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Roberts and Wasserman on Harming Future Persons

Harming Future Persons: Ethics, Genetics and the Nonidentity Problem [1], edited by Melinda Roberts and David Wasserman, just came out!

From the back cover:
This collection of essays investigates the obligations we have in respect of future persons, ranging from our own future offspring to distant future generations. What are our obligations to persons who have not yet, but eventually will, come into existence? Can we harm them? Can we wrong them? Can the fact that our choice means that a worse off person will exist in place of a better off but “nonidentical” person make that choice is wrong?

We intuitively think we are obligated to treat future persons in accordance with certain stringent standards—roughly those we think apply in connection with our treatment of existing persons. We think that we should create better lives for future persons when we can do so without (e.g.) making things worse for too many others. We think it would be wrong to engage in risky behaviors today that would have clearly adverse effects for the children we intend one day to conceive. And we think it would be wrong to choose to turn the Earth of the future into a miserable place.

Each of these intuitive points is, however, challenged by the nonidentity problem. That problem arises from the observation that many of the choices that appear to make things worse for future persons also determine the very identities of those future persons. New reproductive technologies, for example, can be critical to one person’s coming into existence in place of a “nonidentical” other or no one at all. But so can a myriad of other choices that seem to have nothing to do with procreation. Indeed, any choice that helps to determine the timing and manner of conception of any particular future person equally falls into that category. As Parfit noted in Reasons and Persons [2], “how many of us could truly claim, ‘Even if railways and motor cars had never been invented, I would still have been born’?” For any such identity-influencing choice, a distinct choice—a less questionable choice—would not have made things better for those persons who exist and suffer but rather would have caused nonidentical (if better off) persons to have come into existence instead. Where the suffering is not so severe that we think it would have been better for the person never to have existed at all, it becomes difficult to see just how those persons have been harmed, or made worse off, or wronged, by choices that were made centuries, or even days, before. This observation might seem to show that wrongdoing cannot fundamentally be a matter of harming, or making worse off, or wronging, particular persons. The problem is that if morality, contrary to intuition, is not fundamentally rooted in how agents comport themselves in respect of persons, then in what principle is morality rooted?

The nonidentity problem has implications for normative theory, population policy, procreative choice, children’s rights, bioethics, environmental ethics, the law (including constitutional privacy law and tort law) and reparations for historical injustices. The contributors to this collection offer new understandings of the nonidentity problem and evaluate an array of proposed solutions to it. Aimed at philosophers, legal scholars, and bioethicists, and students in all these disciplines, this collection is a thorough exploration of one of the most fascinating and important moral issues questions of our time.


Introduction—M. A. Roberts and David T. Wasserman

I. Can Bringing a Person into Existence Harm That Person? Can an Act That Harms No One Be Wrong?

1. The Intractability of the Nonidentity Problem—David Heyd

II. If Bringing a Worse Off Person into Existence Is Wrong, Is Not Bringing a Better Off Person into Existence Also Wrong?

2. Rights and the Asymmetry Between Creating Good and Bad Lives—Ingmar Persson

3. Asymmetries in the Morality of Causing People to Exist—Jeff McMahan

III. Must an Act Worse for People Be Worse for a Particular Person?

4. Who Cares About Identity?—Nils Holtug

5. Do Future Persons Presently Have Alternative Possible Identities?—Clark Wolf

6. Rule Consequentialism and Non-Identity—Tim Mulgan

IV. Is the Inference to “No Harm Done” Correct? Must an Act That Harms a Person Make That Person Worse Off?

7. Harming As Causing Harm—Elizabeth Harman

8. Wrongful Life and Procreative Decisions—Bonnie Steinbock

9. Harming and Procreating—Matthew Hanser

10. The Nonidentity Problem and the Two Envelope Problem: When Is One Act Better for a Person Than Another? —M. A. Roberts

V. Is the Morality of Parental Reproductive Choice Special? Can Intentions and Attitudes Make an Act that Harms No One Wrong?

11. Reproduction, Partiality, and the Non-Identity Problem—Hallvard Lillehammer

12. Two Varieties of “Better-For” Judgements—Peter Herissone-Kelly

13. Harms to Future People and Procreative Intentions—David T. Wasserman

VI. Is the Person-Affecting Approach Objectionable Independent of the Nonidentity Problem?

14. Can the Person-Affecting Restriction Solve the Problems in Population Ethics?—Gustaf Arrhenius

VII. What Are the Implications of the Nonidentity Problem for Law and Public Policy?

15. Implications of the Nonidentity Problem for State Regulation of Reproductive Liberty—Philip G. Peters, Jr.

16. Reparations for U.S. Slavery and Justice Over Time—Seana Valentine Shiffrin