If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Ethics: The Nonidentity Problem, Part 2

In this video, Molly Gardner introduces the nonidentity problem. This problem arises in cases where an individual appears to be wronged by the very action upon which his or her own existence depends.

Speaker: Dr. Molly Gardner, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Bowling Green State University.

Want to join the conversation?

  • mr pants teal style avatar for user J D
    But we can't REALLY know that, if Barbara wouldn't have done what she did, her child would have been better off. Maybe the child she had otherwise would have been stillborn or somehow, by chance, ended up having medical worse problems than Billy? Or let's even go as far as saying, maybe the healthy child would have been involved in sports and ended up paralyzed from the neck down, in which case Billy might be better off. Doesn't that all complicate the entire thing further?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Feng.Tongle
      The same argument you made could be extended to all actions. We never know the full consequences that an action can have; does that mean nothing we do is morally wrong or right? That seems implausible.
      So, what is the issue? I think that it's because the best guess Barbara has, given what she does know, is that it's more likely that Billy is worse off than some other child. That is, if Barbara can reasonably know that her child is likely to be worse off, then she wrong him/her.
      You're very much right though, that it complicates the issue, and makes it very unclear what the best solution is, or even if there is one.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user D M
    At - isn't it intuitively obvious that the De Dicto sense is the one that applies as Barbara makes her choice? Once "her child" becomes "Billy" the De Re sense has meaning, but in order for the non-identity issue to arise in the first place he can't exist at the moment the problem is invoked. If the purpose of the exercise is to assess Barbara's choice in the form she confronted it, it reads "I will have one child, I can choose Billy or Timmy, and, with no other stipulated differences between Billy and Timmy, I choose Billy and therefore choose known harm to my child in order to increase my own happiness."
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf red style avatar for user rm101516
    it seems to reason then that there must be a third person that is harmed, one that is not beeing accounted for here. Or an "impersonal thing", like the one C S Lewis calls "Tao"?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Ernest
    I can't understand how Non-Existence can be better than Existence especially if you where able to live a Long Fulfilling Life. And I think even most people would rather have Existed than Not to have just been able to Experience what being a Human Being was all about. Unless you are Severely Depress or Suicidal, you probably wouldn't see it any other way.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user jpeters6432
      I believe David Benatar takes a view that is a little too extreme, but the idea that nonexistence can be better than existence is still correct. I agree with you that it depends on whether you live a life worth living, or a life full of suffering, as to whether never having existed is a superior option. A fulfilling life is better than nonexistence, which is better than a life full of suffering.
      (1 vote)
  • leaf green style avatar for user daninthepan1
    From she gives the analogy about the assassins to prove it is possible to harm someonone without leaving them worse off. It's hard to see how this applies to Barbara. The assassin shot the guy, ok harm, maybe no worse off, but harm nonetheless. Barbara brought the child into existence. There was no second assassin to do it anyway. It leaves you with the indefensable position that deliberately bringing a child into the world that is not as perfect as possible is in effect causing a harm even though it may not leave the child any worse off. Or going out of your way to bring someone into the world who is not optimized is causing that person harm. Sounds like Utilitarianism to me and she pointed out some of the absurdities with that idea elsewhere.
    I agree it is possible to harm somebody and not make them worse off, but I’m not sure Barbara did.
    I wish Dr Gardner had looked at Kant's categorical imperative - if everyone crippled their child to be a recourse for evoking sympathy we'd all be desensitized and make the original action obsolete. Act only in a way that you can will that action become a universal law.
    I know there are many objections to the catagorical imperative itself and I'm sure I'm wrong to bring it up here but it seems to me at least to work pretty well in this case.
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

