A harm based solution to the non-identity problem

Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 2:427-444 (2015)
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Many of us agree that we ought not to wrong future people, but there remains disagreement about which of our actions can wrong them. Can we wrong individuals whose lives are worth living by taking actions that result in their very existence? The problem of justifying an answer to this question has come to be known as the non-identity problem.[1] While the literature contains an array of strategies for solving the problem,[2] in this paper I will take what I call the harm-based approach, and I will defend an account of harming—which I call the existence account of harming—that can vindicate this approach. Roughly put, the harm-based approach holds that, by acting in ways that result in the existence of individuals whose lives are worth living, we can harm and thereby wrong those individuals. An initially plausible way to try to justify this approach is to endorse the non-comparative account of harming, which holds that an event harms an individual just in case it causes her to be in a bad state, such that the state’s badness does not derive from a comparison between that state and some alternative state that the individual would or could have been in. However, many philosophers argue that the non-comparative account of harming is inadequate,[3] and one might be tempted to infer from this that any harm-based approach to the non-identity problem will fail. My proposal, which I call the existence account of harming, will show that this inference is faulty: we can vindicate the harm-based approach without relying on the non-comparative account of harming.

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Molly Gardner
University of Florida


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