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Survival, reproduction and congestion: the spaceship problem re-examined

  • Pierre-André Jouvet
  • Gregory Ponthiere


This paper re-examines the spaceship problem, i.e. the design of the optimal population under a fixed living space, by focusing on the dilemma between adding new beings and extending the life of existing beings. For that purpose, we characterize, under time-additive individual welfare depending negatively on population density, the preference ordering of a utilitarian social planner over lifetime-equal histories, i.e. histories with demographic conditions yielding an equal finite number of life-periods (imposed by resources constraints). The analysis of the spaceship problem contradicts widespread beliefs about the populationism of Classical Utilitarianism and the antipopulationism of Average Utilitarianism. We also study the invariance property exhibited by various utilitarian rankings to the total space available and to individual preferences. Finally, we compare histories for a spaceship with a stationary population, and try to accomodate intuitions about posterity and renewal of populations.

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Article provided by Springer in its journal Journal of Bioeconomics.

Volume (Year): 13 (2011)
Issue (Month): 3 (October)
Pages: 233-273

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Handle: RePEc:kap:jbioec:v:13:y:2011:i:3:p:233-273
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  1. Victoria Cramer & Svenn Torgersen & Einar Kringlen, 2004. "Quality of Life in a City: The Effect of Population Density," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 69(1), pages 103-116, October.
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  3. Blackorby,Charles & Bossert,Walter & Donaldson,David J., 2005. "Population Issues in Social Choice Theory, Welfare Economics, and Ethics," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521825511, October.
  4. Malthus, Thomas, 2008. "An Essay on the Principle of Population," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199540457 edited by Gilbert, Geoffrey.
  5. Blackorby, Charles & Donaldson, David, 1984. "Social criteria for evaluating population change," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 25(1-2), pages 13-33, November.
  6. Broome, John, 2004. "Weighing Lives," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199243761.
  7. Antoine Bommier, 2001. "Uncertain lifetime and intertemporal choice : risk aversion as a rationale for time discounting," Research Unit Working Papers 0108, Laboratoire d'Economie Appliquee, INRA.
  8. Crisp, Roger, 2007. "Neutrality And Pleasure," Economics and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, vol. 23(01), pages 81-88, March.
  9. Ng, Yew-Kwang, 1986. "Social criteria for evaluating population change: An alternative to the Blackorby-Donaldson criterion," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 29(3), pages 375-381, April.
  10. Malthus, Thomas Robert, 1798. "An Essay on the Principle of Population," History of Economic Thought Books, McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought, number malthus1798.
  11. Bykvist, Krister, 2007. "The Good, The Bad, And The Ethically Neutral," Economics and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, vol. 23(01), pages 97-105, March.
  12. Kremer, Michael, 1993. "Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 108(3), pages 681-716, August.
  13. Bentham, Jeremy, 1781. "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation," History of Economic Thought Books, McMaster University Archive for the History of Economic Thought, number bentham1781.
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