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Asymmetry and Non-Identity

  • Per Algander (a1) and Katharina Berndt Rasmussen (a2)

In this article we distinguish two versions of the non-identity problem: one involving positive well-being and one involving negative well-being. Intuitively, there seems to be a difference between the two versions of the problem. In the negative case it is clear that one ought to cause the better-off person to exist. However, it has recently been suggested that this is not so in the positive case. We argue that such an asymmetrical treatment of the two versions should be rejected and that this is evidence against views according to which it is permissible to cause the less well-off person to exist in the positive non-identity case.

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1 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984).

2 We will assume that the Non-Identity Case is a two-outcome case, i.e. either the couple has a child now or later. Whether our arguments can be extended to non-identity cases where not having a child at all is an alternative is something we will leave for another occasion.

3 This intuition has been taken for granted in much of the debate concerning the non-identity problem. See e.g. Savulescu, Julian, ‘Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children’, Bioethics 15 (2001), pp. 413–26; Arrhenius, Gustaf, ‘Can the Person-Affecting Intuition Solve the Problems in Population Ethics?’, Harming Future Persons, ed. Roberts, M. A. and Wasserman, D. T. (Dordrecht, 2009), pp. 289314; Holtug, Nils, Persons, Interests, and Justice (Oxford, 2010).

4 Boonin, David, The Non-Identity Problem and the Ethics of Future People (Oxford, 2014); Roberts, Melinda, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy: Harm, Probability and Another Look at Parfit's Depletion Example’, Utilitas 19 (2007), pp. 267311; Wasserman, David T., ‘Harms to Future People and Procreative Intentions’, Harming Future Persons, ed. Roberts, M. A. and Wasserman, D. T. (Dordrecht, 2009), pp. 265–85.

5 We do not take a stand on the question whether creating Dave is permissible or not, i.e. whether there might be genuine moral dilemmas. Our arguments do not turn on the moral status of the second alternative in either case.

6 The contributive value of a life is the difference in impersonal value which that life makes to an outcome. On classical utilitarianism the contributive value of a life always equals the well-being in that life. On other views, e.g. prioritarianism, the contributive value of a life can be greater, or smaller, than the well-being in that life.

7 That two outcomes, O 1 and O 2, are comparable means here that one of the three standard value relations holds: O 1 is better, worse or equally as good as O 2. This assumption can be questioned and we will consider views which do not rely on it below.

8 Broome, John, Weighing Lives (Oxford, 2004), p. 147.

9 We here assume that ‘is equally as good as’ is transitive: if A is equally as good as B, and B is equally as good as C, then A is equally as good as C.

10 This view seems to be suggested by Österberg, Jan, ‘Value and Existence: The Problem of Future Generations’, Odds and Ends, ed. Lindström, S., Sliwinski, R. and Österberg, J. (Uppsala, 1996), pp. 94107. See also Rabinowicz, Wlodek, ‘Broome and the Intuition of Neutrality’, Philosophical Issues 19 (2009), pp. 389411.

11 The terminology surrounding (in)comparability is rather diverse. Broome, for example, uses the term ‘incommensurate’ for what we call ‘incomparability’ (Broome, Weighing Lives, p. 22).

12 Versions of this view are suggested by Broome, Weighing Lives, and by Brown, Campbell, ‘Better Never to Have Been Believed: Benatar on the Harm of Existence’, Economics and Philosophy 27 (2011), pp. 4552. See Rabinowicz, ‘Neutrality’, for a critical assessment of Broome's view.

13 For such a ‘critical level’ indeterminacy/incomparability view, see e.g. Broome, Weighing Lives, and Rabinowicz, ‘Neutrality’. We owe this suggestion to an anonymous reviewer of this journal.

14 Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics (Cambridge, 1993), p. 103, suggests that only people who will exist independently of an act matter to the evaluation the act. On this view, the well-being of people not ‘necessary in the circumstances’ are fully discounted. For different actualist views, see Jackson, Frank and Pargetter, Robert, ‘Oughts, Options, and Actualism’, The Philosophical Review 95 (1986), pp. 233–55; Bigelow, John and Pargetter, Robert, ‘Morality, Potential Persons and Abortion’, American Philosophical Quarterly 25 (1988), pp. 173–81; Parsons, Josh, ‘Axiological Actualism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 20 (2002), pp. 137–47.

15 Everyone is obviously contingent in the sense that they could have not existed. ‘Contingent’ is here understood as ‘contingent relative to the available alternatives’.

16 For a defence of the view see Roberts, Melinda, ‘Is the Person-Affecting Intuition Paradoxical?’, Theory and Decision 55 (220), pp. 144, and Holtug, Persons, ch. 5.

17 We grant this controversial assumption for the sake of the argument. For recent defences of the assumption, see Johansson, Jens, ‘Being and Betterness’, Utilitas 22 (2010), pp. 285302; Arrhenius, Gustaf and Rabinowicz, Wlodek, ‘Better to Be Than Not to Be’, The Benefit of Broad Horizons, ed. Joas, H. and Klein, B. (Leiden, 2010), pp. 6585.

18 There are many problems with this reply. Some of the difficulties which are not raised here are discussed by Arrhenius and Rabinowicz, ‘Better to Be’.

19 Moreover, this version of the person-affecting restriction makes the normative status of an action depend on whether it is performed (assuming the Simple Deontic Principle). It is highly controversial whether such violations of ‘Normative Invariance’ are acceptable. See Carlson, Erik, Consequentialism Reconsidered (Dordrecht, 1995); Bykvist, Krister, ‘Violations of Normative Invariance: Some Thoughts on Shifty Oughts’, Theoria 73 (2007), pp. 264–83; Bykvist, Krister, ‘Prudence for Changing Selves’, Utilitas 18 (2006), pp. 264–83.

