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How it is handled by Derek Parfit



4.2.2. How it is handled by Derek Parfit

Derek Parfit’s conclusion is radically different. The basic story is the same: If someone had not been conceived at the time she was actually conceived, she would not exist at all. If the conception had taken place earlier or later, it would have involved two other gametes, and therefore the resulting foetus would have a perhaps slightly, but still different, genetic makeup.433 Parfit sets the time limit at a month (obviously to be on the safe side, but he also hints that the real time interval after or before which we would not have existed had we not been conceived within it, may actually be much shorter).434

If we try to benefit a future individual by doing something that will also change the time of “his” conception, we have not benefited him at all – we have benefited someone else who is born instead. This in turn means that if we neglect to take this step, no one is made worse off since he would not have been born at all if we had acted in the less depleting way.435

We can complicate the situation further by adding that if we choose different lifestyles, it will also affect whom we meet and have children with, which further strengthens Parfit’s point that different lifestyles will lead to different identities of future individuals.

These things taken together mean that if we choose to live a less destructive life, the future people who will benefit from this will not be the same as would be born had we instead chosen a more wasteful lifestyle. If we choose the wasteful lifestyle, it will therefore not be worse for those humans that will actually live in the future as long as their lives will be worth living.436 If we assume that it is possible to benefit someone by bringing her into existence, we could even claim that we have benefited her by living a wasteful life since if we had not done that, she would not have existed at all.437

Should we therefore follow Schwartz and conclude that we have no moral duty – other than a duty to other contemporary humans, and possibly to the immediately following generations – to make any sacrifices for the sake of coming generations? Not according to Parfit. He regards the intuition that we have a moral duty to consider future generations to be a very basic intuition – too basic to give up. He illustrates this by the following imagined situation:

There are two different conditions – K and J – that give the same handicap to the child of a woman who is the bearer of either K or J. The difference between them is that J is curable, while K is not curable but disappears by itself within two months. A programme (let us call it J) is set up to cure women with condition J. Another programme (let us call it K) is set up to test women for condition K, and if they have it, advice them to wait for two months before getting pregnant. Both programmes will, if performed, have the result that 1000

433 Parfit 1987 pp.351ff

434 Parfit 1987 p.352

435 Parfit 1987 p.358ff

436 Parfit 1987 p.361ff

437 Parfit 1987 p.363

more healthy children and 1000 fewer severely handicapped children will be born. Unfortunately, there is not enough funding to go through with both programmes, so one of them has to be cancelled. If we choose to carry out programme J, the same children will be born, but they will not suffer from the handicap. If we choose to carry out programme K, different children will be born and thereby benefit from the programme. We could therefore say that we have a duty to the would be victims of the handicap caused by condition J to perform programme J, but we have no duty to anyone to perform programme K.

What do our intuitions tell us? Is there any moral reason to prefer one programme rather than the other? 438 Parfit’s intuition is that there is not. If we disregard the obvious fact that there are more risks involved for the prospective mother in having an operation or undergoing medical treatment, compared to just waiting two months before becoming pregnant, I share this intuition. If we do not disregard these things Parfit's point will be even strong because our intuitions tell us to put our money in programme K. In any case it seems clearly counterintuitive to claim that we have a duty to go through with programme J but not with programme K. I suppose most people would agree, in spite of the fact that alternative K is vulnerable to the non-identity-problem while alternative J is not. The fact that our intuitions do not distinguish between the two programmes indicates, just as Parfit points out, that what matters intuitively in this example is that independently of which programme we choose, 1000 more healthy children and 1000 fewer handicapped children will be born. The identity of the children does not seem to be relevant. 439

Parfit’s conclusion is that we have to stick to the intuition that we have a moral duty to consider the good of future generations. In order to be able to do so, however, he concludes that we have to reject what he calls the person affecting principle, that is, the idea that “what is bad must be bad for someone”.440

The idea that what is bad must be bad for someone is also a very basic intuition, however. I would claim that it is more basic than the intuition that we have a moral duty to consider future generations. It is very difficult to make sense of what it would mean for something to be good or bad if it is not good or bad for someone. By this, I mean that for it to be meaningful to call something good or bad, it must in some way relate to a subjective I, that is, to a centre of experience, from which the judgement springs. If there is no centre of experience that judges the event or its effects as bad, it is very difficult to comprehend in what way it could be bad.

