The Nonidentity Problem: Can an act be wrong if it doesn’t harm anyone?

by Tim Sommers

If we take action now to mitigate global climate change, it might make life a little worse for people now and in the near future, but it will make life much better for people further in the future. Suppose, for whatever reason, we do nothing.

Since future people will have much worse lives, it seems that we owe it to future generations to do something now. But if we do things differently now, it will have the side-effect of bringing into existence different people than those that would have been brought into existence if we did nothing.

That might sound strange. But if you procreate in October instead of December, if you go build windmills and delay going to college and so meet someone else or the same person at a different time, if you do almost anything differently the children you have will not be the ones you would have had.

If we do nothing, do people in the future have a right to complain that we made their lives much worse? Here’s the odd bit. The future people who have better lives because we acted, and the ones who have worse lives because we didn’t, are not the same people.  As long as your life is worth living, you can’t complain about things done before you existed that helped bring you into existence, because if any of them had been different, very likely you would not exist. Again, as long as your life is worth living the choice is not between you having a better or worse life, it’s a choice between existing and not existing.

That seems crazy, right? Philosophers call it the nonidentity problem.

Consider a smaller-scale example. Suppose a woman in precarious economic circumstances enters into a contract to conceive, bear, and nurture a child until it turns five – and then to give that child over to be a personal servant of some wealthy person. Let’s assume that this person is relatively kind to their servants and so the child will have a life worth living. Could the mother have done anything to make this child’s life better? Not having the child would rob it of a life that, while not ideal, may be worth living. Not entering into the contract, or doing anything differently, would have produced a different child, so the servant child, once again, would simply not exist. How can they complain that their mother made them a servant, when they wouldn’t exist otherwise?

That can’t be right, can it? Here’s why it’s hard to dismiss. It seems that all three of these statements are true.

(1) Something can’t be wrong if it doesn’t harm anyone.

(2) You are not wronging a person by bringing them into existence, if their life will be worth living.

(3) It would be wrong to fail to mitigate climate change or to sell your child into servitude or the like.

We are going to have to give up at least one of these premises to avoid absurdity.

If we try to give up (3), that means that it would not be wrong to do or not do certain things for the sake of making future generations better or worse off. If you disagree with me and say that it is not wrong to not mitigate climate change, we can just choose some other example that you and I do agree would be wrong. As long as there’s anything that you think would be wrong for us to do or not do because of how it affects future generations, we can base the third premise on that.

(2) looks pretty solid too. Keep in mind that you might be wronging a third person by bringing someone into existence, but you are not wronging the person you bring into existence unless their live is not worth living. If you have a good example of a case where it does wrong a person, whose life afterwards is worth living, to bring them into existence, please share in comments. I would love to hear it.

So, it’s got to be (1), as counterintuitive as that sounds. It must be that something can be wrong without hurting anyone, or at least, anyone in particular. I’ll come back to the “in particular” bit.

How can it be that people can’t reasonably complain about foreseeable harms that come from not doing anything about, for example, climate change, because they wouldn’t exist if the harms had been mitigated? It’s bizarre to say you can’t complain that I sold you into indentured servitude, because if I hadn’t you would not exist. It’s dangerous too, since it would let wrongdoers off the hook for any historical injustice whatsoever.

What’s gone wrong? There’s a heck of a lot that has been written on this. It’s just one of many confounding puzzles that come up when you consider our moral obligations to future generations.

Here’s what I think. We don’t have obligations to specific members of future generations. They don’t exist and we don’t know exactly who they will be. But maybe, we have obligations to future generations as a group or as hypothetical, non-particularized, abstract representative-members of a group. Okay, you got me. I am not sure what that means. My thought is that we don’t have to know who in particular will exist in the future. We can’t know that. But we can be reasonably sure of some things about them. The hypothetical generation a hundred years from now will still need a climate, I think it’s safe to assume. So, the more we mess up the climate, the worse it will be for them – whomever they are. And they, it seems to me, can look back and say people from the past did us wrong when they messed up the climate that they knew we needed.

As always with philosophy, there are further complications, but I will leave it here, except to give credit where credit is due. Derek Parfit is generally  credited with identifying the non-identity problem in one of the most entertaining philosophy books ever – “Reasons and Persons”. My climate example is adapted from his “Depletion” example. The servant example is from Gregory Kavka. He uses the word “slave”. I didn’t want to do that, so I switched it to “servant”. Finally, I realize that saying that people in the future “will need a climate” is inaccurate. People will always need for there to be a certain kind of environment for them to survive. I thought the other way of putting it was funny, though. So, I said that.

As always, comments welcome. I always read them and almost always answer them.