Can we overcome Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem?

By Luca Bellodi

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is now taking place in Paris, raises broader philosophical reflections on the obligations we have towards future generations. Indeed, a sense of of climate justice has to be encompassed in an ‘integrationist theory of justice’, which aims to define our duties to future generations (Bell, 2013: 198 ff.). It is important to notice that thinking of intergenerational justice can deeply shape our perception of how urgent negative future effects of problems such as climate change should be tackled by public policies and of what we, lato sensu, owe to future generations. Despite the fact that we intuitively argue against some depletion policies, Parfit’s non-identity problem gives rise to difficulties in grounding our judgements in morality and justice (Parfit, 1984: 355 ff.). Due to both the complexity of the issue and the length of this paper, I must defy a comprehensive analysis of the different reactions to climate change, narrowing the focus on a more abstract attempt to overcome Parfit’s nonidentity problem1 (Parfit, 1984: 355–56). I will first briefly outline the main features of the non-identity problem, namely the equivalence between wronging and harming and the personal approach of moral judgements. In sections II and III I shall refute those intuitions while claiming that morality has to follow an impersonal approach by investigating conducts regardless of the consequences on particular individuals. I will finally critique Parfit’s No-Difference View, undertaking a three-hold distinction, which allows us to adopt in some cases the Some-Difference-View.


In exchange for a large amount of money, a couple signs a binding contract with a wealthy man. According to the contract, the couple is expected to conceive a child that will then be transferred at birth to the wealthy man. The child will thereafter work as a slave for the man (Kavka, 1982: 100 ff.). We intuitively think that what the couple has done is wrong because we assume that the couple’s choice is bad for the child. However, the non-identity problem thwarts this conclusion. If we acknowledge that different time and manners of conceptions give birth to different children, we can claim that had the couple not entered the contract, it would have conceived a child in a different time, and a different spermatozoon would have fecundated the ovum. Thus, since a nonidentical child would have been born, entering the contract and giving birth to that particular slave child did not harm or make the things worse for him2 (Parfit, 1984: 363). In the same way, the decision of the 14-yeard-old girl to have a child (Mark) and give him a ‘bad start in life’ cannot be morally wrong, since it does not make him worse off. If she had waited ‘for several years’, there would have been a nonidentical child and Mark would have not existed at all (Parfit, 1984: 358 ff.). Let us analytically outline the two main intuitions at stake in the non-identity problem. The first one is the equivalence between wrongness and harm, according to which an act is wrong only if it harms or makes things worse for some existing or future people. I shall call this Intuition (1). The second intuition is 1 Parfit distinguishes between choices which affect only the identity of future people and choices which affect both identity and number of future people (1984: 355–57). Here I shall discuss only the ‘Same Number Choices’. 2 In this essay less than worth–living lives will not be discussed. To give a brief sketch, it is generally argued that the actions that have brought the child into existence with these wrongful lives harmed the child and made things worse for him (Buchannan et al., 2000: 222–257). Commentato [MF1]: I particularly like the usage of latin phrases. For future pieces of writing, however, keep in mind that they are not particularly known in all academic cultures and might thus appear confusing to some readers. Commentato [MF2]: This is a very good introduction, as you clearly state where your aim is, and how you will get there. Interesting is also the reference to current affairs to introduce the topic and stimulate the interest of the reader. the person-based intuition, namely, a personal conception of justice according to which our moral judgments depend on the extent to which the act under scrutiny alters the well-being of a particular person. The ‘bad’ act must be ‘bad for’ someone (Parfit, 1984: 363). Let us call this Intuition (2). Thus, to overcome the non-identity problem means to find a moral justification to our judgements when we say to the parents of the slave child and to the 14-year-old girl that their choices were wrong.


The non-identity problem challenges those identity-dependent accounts which assume that an action is wrong if it harms or makes someone worse off (Page, 2006: 132). I shall now explain why we should refute Intuition (1) and claim that an act is wrong even if it harms no one. The non-identity problem relies on a person-based consequentialism for which actions should maximise the good of the particular persons that will exist. Personal good or individual well-being has to be maximised through human actions (Roberts, 1999: 6). The first problem this harm-based approach faces is how to evaluate certain harming actions that at the same time cause compensating benefits (MacMahan, 2001: 453). Paying attention to people being worse or better off is methodologically wrong, since we want to morally judge the actions and not their outcomes. Indeed, what a person does has an ‘intrinsic significance in moral reasoning’ regardless of what actually happens to the victim (Kumar, 2003: 105). Wronging is different from harming because it affects the conduct of wrongdoers setting aside the consequences and psychophysical personal identities.

For this purpose, rights-based theories which ground their moral judgements in people’s rights respect rather than in well-being seem to reject the equivalence ‘wronging–harming’. If we consider again the slave child case, we can argue that everyone has a right not to be born a slave and, consequently, the couple’s choice to enter the contract is wrong because it violates the child’s right. In the same way, a black man who due to his race is not sold the ticket for what would have been a crashed airplane has been wronged by the violation of his right against race discrimination. Despite his increasing in well-being since his life is safe and, let us suppose, he enjoys being discriminated, we can argue that the black man has been wronged by the race discrimination (Woodward, 1986: 811). This non-consequentialist approach explains how an act which does not affect well-being and that does not make things worse off for anyone can still be wrong.

