Derek Parfit

Energy Policy and the Further Future: The Identity Problem


1.      Main question: How to think about the morality of actions that (seem to?) harm future people (or individuals) but do not make them worse off because they otherwise would not have existed?

         a.      Applies to climate change (=CC) issue

         b.      Also applies to treatment of animals


2.      If some choice may or will harm future people, even though these people do not yet exist, that is a moral objection to that choice

         a.      E.g., you are to blame if you leave a “man-trap” on your land which 10 years later maims a 5 year old child (who did not exist when you make that choice)


3.      Lazy nuclear technician example

         a.      Lazily chooses not to check a tank in which nuclear wastes buried and result is a catastrophe 2 centuries later that kills and injures 1000s of people

         b.      This is morally objectionable, even though people did not exist when made that choice

         c.      Note: Same people born whether or not checks the tank


4.      14 year mother example

         a.      Consider a 14 year old deciding to have a child now or waiting until her mid 20s

         b.      Will be a better mother and give her child a better life it she waits

         c.      Assume she has the child when 14 and gives the child a poor start in life

         d.      Was this choice worse for the child? Would it have been better for that child if she’d waited until she was 25?

         e.      No, if she’d waited he would have never existed

         f.       So her decision was not worse for him (unless his life is overall not worth living)

         g.      No one is made worse off by this bad choice of hers


5.      Risky energy policy example

         a.      Choice between two energy policies

                   i.       Conservation, or

                   ii.      Depletion (fossil fuel economy, CC policy)

         b.      Both safe for 2 centuries, but 2nd has risks for further future

         c.      We choose risky (depletion, CC) policy

         d.      This leads to a catastrophe killing and injuring 1000s of people

         e.      Note: Our choice between 2 policies affects who will be born


6.      Surprisingly, no one is made worse off by choosing the risky, depletion (CC) energy policy

         a.      True even though that decision kills and mains 1000s

7.      Because if had chosen a different energy policy, those people would not have existed

8.      Argument:

         a.      Given the effects of the two policies on details of our lives, it would increasingly be true that people married different people, and people would be conceived at different times

         b.      Children conceived at different times would be different people

                   i.       A person’s identity depends (in part) on when conceived: Children conceived at different times would in fact be different people

                   ii.      True on either of the two views on identity:

                            (1)    If you’d come from a different sperm or egg cell, you would be a different person (that person would not be you)

                            (2)    If your life had been dramatically different, you would have been a different person (even if possible a person could remain identical coming from different cells and different parents as long as their lives and personality were sufficiently similar)

                   iii.     If you are conceived at a different time (with different parents) highly unlikely you’d be similar enough to be the same person

         c.      After two centuries there would be no one living who would have been born had we chosen the other policy

9.      So choice of risky energy policy is not worse for anyone


10.    One implication for moral theory: Wrongs do not require victims

         a.      If we assume that risky energy policy is wrong, even if no one is made worse by the catastrophe it causes, then we must reject the idea that “wrongs require victims”

         b.      Other examples

                   i.       Destroying a beautiful cave (planet) that no one will ever experience

                   ii.      Partying on a grave; decapitating a dead person

                   iii.     Thinking evil thoughts about a person you can’t ever act on

                   iv.     Taking a sledge hammer to an old car

11.    Shows that “no one is harmed,” or better, “no one is made worse off” does not show one’s act is permissible

         a.      For example, poor folks in Asian country are starving to death and you go over and employ/exploit them by having them work for you for pennies a day in inhumane conditions

                   i.       They are not made worse off (in fact, arguable you have made them better off)

                   ii.      This by itself does not show what you do is morally permissible


12.    Why is depletion policy wrong, if not worse for any people?

13.    One: Because the people who do exist under the depletion policy will be (significantly) worse off than the different people who would exist under the conservation strategy

         a.      And it is wrong to produce individuals much worse off than individuals one could have produced?

                   i.       Consider the plight of factory farmed animals.....

         b.      Moral theory of utilitarianism claims that right acts should maximize overall happiness and depletion fails to do that

14.    Two: If the same number of lives would be lived either way, it would be bad if people are worse off than people might have been

         a.      This (same numbers point) is a response to the problem that utilitarianism seems to require producing huge numbers of happy individuals...and that seems implausible

15.    Three: It is bad if those who live are worse off than those who might have lived (even though it is worse for no one)

         a.      We need to consider not just affects of our acts on people who will in fact live, but affects of our acts on other people who would have lived if we had chosen otherwise

16.    Questions/problems/issues:

         a.      If my son is not as well off as some other child I could have had with a different spouse, that is bad?

                   i.       Perhaps bad, but not bad enough that I should have married a different spouse?

         b.      Imagine choosing between two equally suitable spouses

                   i.       Where one child would be blind and another not

                            (1)    Clear case, isn’t it?

                   ii.      Where one child is an A student and lives an middle class life and the other is a B student and lives a lower middle class life

                            (1)    Any less clear?

         c.      Consider the identity problem with animals:

                   i.       Bad to produce animals who are designed to live in horrendous conditions of industrial agriculture

                   ii.      But unless we think their lives are so bad that they would have been better off not alive (and we might think this)

                   iii.     Since these animals would not be created if we did not want to eat them

                   iv.     We have not made them worse off

                   v.      Let’s say their lives are overall positive (a bit)

                   vi.     Still, since we could have produced animals with much better lives, what we did was bad?

                   vii.    Seems clear we have no obligation to produce animals with good lives

                   viii.   Perhaps we have obligations not to produce animals whose lives are much less good than ones we could produce?

17.    Parfit does not think point about identity makes a moral difference

         a.      If our acts make future people worse off than they otherwise would have been (Nuclear Tech case)

         b.      Or if our acts bring into existence people who are worse off than different people we might have brought into existence would have been (Depletion energy policy)

         c.      Each is equally bad

Study questions Parfit’s The Identity Problem


1.         Can actions harm future people? Even if they don’t exist? Is it morally wrong to harm future people? Give an example.

2.         Explain using an example of Parfit’s or your own, how it is possible to do bad things concerning future people without making them worse off. Contrast this with an example where doing bad things with future people does make those people worse off.

3.         Contrast Parfit’s lazy nuclear technician example with his choose the risky energy policy example. In what way does he think they are importantly different? (This question is identical to the above question.)

4.         Does Parfit think wrongs require victims? Do you? How does this relate to the risky energy policy choice he discusses?

5.         Explain why choosing the risky depletion energy policy will lead to different people existing in 200 years as compared to the conservation energy policy. How does this matter in terms of our ability to explain why the risky depletion energy policy is problematic.

6.         Explain why choosing the risky depletion (CC) energy policy does not make anyone worse off, despite causing great suffering and death as a result of climate change?

7.         Discuss the identity problem in the context of producing animals for food.