I do not believe it is necessary, however, to go as far as to deny that what is bad must be bad for someone, in order to maintain that we have a moral duty to choose the less depleting lifestyle in Parfit’s example for the sake of future generations. Parfit himself suggests but dismisses a solution to the non-identity problem based on adopting a wider version of the person affecting principle.

438 Parfit 1987 p.367f

439 Parfit 1987 pp.368f

440 Parfit 1987 p.363

According to this version, something can be worse for people in the wide total sense if

… the total net benefit given to the X-people by the occurrence of X would be less than the total net benefit given to the Y-people by the occurrence of Y.441

He also identifies an average version, but dismisses both versions due to their inability to deal with the repugnant conclusion.442 However, this inability is not due to the wide person affecting principle, but to the basic principles of utilitarianism regarding how to calculate total or average benefit. Since this investigation is not about utilitarianism as such or about problems particularly related to utilitarianism, we do not have to concern ourselves with them here.

What is relevant for us is not how to calculate the total or average net benefit.

What is relevant is instead that the wide person affecting principle gives us the possibility to use interpersonal comparisons. We can thus keep the notion that what is bad must be bad for someone and still claim that the fact that our way of life affects the welfare of future generations – whoever they will be – gives us a moral duty to adopt a non-depleting lifestyle. This can be done by pointing out that a situation S1 is (or would be) worse for X than a situation S2 is (or would be) for Y, meaning that X is (or would be) suffering more or in some other way experience the situation she is (or would be) in as worse than Y experiences (or would experience) the situation she is in (or would be in were it to be realised).

In this way we keep the principle that something must be subjectively experienced in order to be valued, but add that it does not have to be subjectively experienced by the same person to make a comparison of the experiences. This means that the agent can make a comparison of how different moral objects would experience the different alternatives. Based on that comparison, she could decide which alternative would be experientially worse. It seems, for instance, totally reasonable to say that it is worse for Anna to experience severe torture than it is for David to experience a slight scratch on his arm.

We can thus deal with the terms ‘worse’ and ‘better’ by widening the person affecting principle instead of discarding it. We cannot make the same manoeuvre with the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ since the manoeuvre assumes a comparison. This is not a problem for us, since the non-identity problem is a problem only because we are dealing with two different possible populations under different possible outcomes. If it was just a matter of one population and one outcome, the outcome would be bad if it was bad for the only involved population and the non-identity problem would never occur. We can thus keep the idea that what is bad must be bad for someone. In the same vein we can keep the idea that what is good must be good for someone. It will not affect the question of inter-generational ethics.

441 Parfit 1987 p.396

442 Parfit 1987 pp.396, 398ff. Both the total and the average version run into trouble related to the repugnant conclusion.

Someone might be tempted to protest that by adopting the wider notion that for S1 to be worse than S2, S1 has to be worse for someone than S2 is for someone (else), we still make an unacceptable sacrifice by giving up the idea that for S1 to be worse than S2, S1 has to be worse than S2 for one particular person. However, the reason why it was unacceptable to give up the notion that what is bad must be bad for someone, was that it would render ‘bad’ meaningless if it is not connected to a subjective experience. In the wide person affecting principle the situations are still subjectively experienced and judged to be good to a certain degree or bad to a certain degree. To say that S1 is worse than S2 is thus not a non-subjective statement but an inter-subjective statement.

Nevertheless, is this not bad enough? We are comparing subjective experiences but the result of the comparison is just estimated. It is not experienced by anyone. Nobody is actually experiencing S1 as worse than S2.

I do not believe this is a serious problem. An inter-personal comparison is just an inter-personal comparison and that is all we need. We do not need an inter-personal experience in order to say that one of two possible courses of action would be right and the other would be wrong. I can sympathise with those who feel uncomfortable with using the word ‘worse’ for describing the result of such a comparison. This can easily be dealt with, however by keeping the comparison and using another – strictly descriptive – terminology. Parfit did not use the word ‘worse’ in the quotation above, and we do not need to do so either.

