Have We Solved the Non-Identity Problem?

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15 (5):677-690 (2012)
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Our pollution of the environment seems set to lead to widespread problems in the future, including disease, scarcity of resources, and bloody conflicts. It is natural to think that we are required to stop polluting because polluting harms the future individuals who will be faced with these problems. This natural thought faces Derek Parfit’s famous Non-Identity Problem ( 1984 , pp. 361–364). The people who live on the polluted earth would not have existed if we had not polluted. Our polluting behaviour does not make these individuals worse off. It may therefore seem that we do not harm them by polluting. Parfit argues that we should replace person-affecting principles with an impersonal principle of beneficence, Principle Q ( 1984 , p. 360.). I argue that Principle Q cannot give an adequate account of our duties to refrain from polluting. I consider attempts to solve the Non-Identity Problem by denying that to harm someone an agent must make them worse off. I argue that such responses provide a partial solution to the Non-Identity Problem. They do show that we harm future individuals in a morally relevant sense by polluting. Nonetheless, this is only a partial solution. The Non-Identity Problem still suggests that our harm-based reasons not to pollute are less strong than we intuitively believe. Thus on its own an appeal to the claim that we harm future individuals is not able to give a fully satisfactory account of why we are required not to pollute

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Fiona Woollard
University of Southampton


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