hello again my name is Molly Gardner and I am now an assistant professor in the philosophy department at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green Ohio this is the second in a two-part series on the non identity problem in this video I will survey some of the ways that philosophers have attempted to solve the problem recall from the previous video that in order to solve the problem we will need to reject at least one of the four inconsistent claims that generated it here again are those claims one barbara wrong - Billy - if barbara wrong - Billy then 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 we can categorize various strategies for solving the problem according to the claim that each strategy rejects let's start with what we can call the wronging without harming strategy this strategy attempts to deny to the claim that if Barbara wronged Billy then the way she wronged him was by harming him here's an example of the kind of case these philosophers appeal to suppose that a man named Smith attempts to buy an airplane ticket but the agents at the desk refused to sell him the ticket because of his race later on the plane that Smith would have been on crashes and all the passengers died there was a sense in which Smith dodged a bullet now that the plane has crashed and he is still alive he's no worse off and indeed he is better off then he would have been had the agents not refused to sell him the ticket still it's also clear that the agents wronged Smith when they refused to sell him the ticket the wrongdoing in this case doesn't seem to be explained at least primarily by a moral principle about harming instead it seems to be explained by principles that have to do with rights violations unfairness or lack of respect for example a rights-based principle might that you wronged someone when you violate his or her rights and unfairness principle might say that you wronged someone when you treat him or her unfairly and a respect principle might say that you wronged someone when you disrespect him or her many philosophers have argued that at least one of these principles explains why Barbara wrongs Billy in the non-identity case still these philosophers have to explain why Barbara violates one of these principles and this is no easy task on first consideration for example it's difficult to see how bringing Billy into existence could be a way of treating him unfairly it's also difficult to see why such an action is disrespectful and it's not immediately clear what right Billy would have that Barbara violates what if we opt for a different solution to the problem an alternative strategy would be to reject claim 4 which says that Barbara did not make Billy any worse off than he otherwise would have been philosopher Caspar hare has argued that claims 1 2 & 3 aren't really plausible unless we replaced the word Billy with her child he reconstructs the problem like this 1 star Barbara wronged her child to star if Barbara wronged her child then the way she ranked him was by harming him 3 star the only way she could have harmed him is by making him worse off than he otherwise would have been 4 star Barbara did not make her child worse off than he otherwise would have been once we reconstruct the problem this way we can see that something interesting is going on the term her child has what we might call a de dick doe sense and a de racence in the de dicto sense her child refers to whomever happens to fit that description whereas in the day ray sense her child refers to Billy to get a better handle on this difference in stances consider the following joke actress Zsa Zsa Gabor tells an interviewer I have found a way of keeping my husband young and healthy almost forever the interviewer says eternal youth that is quite a discovery how did you do it Gabor replies I get a new one every five years Gabor his comment is funny because it trades on the two senses of my husband in the day dicto sense Gabor husband does indeed stay young and healthy almost forever but in the day racence he does not hara argues that in the day rea sense her child makes claim for star true barbara did not make Billie worse off than he otherwise would have been however Hera argues that the relevant sense is the day dick docents not the day racence and if we use the day dick doe sense of her child we can see that claim for star is false if Barbara hadn't had Billie she would have had some other child we can call Timmy and Timmy would not have had poor health her child Billie is worse off than her child Timmy so her child is worse off than her child otherwise would have been the main challenge that hair now faces is to convince his critics that the day dicto sense really is the sense that's relevant to the non identity problem and it's not immediately obvious that it is let's look at a third way to try to solve than identity problem the third way is what we can call the biting the bullet strategy and it attempts to reject claim one the most fully-developed argument for biting the bullet is presented in the 2014 book the non identity problem and the ethics of future people by philosopher david Boonen I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to read more about the problem the argument Boonen gives for rejecting one is largely negative that is he carefully considers other philosophers attempts to reject each of the other claims and argues that none of those attempts are successful since the other claims logically entailed that one is false Boonen concludes that barbara does not wronged her child and indeed that she does nothing wrong at all I'm not completely convinced by bounnam's critique of my own preferred strategy for solving the problem which is to reject claim 3 recall that 3 says that the own whay Barbara could have harmed Billy is by making him worse off than he otherwise would have been those of us who reject claim 3 adopt what we can call the harm based strategy we contend that it's possible to harm someone without making him or her worse off to see how consider the following case and heed the assassin in training is hiding in the bushes pointing his gun at Vincent andis supervisor Stanley is hovering next to Andy pointing his own gun at Vincent Andy fires his gun and kills Vincent if Andy hadn't fired his gun Stanley would have and Vincent would have died at exactly the same time in exactly the same way in this shooting case it seems as though Andy has harmed Vincent indeed he is killed Vincent and that's a pretty significant harm nevertheless Andy hasn't made Vincent any worse off than he otherwise would have been since if Andy hadn't shot Vincent Stanley would have this case seems to show that you can harm someone without making them worse off but if harming isn't a matter of making someone worse off what is it the challenge for the harm based solution is to develop an account of the metaphysics of harming that can vindicate our intuitions about this shooting case the non-identity case and all the other ordinary cases of harming I believe that this can be done but the jury is still out there are many more proposed solutions than the four I have just discussed an alternative way to deny claim number one for example is to hold that although Barbra does not wronged Billy she does do something wrong when she fails to bring a healthier child into existence instead of Billy the underlying principle that this solution appeals to seems to be something like maximizing act utilitarianism the view that actions are morally wrong unless they result in the most aggregated well-being possible however it's not clear that we can trust maximizing act utilitarianism since it seems to have strange results when it comes to other procreation cases it seems to imply for example that it would be better to bring into existence lots and lots of people whose lives are barely worth living than to confer benefits to a smaller group of people who already exist in his 2006 book better never to have been the harm of coming into existence the philosopher David Bennett are also argues for an alternative way of rejecting claim three on his view whether an action is harmful has to do with whether it confers advantages or disadvantages Bennett our claims that all the particular harms of existence including the harm of death which we all suffer eventually make it the case that there's a clear disadvantage to existing over never existing at all on the other hand there are no comparative advantages of existence over non-existence even if our lives are filled with lots of happiness the absence of such happiness in a world where we never existed would not be bad he concludes that all acts of procreation are harmful not just those in non-identity cases as you can see philosophers have put lots of thought into solving the problem I hope that this brief overview of a few interesting approaches gives you some idea of what a satisfactory solution would look like thank you for watching you