Derek Parfit, Energy Policy and the Further Future

The Identity Problem


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

         a.      Applies to 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 make that choice

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


4.      Risky energy policy

         a.      Choice between two energy policies

                   i.       Conservation

                   ii.      Depletion (or fossil fuel, 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


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

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

         b.      Even if we think it possible a person could remain identical coming from different cells and different parents if their personality and lives had been sufficiently similar

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

6.      14 year old has child now or waits until mid 20s to have a child

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

         b.      She has the child when 14 and gives the child a poor start in life

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

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

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

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


7.      Also true that no one is made worse off by choosing the risky, depletion (CC) energy policy

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

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

         a.      Argument:

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

                   ii.      Children conceived at different times would be different people

                   iii.     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.    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”


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

12.    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.      Utilitarian view

13.    Two: (A) 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

14.    Three (B): 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


15.    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 harm future people without making them worse off. Contrast this with an example where harming 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?