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October 2, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor |
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Philosoraptor

Can an act be morally wrong even though it leaves no one worse off?

Imagine that there is a large quantity of radioactive waste that we have to deal with. We have two options: spend some money to contain it permanently, or build a cheaper, temporary shelter which will deteriorate over the next couple of centuries. This deterioration will eventually make large areas of Earth uninhabitable, and cause future generations of humans to develop debilitating illnesses. Surely, choosing to build the temporary shelter rather than spending a little extra money on the permanent shelter is morally wrong.

But consider the following fact: the person that each of us grows up to be is determined by our parents, circumstances of birth, and genetics. If our parents had chosen to conceive at a slightly different time, it is entirely plausible that we, as we are now, would not exist; rather, someone else, with a different personality and life path, would exist in our place.

If we choose the permanent shelter, a certain set of people will come into existence in the future. Call this Set A. If we choose the temporary shelter, Set B will come into existence in the future. And it is quite likely that Set B is completely different from Set A. People’s reactions to our choice of shelter will affect their lives in miniscule ways. Perhaps some people will not run into their future partner, which in turn will have a sequence of cascading impacts on other people’s lives. The beginnings of the deterioration will affect people’s lives even more. The net impact of all of this is that the future people in Set B are different people than the future people in Set A.

Now we are ready to make a surprising claim. If we choose the temporary shelter rather than the permanent shelter, no one will be worse off. Of course, the people in Set B will suffer from various illnesses and resource constraints. But if we had chosen the permanent shelter, those people in Set B would never have come into existence at all. So as long as their lives are worth living, they are no worse off than if we had chosen the temporary shelter. Therefore, choosing the temporary shelter cannot be morally wrong.

Something, clearly, has gone wrong with our moral reasoning. Derek Parfit, the philosopher who originally introduced and analysed this problem, called it the Non-Identity Problem. He believed that choosing the temporary shelter would be morally wrong; thus, he thought that we should reject our intuition that an act can be wrong only if it leaves someone worse off.

The Non-Identity Problem is one issue in the ethics of procreation — a cluster of questions about the morality of bringing people into existence, or harming or benefiting future people. One other difficult problem in procreative ethics is often called the Procreative Asymmetry. The Asymmetry states that it is morally bad to bring someone into existence who will have a terrible life: for example, it is morally wrong to bring into existence a child who will have a short life crippled by an agonising illness. Yet the Asymmetry denies the converse of that principle: that it is morally good to bring into existence people with happy lives.

Most of us believe intuitively in the Asymmetry: few of us believe that having more children is an act of charity (because it benefits those children), and few of us believe that policies to reduce population size are immoral because they prevent future lives from coming into existence. Yet the Asymmetry is, surprisingly enough, asymmetrical, and it is hard to provide a justification for that asymmetry apart from the mere existence of our intuitions.

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