No Harm Done? An Experimental Approach to the Nonidentity Problem

Journal of the American Philosophical Association 8 (1):169-189 (2022)
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Discussions of the non-identity problem presuppose a widely shared intuition that actions or policies that change who comes into existence don't, thereby, become morally unproblematic. We hypothesize that this intuition isn’t generally shared by the public, which could have widespread implications concerning how to generate support for large-scale, identity-affecting policies relating to matters like climate change. To test this, we ran a version of the well-known dictator game designed to mimic the public's behavior over identity-affecting choices. We found the public does seem to behave more selfishly when making identity-affecting choices, which should be concerning. We further hypothesized that one possible mechanism is the notion of harm the public uses in their decision-making and find that substantial portions of the population seem to each employ distinct notions of harm in their normative thinking. These findings raise puzzling features about the public’s normative thinking that call out for further empirical examination.

Author Profiles

Matthew Kopec
Harvard University
Justin Bruner
University of Arizona


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