Better to be than not to be?

In Hans Joas (ed.), The Benefit of Broad Horizons: Intellectual and Institutional Preconditions for a Global Social Science: Festschrift for Bjorn Wittrock on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. Brill. pp. 65 - 85 (2010)
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Can it be better or worse for a person to be than not to be, that is, can it be better or worse to exist than not to exist at all? This old 'existential question' has been raised anew in contemporary moral philosophy. There are roughly two reasons for this renewed interest. Firstly, traditional so-called “impersonal” ethical theories, such as utilitarianism, have counter-intuitive implications in regard to questions concerning procreation and our moral duties to future, not yet existing people. Secondly, it has seemed evident to many that an outcome can only be better than another if it is better for someone, and that only moral theories that are in this sense “person affecting” can be correct. The implications of this Person Affecting Restriction will differ radically, however, depending on which answer one gives to the existential question. Melinda Roberts (2003) and Matthew Adler (2009) have defended an affirmative answer to the existential question using an assumption that one can asribe a zero level of wellbeing to a person in a world in which that person doesn't exist. Contrariwise, Derek Parfit (1984), John Broome (1999), and others have worried that if we take a person’s life to be better for her than non-existence, then we would have to conclude that it would have been worse for her if she did not exist, which is absurd: Nothing would have been worse or better for a person if she had not existed. The paper suggests that an affirmative answer to the existential question can avoid such absurdities: One can claim that, say, it is better for a person to exist than not to exist, without implying that it would have been worse for a person if she had not existed or that her level of wellbeing would then have been lower.

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Gustaf Arrhenius
Stockholm University


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