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Roberts on Depletion: How Much Better Can We Do for Future People?

  • MARK E. GREENE (a1)

Suppose that Depletion will reduce the well-being of future people. Many of us would like to say that Depletion is wrong because of the harm to future people. However, it can easily be made to seem that Depletion is actually harmless – this is the non-identity problem. I discuss a particularly ingenious attempt by Melinda Roberts to attribute a harm to Depletion. I will argue that the magnitude of Roberts's harm is off target by many orders of magnitude: it is just too tiny to explain the intuitive wrong of Depletion.

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1 This is a variation of Parfit's case; Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984), pp. 361–62.

2 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, pp. 351–80; Bayles, Michael D., ‘Harm to the Unconceived’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 5 (1976), pp. 292304.

3 Roberts, Melinda A., ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy: Harm, Probability and Another Look and Parfit's Depletion Example’, Utilitas 19 (2007), pp. 267311.

4 Roberts, Melinda A., ‘The Nonidentity Problem and the Two Envelope Problem: When Is One Act Better for a Person Than Another?’, Harming Future Persons: Ethics, Genetics and the Nonidentity Problem, ed. Roberts, Melinda A and Wasserman, David (Dordrecht, 2009), pp. 201–28, at 204.

5 Roberts, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy’, p. 310.

6 Roberts, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy’, p. 277.

7 Roberts, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy’, p. 282.

8 Roberts, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy’, p. 279.

9 Roberts, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy’, p. 280.

10 Roberts, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy’, p. 279.

11 Roberts, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy’, p. 297.

12 Roberts argues this rather differently, via a lot of work aiming to show that present agents can do things to make the odds of some future person existing under Conservation as high as they are under Depletion. I think she is not successful in this. I also think she does not need to be because the epistemic limitations of the agent are enough to equalize the subjective probabilities of any particular person existing following either policy.

13 Roberts, ‘The Non-Identity Fallacy’, p. 297.

14 Thanks to Wolfram Alpha ( for these estimates and doing most of the actual calculations that follow.

15 Cooper, Trevor G, Noonan, Elizabeth, von Eckardstein, Sigrid, Auger, Jacques, Gordon Baker, H. W., Behre, Hermann M, Haugen, Trine B, Kruger, Thinus, Wang, Christina, Mbizvo, Michael T and Vogelsong, Kirsten M, ‘World Health Organization Reference Values for Human Semen Characteristics’, Human Reproduction Update Human Reproduction Update 16 (2010), pp. 231–45, at 237.

16 Gregory Kavka is a prominent proponent of harmless wrongdoing. Kavka, Gregory S., ‘The Paradox of Future Individuals’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 11 (1982), pp. 93112.

17 I am very grateful to Chris Boorse, Richard Hanley, Jeff Jordan, Jonathan Justice, Tom Powers, Joel Pust, Fred Schueler and Seth Shabo for conversation and comments on earlier versions of this article. I would also like to thank conference participants at the 7th Interpretive Policy Analysis Conference in Tilburg, and colloquium participants at The College of New Jersey. Particular thanks are due to Melinda Roberts and to an anonymous reviewer for this journal for very generous, extensive and helpful feedback. Work on this article was supported by the University of Delaware Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy and by Delaware EPSCoR through funds from the National Science Foundation, grant EPS-0814251.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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