Causes, contrasts, and the non-identity problem
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Can an act harm someone—a future someone, someone who does not exist yet but will—if that person would never exist but for that very action? This is one question raised by the non-identity problem. Many would argue that the answer is No: an action harms someone only insofar as it is worse for her, and an action cannot be worse for someone if she would not exist without it. The first part of this paper contends that the plausibility of the ‘no harm’ argument stems from an equivocation. The second half argues for an account of harm that is both causal and contrastive. Finally, the paper contends that the contrastive account disarms the no harm argument and furthermore neutralizes a related argument (the benefit argument) that has been problematic for some previously proposed solutions to the non-identity problem.
KeywordsNon-identity problem Harm Contrast class Causal preemption Transitivity of causation Derek Parfit
Distant ancestors of this paper were presented at the University of Wisconsin’s “Soberfest—a conference in honor of Elliott Sober”, at the 2014 Pacific APA, and at the University of Connecticut. I am grateful to those audiences and especially to Andre Ariew, Ted Bach, Molly Gardner, Dan Hausman, Melinda Roberts, Nate Sheff, Elliott Sober, Chris Stephens, BJ Strawser, Rob Streiffer, and Naftali Weinberger.
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