The Non-Identity Problem

A few days ago I attended a philosophy seminar at UNE on the non-identity problem. I had never heard of this before and was intrigued. In the following some ideas which I put up for discussion.

Derek Parfit, an English philosopher, has formulated the non-identity problem in his book “Reasons and Persons”. The problem is important in bioethics, helping us to judge about the morality of actions that may affect future generations. In the following, I use the summary of John Nolt to critically examine some of the points made by Parfit. My comments in bold and italics. I must point out, however, that I have not read Parfit’s book and wish to see this post as a basis for discussion and not more. Parfit, apparently, draws attention to paradoxes arising from various assumptions, and I am not sure at which conclusion he finally arrives. The problems discussed are certainly important, with consequences for environmental policy and population control, among others.

Summary of Parfit, Chs. 16-17 by John Nolt

“Chapter 16: The Non-Identity Problem

Chapter 16’s title seems to denote two closely-related ideas:

(1) the fact that the identities of those affected by our choices may be altered by the choices we make (that is, different people may come to exist if we make one choice rather than another), and
(2) the problem of constructing a true moral theory (which Parfit calls Theory X) that is adequate to deal with this fact.
(ad 1): I thought it is self-evident that many of our actions, often very small and unintentional ones, may affect who comes into existence later. But does it matter? Is it really important who comes into existence, as long as somebody does? We have no or little control over most of our actions, consequences of our actions are often non-intentional, and therefore not subject to moral judgments. Even if some of our actions are so significant and strong that they must have some important effects on future generations, we have no way of assessing what future generations would have looked like without our imput.
(ad 2): From the last sentence of my comment on (1) it follows that a “true moral theory” dealing with “the fact that the identities of those affected by our choices may be altered by the choices we make”, if at all possible, will not be able, in principle, to cover a large and possibly the largest part of our actions.

With regard to (1) Parfit argues that a large-scale public policy may in a couple of centuries so change the course of events that no one will exist who would have existed had a different policy been adopted. This follows, Parfit thinks, from: The Time-Dependence Claim: If any particular person had not been conceived within a month of the time when he was in fact conceived, he would in fact never have existed (351). Why within a month? Certainly even a second may make all the difference, because different sperm would almost certainly be involved. Of course the fact that policy choices might completely alter a population does not follow from the time-dependence claim alone. Some auxiliary assumptions must be also made about the effects of public policies on human reproduction. Parfit also assumes that one could not have been conceived by parents other than one’s actual parents. (This and the time-dependence claim seem questionable only from such unlikely metaphysical standpoints as the doctrine of pre-existence of souls.) These necessary auxiliary assumptions seem plausible. It is true, of course, that different parents could not have produced me, but the same parents may produce different offspring, not only because the genes in eggs and sperm differ, but also because the time of conception and birth is important. A baby is likely to be very sensitive to its first experiences in the womb and after birth (compare the imprinting of birds: probably not as clearcut in humans, but nevertheless of some importance, although I admit that my knowledge of develomental psychology is non-existent). Or take the example of identical twins: they are indeed very similar, but still different identities. Not only the genes, but the environmental conditions guiding the expression of genes, are important in forming the character of a person. But even if environmental conditions are practically identical, the fact of spatial separateness would still make them different identities.

Parfit next observes that moral choices are of three kinds:

1 The same people will have existed regardless of which action we take (same-people choices)
Many of one’s actions will not affect who will come into existence, but many others will, and many of them unintentional and beyond our control.
2 Different people will have existed if we take one action rather than others, but their numbers will have been the same (same-number choices)
Same comment as for previous.
3 Different numbers of (different) people will have existed depending on our choice (different-number choices).
Same as for last two points.