In partial rebuttal of this argument, Parfit claims that Mark, the child of the 14-year-old girl, could waive his right to have a good start in life. Since his life is worth living, he can reject his right and not consider his mother’s pregnancy wrongful (Parfit, 1984: 364–65). Nonetheless, the fact that a child is glad to be born does not mean that the child has not been wronged or that he has waived his good-start-in-life right (Velleman, 2008: 275). On the one hand, the 14-year-old girl’s decision to conceive a child can still be considered morally wrong although Mark, who selfishly prefers to live, does not blame her. Yet, on the other hand, it is hard to claim that the absence of regret does not affect our moral judgements. Indeed, Parfit argues that an act an individual would applaud could plausibly violate a right (Parfit, 1984: 373–374). Woodward offers an effective objection to moral justifications based on retrospective consent or the absence of regret. Suppose a future generation is bearing the costs of a precedent depletion policy. Those people do not regret that policy since without it they would not have existed. Besides, that policy can still be Commentato [MF3]: Very good! Commentato [MF4]: Interesting and good engagement with existing literature! wrong even though the current state of affairs is worth living or seems not to deserve regret. We should reject a moral theory in which people’s absence of regret is grounded. Consider the lower caste members of the Indian society who think it is just to be exploited because this is the solemn will of the nature; this cannot deprive us from saying that caste society is morally wrong (Woodward, 1986: 822–825). All in all, despite the moral relevance of avoiding people to suffer, there is no equivalence between wronging and harming. Indeed, stating that harming a person is generally wrong does not conversely mean that wrongness means harming people.


In this section I will try to demonstrate why our intuitive concerns for future generations are identity-independent, trying to understand what should our decisions between alternative actions be based on. Acts and choices should be evaluated in an impersonal way, that is, regardless of the effects those acts and choices might have on particular persons.

One of the most effective attempts to develop an impersonal approach is Reiman’s argument (Reiman, 2007: 78–86). He borrows Rawls’s original position, which describes rational people who have to decide which principles of justice will determine the basic structure of society. Behind a veil of ignorance there is the awareness of the generation they will live in. Thus, it is possible to identify future generations’ ‘right to normal functioning’, which allows them to reach their goals (Reiman, 2007: 81). Future generations are represented in the original position regardless of the particular psycho-physical identity of the individuals who will populate the real world. Therefore, it turns out that we have some duties to future generations just because they are human. Indeed, we should care about properties rather then particulars. While the former refers to personal characteristics, such as healthy or disabled and world’s conditions, the latter refers to the particular identities of those people (Reiman, 2007: 83 ff.) Thus, future properties are morally relevant whilst future particulars are not.

Similarly, Parfit’s solution to the non-identity problem relies on a comparative approach, namely the Same Number Quality Claim (Parfit, 1984: 360). Parfit claims that if a particular action produces a better outcome, it is morally right to pursue that outcome through that action. Consistently with this view, two medical treatments which lead to the same result are equally worthwhile and the fact that one scenario is characterized by identical people (the children of the pregnant women) and the other scenario by nonidentical people (the couples will conceive the child two months later) is not morally relevant (Parfit, 1984: 366 ff.). However, this solution, notwithstanding its impersonal quality, seems to be not acceptable. Indeed, we believe that a child who is going to be born has a right that the children not yet conceived –since they not exist– have not.

Despite accepting Parfit’s impersonal moral approach when judging our actions that affect future generations, we cannot accept an equal moral relevance of both foetuses and non-existing people. The conceived people, even though not alive, still exist and have rights not to be violated. However, my argument in rebuttal of the No Difference Views could face the objection that follows. An impersonal moral approach cares about outcomes and people who will live. Everything else is not relevant and if the outcome is the same then our actions are morally equivalent. My counter-objection introduces a three-fold distinction; we shall consider future generations, existing people and nearly existing people. To understand Commentato [MF5]: Excellent! this third category, I shall recall Aristotle’s distinction between act and potency. The most effective explanation of this dichotomy is an equivalence: the ovum stands for potency and the foetus stands for act. Then the No-Difference View grounds our moral judgement for future generations and the Some-Difference View for nearly-existing people.


In conclusion, I have outlined an attempt to overcome the non-identity problem claiming that wrongness does not coincide with harming and our moral judgement on actions affecting future generations are identity-independent. I have underpinned my conviction that judging our actions with regard to the consequences they may have on individuals is not consistent with those intuitively wrong actions that do not harm anyone. I have then argued that principles of justice determined in the original position will not take into account particulars, focusing instead on properties through an identity-independent approach. Finally, I have tried to argue that the No-Difference View cannot be countenanced in grounding our moral considerations of nearly-existing people such as conceived children. I have thus proposed a three-hold distinction which makes room for the Some-Difference View. Overall, the complexity of this issue warrants careful consideration when discussing sensitive topics such as bioethics or climate justice. Thus, a severe reflection on our current beliefs and policies cannot be procrastinated. Commentato [MF6]: Very good and thought provoking. Commentato [MF7]: Good conclusion: you provide a summary of the essay, highlighting the main steps you have proposed.


Bell, D., 2013. ‘How Should We Think about Climate Justice?’. Environmental Values, 35, pp. 189–208.

Buchannan, A., D. Brock, N. Daniels and D. Wikler, 2000. From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kavka, G., 1981. ‘The Paradox of Future Individuals’. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 11. pp. 93–112.

Kumar, R., 2003. ‘Who Can Be Wronged?’. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 31, pp. 99–118.

MacMahan, J., 2001. ‘Wrongful Life: Paradoxes in the Morality of Causing People to Exist’. In: J. Harris, ed. 2001. Bioethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 14.

Page, E., 2006. Climate Change, Justice and Future Generations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Parfit, D., 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Reiman, J., 2007. ‘Being Fair to Future People: The Non-Identity Problem in the Original Position’. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 35, pp. 69–92.

Roberts, M.A., 1998. Child versus Childmaker: Future Persons and Present Duties in Ethics and Law. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield publishers.

Velleman, J.D., 2008. ‘Person in Prospect’. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36, pp. 221–288.

Woodward, J., 1986. ‘The Non-Identity Problem’. Ethics, 96, pp. 804–31.


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