Introduction

Josefina is considering having a baby, and she is excited to have one as soon as possible. Her doctor tells her that if she conceives a child now, it will be a baby boy, but he will walk with a permanent limp due to a rare, unavoidable genetic condition. Alternatively, Josefina can take a medication for three months and then conceive a baby girl, who will go on to lead a healthy life. Should Josefina have a baby boy now, and allow him to exist even despite his inevitable condition? Or should she wait the three months to have a baby girl, denying the baby boy’s chance at existence altogether? This paradox is known as the “non-identity problem,” a philosophical issue that ponders the question of whether a flawed existence is better or worse than no existence at all, and who has the right to make such a decision.

Explanation

The non-identity problem, sometimes called the “paradox of future individuals,” is a moral puzzle that tries to interpret the cost/benefit ratio of bringing into existence a person who will have a somehow flawed life. Is it more acceptable to alter the life of an unborn child, for better or for worse, or to predetermine which individuals are born at all? Is there even a potential harm being committed, since the individuals in question do not even exist yet? The name of the paradox comes from the fact that the individuals discussed are not born yet, and thus do not have their own identities. 

What is the Non-Identity Problem?

In a general sense, the non-identity problem deals with moral questions surrounding how our actions may affect the existences of future individuals, for better or for worse. It grapples with issues such as whether it is ethical to alter the life of an unborn child, or to predetermine if a child should be born if their life will be somehow flawed.

The History

The non-identity problem first became well-known in the early 1980s following the philosophical musings of Derek Parfit, James Woodward, and Gregory Kavka. It is based on three moral intuitions. First is the person affecting intuition, which states that an act is morally wrong if it harms some existing or future person. Second is the intuition that having a flawed existence, however impaired it may be, is more valuable than having never existed at all. Third is the intuition that the acts that induce an imperfect life are morally wrong in and of themselves. The non-identity problem arises from the conflicting nature of these intuitions. Take the first two intuitions, for example: It is morally acceptable to have a congenitally blind child as opposed to no child at all, but that same disability will inevitably limit the child’s ability to get a job, participate in hobbies, etc. This is clearly a moral dilemma.

The non-identity problem has no clear-cut solution, which can make it difficult to wrap one’s head around. However, philosophers generally agree that to find some tenable solution, one of the three aforementioned intuitions must be incorrect. Some contend that we should just “bite the bullet,” so to speak, and accept that the third intuition (that existence-inducing acts are wrong) is false. This would make cases of the non-identity problem morally correct. Others claim that an act can be morally wrong, but not cause harm to a person. This rejection of the person-affecting intuition would also validate cases of the non-identity problem. These proposed solutions are not universally accepted, though, since each of the three intuitions have validity when considered separately from one another.

It might be immediately intuitive that the parent(s) of an unborn child should decide whether or not to bring that child into the world, but it is not always that simple. Medical professionals, who can determine whether or not a child will be physically or mentally disabled and the extent of the disability, might advise on whether or not that child’s life would be worth living from a health standpoint. It is also important to consider religious and political ideologies. Some societies impose restrictions on how many children can be born into one family. All of this is to say that the non-identity problem is just that: a problem with no identifiable solution. It is up for individual interpretation when applied to various social issues.

Applying It

The non-identity problem is often brought up during discussions of prenatal genetic testing, public health policy, and abortion. For example, a 2019 study by Keyur Doolabh and colleagues investigated whether the general public considered the non-identity problem when debating public health policy in response to the 2016 Zika epidemic. They concluded that although participants did not readily consider non-identities in their study, such theoretical questions could have practical implications for how medical professionals develop potential treatments for diseases that affect unborn children. Additionally, the non-identity problem has historical and social connections. During slavery in early America and the Nazi regime in World War II, people heavily debated whether or not they should bring a child into the world just for them to live as slaves or prisoners. Similarly, in modern society, low-income families might put off having children to prevent endangering them with their unfavorable living conditions. Is this fair? The non-identity problem offers a useful thought experiment on how we might view parents in difficult situations struggling to decide whether or not to have a child.

    Learn More

    Learn More

    1. 1000wordphilosophy. (2014, February 27). The non-identity problem. 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology. https://1000wordphilosophy.com/2014/02/27/non-identity-problem/ 
    2. Doolabh, K., Caviola, L., Savulescu, J. et al. Is the non-identity problem relevant to public health and policy? An online survey. BMC Med Ethics 20, 46 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-019-0379-5
    3. Kavka, G., 1981. “The Paradox of Future Individuals,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 11: 93–112.
    4. Roberts, M. A. (2019). The nonidentity problem. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/nonidentity-problem/

    Think Further

    Think Further

    1. The non-identity problem can be a confusing concept. Try to explain it in your own words.
    2. Select one of the three intuitions that make up the non-identity problem. Construct an argument that refutes it so that a non-identity case is morally acceptable.
    3. Can you think of any other real-world examples in which the non-identity problem is relevant? How would you try to solve them?