Traditional moral thinking usually concerns same-people choices. (This is true even in life-and-death decisions, because even if a person dies as a result of a decision, that person will still have existed.) But moral thinking about future generations usually concerns different-number choices. Same-number choices are an intermediate case. Chapter 16 examines same-number choices as a preliminary to considering different number choices, which are more problematic.
The appropriate moral principles for same-number choices, according to Parfit, are:

The Same Number Quality Claim (Q): If in either of two possible outcomes the same number of people would ever live, it would be worse if those who live are worse off, or have a lower quality of life, than those who would have lived. (360) We do not have any real control over who might live and who might not and The No-Difference View: It makes no difference to the morality of an act whether the same people or different people will have existed if we act otherwise. (367, 369) As for last point The No-Difference View can be more fully articulated as follows: If choice C1 is between outcome A and outcome B happening to the same people and choice C2 is between outcome A happening to one set of people and outcome B happening to a different set, then there is no moral difference between the choices (outcome A is of equal value in either choice, and so is outcome B).
Q and the No-Difference View, both of which Parfit affirms, conflict with a plausible alternative:

The Person-Affecting View (V): It will be worse if [specific] people [who would exist no matter what we choose] are affected for the worse. (370) I take this to mean: if choice C1 is between outcome A and outcome B happening to the same people and choice C2 is between outcome A happening to one set of people and outcome B happening to a different set, and if outcome B is the worst of the two, then B is worse if it results from choice C1 rather than from choice C2.
But another interpretation is: If choice C is between outcome A and outcome B and B is worse for some people (who would exist in A) than A is

Parfit illustrates the differences among these views by various hypothetical examples. Among these are:

The example of depletion vs. conservation: Under the policy of depletion the quality of life would be slightly better for everyone for 200 years than under conservation but thereafter it would be considerably worse. Parfit supposes that after 200 years of the policy of depletion an entirely different population will exist than would have if conservation had been the policy. Hence depletion benefits those who live for the first 200 years and is worse for no one who is born later (since without the policy these people would not have existed: At first glance this statement seems to be nonsense. Are those people who do exist – although they are not the same as those who would exist without our actions – not worth considering?). It is therefore worse for no one, period. (Nevertheless, Q implies that depletion is wrong. V, by contrast, implies that conservation is wrong because depletion is worse for no one, but conservation is worse for those who live in the first 200 years.)
The example of two medical programs: Two proposed medical programs have identical costs and effects, except that one would cure 1000 already existing fetuses of a handicap, while the other would instead of curing these fetuses prevent the same handicap in 1000 people yet to be conceived. (V implies that the policy which would prevent the handicap is worse, but the No-Difference View implies that these policies are morally equivalent.)

Parfit thinks these examples show that we should accept Q and the No-Difference View and reject V. If so, then we have sound principles for dealing with same-number choices. That is the main point of Chapter 16. Though Parfit’s view is intuitively appealing, this is not a conclusive argument. There may be many other ways of justifying one policy over the other in each of these examples.
Parfit does consider one such alternative justification: that depletion is bad not because it lowers the general quality of life but because it violates the rights of future generations. But there are, as he notes, at least two problems with this claim. One is that it is not obvious that future generations have a right to a high quality of life (especially if, as in Parfit’s example, their quality of life, even in the depletion scenario, is higher than ours). The second problem is that we can hardly be said to be violating the rights of people by depleting the resources available to them if the only other option (as in Parfit’s example) is that they never exist. People’s rights cannot, in other words, be violated by a policy to which they owe their (reasonably worthwhile) existence.

Finally, Parfit draws a preliminary conclusion about the desired theory X. Many moral theories evaluate an action as better or worse only insofar as it is better or worse for the people whom it affects. Parfit characterizes such theories as having a person-affecting form (371, 378). Parfit argues that the correct general theory X will not have a person-affecting form. He claims that this conclusion follows from the No-Difference View together with the assumption that to cause to exist is not a benefit. This argument, first developed on pp. 369-371, and summarized at the bottom of p. 378, may be more fully articulated as follows:

(1) It makes no difference to the morality of an act whether the same people or different people will have existed if we act otherwise. (No-Difference View)
This does not make sense. How can we possibly know whether the same or different people will exist in the future (see above)
(2) Causing to exist is not a benefit.