We can say, for example, that the individuals experiencing S1 are experiencing a smaller degree of good than those experiencing S2. The word ‘worse’ is not necessary for our project. Our aim is not to describe S1 as being worse than S2 but to say that it is wrong to cause S1 rather than S2 if we have a choice. Other things being equal, establishing that the individuals experiencing S1 are experiencing a smaller degree of good than those experiencing S2, seems to be a sufficient argument for concluding that it would be morally wrong to choose S1 over S2 if we can choose differently.

One who does not accept Parfit’s solution of giving up the person affecting principle is Jan Narveson. He claims that: “Duties that are not owed to anybody stick in the conceptual throat”.443 The way it is stated, as an attack on the idea of impersonal duties, it is not just a dismissal of Parfit’s solution, but also of my suggestion. I believe, however, that the reason why the impersonal duties stick in Narveson’s conceptual throat is that when he is uttering them, he is not distinguishing between ‘right/wrong’ on the one hand and ‘good/bad’ on the other. If doing one’s duty is to do what is right, then it has to be about what is good or bad for someone, but it does not has to be expressed as a duty to someone. To talk about things as being good or bad without being good or bad for someone would stick in my conceptual throat too. However, this is not the same as talking about duties that are not owed to a particular person. When we discuss the non-identity problem, we are as a matter of fact discussing how we ought morally to behave. It is therefore reasonable that we shift our attention

443 Narveson 1996 p.43

from what is good/bad or better/worse to what is right/wrong. If we distinguish between good/bad and right/wrong, we will be able to keep the sentence Parfit rejected (“what is bad must be bad for someone”), and instead sacrifice the sentence: “what is wrong must be wrong to someone”. It seems reasonable to say that what is wrong does not have to be expressed in terms of ‘wrong to someone’. In fact, it seems intuitively more correct to say about an act that ‘it is wrong’ than to say ‘it is wrong to someone’ (or ‘it is wronging someone’), even though it concerns what is good or bad for someone. That is, an act can be considered as right or wrong without being right or wrong to someone, but it has to affect (the quality or quantity of) things that are subjectively good or bad for someone even though the identity of the ‘someone’ is unimportant.

If we apply this to Parfit’s example, we could say that choosing a depleting lifestyle would be wrong because it would mean that some people would experience less good than some people would if we choose a less depleting lifestyle, where ‘some people’ may or may not be the same individuals. The important thing is that we are still talking about things (food, energy, clean air, wellbeing, happiness, fulfilment of preferences or rights, etc.) that are good because they are good for someone, and our behaviour is wrong because it means less of something that is good because it is good for someone (or more of something that is bad because it is bad for someone) independently of the identity of the experiencing individuals. We do not have to infer some kind of objective good that exists independently of a perspective that experiences it as good. We just have to declare the question of identity as irrelevant. We reserve the term

‘good’ for things that are good for someone, and talk about ‘right’ when we talk about how we should act.

Parfit’s solution has been criticised for excluding non-consequentialistic aspects in ethics.444 My solution is much less affected by that criticism. The only thing we have to accept in order to avoid the non-identity problem is that it is possible and meaningful to make interpersonal comparisons. We do not have to assume the full load of utilitarianism. We do not, for instance, have to assume any particular way of comparing good or bad. We do not have to accept that we can or should add the good or bad of different people. We do not even have to accept that we are always obliged to make interpersonal comparisons, or that we have to aim for the maximum quote of good over bad in order to accept this solution. The solution ought therefore to be acceptable even for those who have a more deontological view of right and wrong – as long as they accept that interpersonal comparisons are possible, meaningful and at least in situations involving different possible future populations also morally relevant.

The conclusion is that the situation that arises in the future if we chose a more depleting lifestyle today is not bad as long as the population will at least have a life worth living (since it in that case is not bad for anyone), but to make this choice would be wrong because it results in a situation that is less good for the people affected than the alternative would have been for the people that

444 Hanser 1990 p.51

would have been affected had we chosen differently – independently of the identity of those affected. Therefore, as long as we do not have a very strong aversion towards interpersonal comparisons, the non-identity problem does not relieve us from having duties to consider the good of future generations – whoever they will be.