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Ethics: The Nonidentity Problem

Video transcript

hi my name is Molly gardener and I am a research assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in this video I will introduce you to the non identity problem to understand the problem let's begin with a thought experiment suppose that there are two women Alice and Barbara who want their children to have poor health this is of course a strange thing to want but suppose that they believe that if they have sick children they will get more attention from their friends and family now suppose that to get what she wants Alice takes a particular drug during her pregnancy the drug causes her child whom she name's Alex to experience poor health for his entire life nevertheless his life on the whole is worth living meanwhile Barbara uses in vitro fertilization and screens the embryos for a gene that causes poor health when she finds an embryo with that gene she implants it the selected embryo becomes a child named Billie Billie experiences the same degree of hardship and suffering that Alex experiences however like Alex Billie has a life worth living many people think that Alice and Barbara have both wronged their children the way in which Alice wronged alex is pretty straightforward by taking the drug during her pregnancy she harmed her child since Barbara performed an action that had similarly bad consequences for Billie it might be tempting to think that Barbara also harmed her child nevertheless there is an important difference between Alice's action and Barbara's action the difference is that although Alex would still have existed had his mother not taking the drug Billie is non identical to anyone who would have existed had his mother not selected for poor health after all if Barbara had not selected for poor health then either she would have not had a child at all or else she would have brought some other child into existence instead of Billie many philosophers appeal to a plausible theory of harming in order to argue that this difference in what would have and makes a moral difference according to their theory of harming an action harms you only if it makes you worse off and at least some respects than you would have been had the action not been performed Alice's action satisfies this condition alex is worse off in many respects than he would have been had Alice not taken the drug he has to go to the hospital more often he misses more school and social events and he feels more pain and discomfort than he otherwise would have however Barbara's action does not satisfy this condition even though Billy's life is also full of trips to the hospital missed school days pain and discomfort it is still worth living the alternative for Billy is non-existence and a life worth living does not seem to be worse in any respect than no life at all if so then when she selected for poor health Barbara did not harm Billy but if Barbara's action did not harm Billy then we seem to be at a loss to justify the intuition that in much the same way that Alice wronged Alex Barbara wronged Billy Billy situation is thus a non-identity case it is a case in which an individual appears to be wronged by an action that is the condition of his own worthwhile existence the problem of either justifying the appearance that the individual was wronged or explaining it away is the non-identity problem we can make the problem clearer by formulating it as a set of inconsistent claims one Barbara wronged Billy to the way she wronged him was by harming him three the only way she could have harmed him is by making him worse off than he otherwise would have been for Barbara did not make Billy worse off than he otherwise would have been when I say these claims are inconsistent I mean that they can't all be true together if you pick any three of the claims their conjunction will logically entail that the fourth claim is false to solve the non-identity problem we have to reject at least one of the claims we also need to identify the flaw in the reasoning or the intuition that originally seemed to support whatever claim we choose to reject notice that whatever solution we opted for will have wide-ranging implications for a number of other issues one issue is reproductive rights although a few parents want to select for poor health some parents might want to use new reproductive technologies to select for conditions that other people associate with poor health unhappiness or other bad consequences opponents of reproductive autonomy in these kinds of cases will need to grapple with the non-identity problem another issue is genetic engineering although scientists haven't yet produced any genetically engineered humans they have produced plenty of genetically engineered animals the non-identity problem raises the question of whether we are wronging such animals by bringing them into existence a third issue is the environment to see why the non-identity problem is particularly important here consider another thought experiment suppose that we as a community must decide between two policies one policy involves polluting the environment and the other involves protecting it if we opt for polluting the environment then the air and water quality will be much worse in 200 years than it would have been had we chosen the other policy however the polluting policy will also have other consequences the economy will be different and different people will take different jobs different couples will fall in love and have children if different couples have children then different people will be born in 200 years we might think that no one will exist in the polluted community who would have existed had we not polluted suppose the people who do exist 200 years from now in the polluted community suffer from health problems related to the air and water quality maybe they develop asthma heart disease or cancer even so the non-identity problem makes it difficult to justify the intuition that when we choose to pollute the environment we wronged them after all they are no worse off than they would have been have we decided to protect the environment for if we had decided to protect the environment those people would not have existed at all and for those future people a life with asthma heart disease or cancer if it is still worth living is not worse than having no life at all thus if we think we ought to worry about climate change nuclear waste or environmental degradation for the sake of future generations then we will need to find some kind of solution to the non-identity problem in the next video I will discuss some of the solutions that have been proposed thank you for listening