(3) There is a unique true theory X.

So (4) The true theory X will not have a person-affecting form (i.e., will not consider an action as better or worse only insofar as it is better or worse for the people whom it affects). Unfortunately, the conclusion doesn’t follow directly from the stated premises. Yet I think we can make sense of the argument by considering that there are only two ways in which an act A might be better or worse for a person whom it effects: (i) This person would have existed regardless of whether we chose an alternative action, but A is better or worse for her than the alternatives
(ii) This person would never have existed on at least some of the alternatives to A—that is, act A is part of what causes her to exist and is in that sense a benefit to her.

Now if we assume that causing to exist is not a benefit, then the only remaining way in which an act might be better or worse for a person whom it effects is if it is the result of a choice in which this person would have existed regardless of what we chose. This seems hairsplitting to me. As above: we do not know how our actions can affect the existence or non-existence of future people. Hence (still assuming that causing to exist is not a benefit), any true theory with a person-affecting form will evaluate an act as better or worse only if it is the result of a choice in which the same people would exist regardless of what we choose (same-person choice). As above: we have little control over who will exist. Therefore: (P) If causing to exist is not a benefit, then any true theory with a person-affecting form must imply that it makes some difference to the morality of an act whether the same people or different people will have existed if we act otherwise. —for our very ability to evaluate the act morally will depend on whether the same people or different people will have existed if we act otherwise.
If we now add (P) to premises (1)-(3), we obtain a valid argument that I think adequately reflects Parfit’s reasoning. Doubt remains, of course, concerning its soundness, for premises (1), (2) and (3) all are questionable.

Chapter 17: The Repugnant Conclusion

This short chapter discusses an anomaly that arises in different-number choices. The problem is that in large populations, each additional person born may lower the quality of life for all (due to overcrowding, competition for limited resources, etc.). But the total quality of life that that additional person enjoys may nevertheless outweigh the total loss of quality of life to everyone else. If so, then (assuming—and this assumption is crucial—that our goal is to maximize total quality of life) it is better for the population to increase, even though that increase may lower everyone’s quality of life, even to a level at which it is barely worth living. But this conclusion seems paradoxical and absurd. How can we possibly control all this? Parfit therefore calls it The Repugnant Conclusion. The principle that engenders the paradox is:

The Impersonal Total Principle: If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which there would be the greatest quantity of whatever makes life worth living. (387) If we take what makes life to be worth living as happiness, this is the classic utilitarian idea of maximizing happiness. What The Repugnant Conclusion is supposed to show is that classical utilitarianism and any other theories that assume the Impersonal Total Principle fail as candidates for Theory X. They fail, specifically, because they imply The Repugnant Conclusion (which is absurd) in certain different-number choices involving population growth.
The paradox results from the fact that in a growing population it is possible for total quality of life to increase while the average quality of life (quality per person) decreases. We might, then, in an effort to escape The Repugnant Conclusion, suppose that it is average quality of life that matters. If so, we might affirm:

The Impersonal Average Principle: If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which people’s lives go, on average, best. (386) Parfit will later show that this principle too engenders paradox.”

Considering all my previous comments, it seems to me that many of the ideas related to the non-identity problem are somewhat obscure. Who can possibly know how most of our actions will affect who will be in existence in the future and who will not. Most of our actions are unintentional, but nevertheless may have immense effects on what will happen. Remember the butterfly effect! Furthermore: it seems to me quite irrelevant to base moral judgements on whether the “same” or different people will be affected by our actions. The reason: we do not know and cannot know in principle what a future person or a future population would look like without imput from our actions. All we can hope for is that important personal or government actions will make it likely that future conditions are beneficial to mankind as a whole. And this includes policies which guarantee that resources on Earth are never over-exploited. —- Finally, in a discussion of the non-identity problem the question was raised whether a cat who by means of some treatment had acquired human mental powers, would qualify for the same moral considerations as humans. Of course it would: it would be human! —- This leads to another point: the discussion of non-identity seems to be restricted to humans (but I may be wrong on this, I am not familiar with most of the literature). I conclude with Schopenhauer:

