by a grant from the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand.


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