Interview: Dr Simon Beard
Our New Generation Thinkers for 2017 were announced at Sage as part of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival. This week we talk to Dr Simon Beard from the Centre for Existential Risk, University of Cambridge.
Every single human being has an impact on the world around them. They use up resources – contribute to global warming – and, to a greater or lesser extent, need support from the State.
But children also represent, not only the future of our families. But our species as well.
In an ever more crowded world this means that the decision to reproduce is one of the most significant any of us will make. But do we really think through it in a sophisticated way?
“If we accept that we have an impact, when we have children we double it, or treble it. We make new people who will have an impact on the world. It's both a great and terrible thing to do and we find it so hard to talk about,” says Dr Simon Beard.
The New Generation Thinker works at The Centre for Existential Risk, University of Cambridge, as part of a team working on the big global challenges facing human civilisation – including population demographics.
“One of the problems is that people tend to look at population in numerical terms; as dry statistics. But in reality the impact changes in population growth bring are much more qualitative,” he says.
“Just look at the huge impact on society that the ‘Baby Boomers’ have had; they made our society a young society and then gradually turned it into an old society, with huge implications.”
He believes that philosophers have to take some of the blame for the way people think – or don't think – about population ethics.
“Too often we don't use the right language,” says Dr Beard. “We don't talk about the issue in a way that people understand. This isn't just about graphs. This is reality. It’s messy and complicated and must more personal.
“My desire to collaborate with Radio 3 is driven by the fact that I want to open up the conversation about this important topic. I don't just want to write papers and make nice, clean arguments for my colleagues. I want to talk to everyone and involve them in what I do.”
But how do we account for future generations when thinking about the ethics of policies or individual decisions?
“This is famously impossible to do!” says Dr Beard. “Mainly this is because we don't want to give future generations priority over the people who are here now and who need our help now. There are no 'good' theories when it comes to population ethics. They all have fairly terrible moral implications.
“But we can’t give up. My work is about trying to find better theories and ways to address this important issue.”
For Dr Beard it is vital that population is seen as more than a theoretical problem because there are real, practical issues that need dealing with. “Demographics are a big issue everywhere, all over the world. And people have to make decisions about what they do with their families,” he says.
“I want to look at how people make these decisions, about how culture and gender influences that process. Partly because I think we might make more progress if we see them as real life problems.”
He believes that Radio 3 offers the perfect opportunity to do this: “Partly because I love radio. I'm visually impaired. I see very little, and radio has been a huge part of my life.
“But also because radio has the power to reach out to people and get them to think a bit more philosophically about the choices that they are making.
“Programme making is also a great challenge for me as a philosopher: how can I be more of a public philosopher? How can I maintain my rigour and still find a way to talk to people who aren't experts?
“How do I get around the fact that people might assume I know what I'm talking about – because I'm a philosopher, after all – and not interrogate these issues for themselves? I want to invite people to 'do philosophy' for themselves.
“I'm not here to tell people 'the truth' because that's very dangerous.
“It’s not easy. I have two kids of my own. I think children are great! I have no problem with having children. I just think people should think about their decisions. So, while I'm a vegetarian with children. Someone else might be a meat eater without children.
“As long as people are thinking more, then that's enough.”