“Die vermeintliche Rechtlosigkeit der Tiere, der Wahn, dass unser Handeln gegen sie ohne moralische Bedenken sei, ist eine geradezu empörende Barbarei des Abendlandes. Die Tiere sind kein Fabrikat zu unserem Gebrauch. Nicht Erbarmen, sondern Gerechtigkeit ist man den Tieren schuldig.
The supposed rightlessness of animals, the delusion that we can act towards them without moral scruples, is a really disgusting barbarity of the Western world. Animals are not constructs for our use. We owe them justness and not mercy.”

Schopenhauers moral philosophy based on compassion with the suffering of animals and man, appears to be a sounder basis of ethical judgments than the hairsplitting related to the non-identity problem. But I repeat: I know very little of the literature and put this post up as a basis for discussion, and only that.



I wish to thank John Nolt for permission to use his summary.

Deutsche Zitate-German Quotes

Friedrich II. von Preussen, Projekt Gutenberg, Der Spiegel
Man müsste es dahin bringen, dass sich alle Menschen des Fanatismus und der Intoleranz schämen.
One should bring about that all men are ashamed of fanaticism and intolerance.

Schopenhauer, in Bezug auf die Wahrheit, Schopenhauer, with regard to truth
Wenn man einen Teeloeffel Wein in ein Fass Jauche giesst, ist das Resultat Jauche. Wenn man einen Teelöffel Jauche in ein Fass Wein giesst, ist das Resultat ebenfalls Jauche.
If you pour a teaspoon of wine into a barrel of manure, you get manure, if you pour a teaspoon of manure into a barrel of wine, you also get manure.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg Projekt Gutenberg, Der Spiegel
Dass in Kirchen gepredigt wird macht deswegen die Blitzableiter auf ihnen nicht unnötig.
Preaching in churches does not make lightning conductors there superfluous.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg Projekt Gutenberg, Der Spiegel
Ein Gelübde zu tun ist eine grössere Sünde, als es zu brechen.
It is a greater sin to take an oath than to break one.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg Projekt Gutenberg, Der Spiegel.
Vergleichung zwischen einem Prediger und einem Schlosser.¨Der erste sagt: du sollst nicht stehlen wollen; und der andere: du sollst nicht stehlen können.
Comparison of a preacher and a locksmith. The former says: You must not wish to steal, and the latter: you must not be able to steal.

Klopstock, Epigramme. Projekt Gutenberg, der Spiegel
Widriger sind mir die redenden, als die schreibenden Schwätzer: Diese leg’ ich weg; jenen entflieh’ ich nicht stets.
Babblers who talk are worse than babblers who write. The latter I can put aside, from the former I cannot always escape.

Franz Grillparzer, Projekt Gutenberg, Der Spiegel
Die Schönheit ist die vollkommene Uebereinstimmung des Sinnlichen mit dem Geistigen.
Beauty is the perfect accord of the sensual and the spiritual.

What Does a Retired Professor do in His Spare Time? He Studies Bird Behaviour

This is the second in a series on idle professors. For the first click here.

Whether zoologist or not, a keen observer can do much useful work in his spare time, for example by watching birds or conducting experiments on bird behaviour. Select any bird, for example a crow, a raven, a magpie or a currawong in your garden. Here I illustrate a study of a controlled experiment involving a bird and a little boy. The question to be answered is: who has the keener mind and stronger character and finally prevails? Look at the sequence and conclude for yourself.

The retired professor conducting the experiment, and six critical steps in the experiment:

onlooker.jpgbird-encounter-1.jpg bird-encounter-2.jpg bird-encounter-31.jpgbird-encounter-4.jpgbird-encounter-5.jpgbird-encounter-6.jpg

But every story has a moral. In this story it is: Don’t give up so easily! If you can’t get the result you want in the first experiment, come back and try again. And don’t forget: there are many thousands of bird species on earth. Plenty of work for retired professors!