No harm done? An experimental approach to the non-identity problem

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A driving force behind much of the literature on the non-identity problem is the widely shared intuition that actions or policies that change who comes into existence don't, as a result, lose their morally problematic features. We hypothesize that this intuition isn’t entirely shared by the general public, which might have widespread implications concerning how to best motivate public support for large-scale, identity-affecting policies like those involved in climate change mitigation. To test our hypothesis, we ran a behavioural economic experiment, a version of the well-known dictator game, designed to mimic the public's morally loaded behaviour in identity-affecting choice problems. As predicted, we found that the public does seem to behave more selfishly when making identity-affecting choices. We further hypothesised that one possible mechanism involved in this change is the notion of harm that plays a role in the public’s normatively loaded decision making. So, during our study, we also solicited subjects’ attitudes about harm, in particular about whether the “dictators” had done harm through their choices. The data suggest that substantial portions of the population each employ distinct notions of harm in their normative thinking, which raises some puzzling features about the public’s normative thinking that call out for further empirical examination.
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Archival date: 2018-12-19
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