20 Derek Parfit famously argued that the non-identity problem, as he conceived it, cannot be solved by appealing to person-affecting notions such as harm (Parfit, Reasons and Persons, pp. 357–66).

21 The Counterfactual Condition is sometimes formulated in terms of ‘could’ rather than ‘would’. The ‘could’ formulation is preferable when dealing with cases with more than two alternatives, or when it is indeterminate what would have been the case had e not occurred. Since we will consider simple cases with only two alternatives, there should not be a difference between the two formulations.

22 Boonin, for example, would have to go for (i) since he accepts the Counterfactual Condition (Boonin, The Non-Identity Problem, ch. 1). In the remainder of this section we will discuss attempts to reject Symmetry based on the Counterfactual Condition. In final section (VI) we will consider views which reject it.

23 Roberts, Melinda, ‘The Asymmetry: A Solution’, Theoria 77 (2011), pp. 333–67; Holtug, Persons, pp. 129–30. An alternative approach to defending (i), which does not rely on ascribing well-being to non-existent people, is offered by Johansson, ‘Being and Betterness’ and Arrhenius and Rabinowicz, ‘Better to Be’.

24 A view along these lines is suggested by Roberts, ‘Asymmetry’. Seana Shiffrin discusses the view (without endorsing it), describing harm and benefit as ‘two ends of a scale’ (Shiffrin, Seana, ‘Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm’, Legal Theory 5 (1999), pp. 117–48, at 121).

25 Boonin, The Non-Identity Problem, p. 6. Boonin uses ‘not morally wrong’ instead of ‘permissible’. We adapt his terminology to our framework since this does not affect the content of Boonin's arguments. It should also be noted that while Boonin defends P4 and P5 (chs 5 and 6), a weaker and more plausible version of these principles would include an ‘other-things-being-equal’ clause.

26 Boonin does not explicitly endorse the counterfactual analysis as we formulate it here. He merely assumes that making people worse off than they would otherwise have been is necessary for harming, not that it is sufficient. However, the stronger version of the counterfactual analysis is required in order to avoid Symmetry.

27 David Boonin suggested in his comments to this article that perhaps we should say that a person is wronged if the person's life is worth not living (personal communication, July 2018). This would allow us to say in the Inverse Non-Identity Case that creating either Carl or Dave would wrong that person. However, we think that our formulation above is overall preferable to Boonin's suggestion. For one thing, this suggestion does not account for degrees of wronging, as discussed previously. Moreover, it is unclear whether the view suggested by Boonin has the above-mentioned advantages concerning Pareto and same-people cases. For example, it does not explain why we would wrong Ann-Beth by creating her with less well-being than she could have had, while Complex Asymmetry can accommodate this intuition.

28 This is an extreme deontic version of Nils Holtug's (axiological) ‘Super-repugnant Conclusion’ (Holtug, Persons, p. 254).

29 Boonin, The Non-Identity Problem, pp. 119–20, discusses a case like this. He raises some doubts whether his view actually has the implication that it is not impermissible to choose policy A, but also defends the view that it is not obviously impermissible to choose policy A on similar grounds to the one we raise here.

30 The Mixed Non-Identity Case also presents a problem for views which are similar to Complex Asymmetry, e.g. the view defended by Shiffrin. Shiffrin's view implies that it is permissible for the woman in the Mixed Non-Identity Case to take the drug, thereby making it the case that she has one child who is extremely well off (One) and one child who is slightly badly off (Two). On her view, the benefit to One matters morally since by taking the drug the woman ‘removes or prevents’ One from being much worse off. If the woman were not to take the drug then this would harm One and benefit Three (Shiffrin, ‘Wrongful Life’, p. 124). However, the benefit to Three should be disregarded since it does not remove or prevent any harm. The overall verdict, on Shiffrin's view, therefore seems to favour taking the drug.

31 For such a view, see Boonin, The Non-Identity Problem, ch. 6 and appendix F, where he discusses what he calls the ‘exclusive version of the moderate principle’.

32 This move was suggested by Boonin (personal communication, July 2018).

33 Note that by rejecting the Counterfactual Condition one does not necessarily commit to a ‘non-comparative’ view of harm. An anonymous reviewer of this article, for example, suggested the view that an event harms a person if and only if the event's occurrence is worse for the person than its non-occurrence. This view would plausibly be a comparative, but not a counterfactual, view of harm.

34 See e.g. Harman, Elizabeth, ‘Can We Harm and Benefit in Creating?’, Philosophical Perspectives 18 (2004), pp. 89113; Bykvist, Krister, ‘The Benefits of Coming Into Existence’, Philosophical Studies 135 (2007), pp. 335–62; Parfit, Derek, ‘Future People, the Non-Identity Problem, and Person-Affecting Principles’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 45 (2017), pp. 118–57.

35 This view has been suggested by Harman, ‘Can We Harm’.

36 The authors would like to thank Jens Johansson, Krister Bykvist, Gustaf Arrhenius and the attendees at the Stockholm June Workshop in Philosophy 2017 for their many helpful comments on drafts of this article. Thanks also to attendees at the research seminar in practical philosophy at Uppsala University and the philosophy seminar at the Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, where early drafts of this article have been presented. Berndt Rasmussen gratefully acknowledges the hospitality of the ANU School of Philosophy, where parts of this article were written in 2017. This article was written as a part of the research project Harm: The Concept and its Relevance, generously funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (dnr: P14-0212:1).

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