Harming Future Persons

Ethics, Genetics and the Nonidentity Problem

  • Melinda A. Roberts
  • David T. Wasserman

Part of the International Library of Ethics, Law, and the New Medicine book series (LIME, volume 35)

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages I-XXXVIII
  2. Can Bringing a Person into Existence Harm That Person? Can an Act That Harms No One Be Wrong?

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 1-1
  3. If Bringing a Badly Off Person into Existence is Wrong, is Not Bringing aWell Off Person into Existence Also Wrong?

  4. Must an Act Worse for People be Worse for a Particular Person?

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 69-69
    2. Nils Holtug
      Pages 71-92
    3. Tim Mulgan
      Pages 115-134
  5. Is the Argument to “No Harm Done” Correct? Must an Act that Harms a Person Make that Person Worse Off?

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 135-135
    2. Elizabeth Harman
      Pages 137-154
    3. Bonnie Steinbock
      Pages 155-178
    4. Matthew Hanser
      Pages 179-199
  6. Is the Morality of Parental Reproductive Choice Special? Can Intentions and Attitudes Make an Act that Harms No One Wrong?

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 229-229
    2. Hallvard Lillehammer
      Pages 231-248
    3. Peter Herissone-Kelly
      Pages 249-263
    4. David T. Wasserman
      Pages 265-285
  7. Is the Person Affecting Approach Objectionable Independent of the Nonidentity Problem?

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 287-287
  8. What are the Implications of the Nonidentity Problem for Law and Public Policy?

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 315-315
    2. Seana Valentine Shiffrin
      Pages 333-339
  9. Back Matter
    Pages 341-348

About this book


This collection of essays investigates the obligations we have in respect of future persons, from our own future offspring to distant future generations. Can we harm them? Can we wrong them? Can the fact that our choice brings a worse off person into existence in place of a better off but "nonidentical" person make that choice wrong?

We intuitively think we are obligated to treat future persons in accordance with certain stringent standards—roughly those we think apply to our treatment of existing persons. We think we ought to create better lives for at least some future persons when we can do so without making things worse for too many existing or other future persons. We think it would be wrong to engage in risky behaviors today that will have clearly adverse effects for the children we intend one day to conceive. And we think it would be wrong to act today in a way that would turn the Earth of the future into a miserable place.

Each of these intuitive points is, however, challenged by the nonidentity problem. That problem arises from the observation that future persons often owe their very existence to choices that appear to make things worse for those same persons. New reproductive technologies, for example, can be both risky and essential to one person’s coming into existence in place of a "nonidentical" other or no one at all. But so can a myriad of other choices, whether made just prior to conception or centuries before—choices that seem to have nothing to do with procreation but in fact help to determine the timing and manner of conception of any particular future person and thus the identity of that person. Where the person’s life is worth living, it is difficult to see how he or she has been harmed, or made worse off, or wronged, by such an identity-determining choice. We then face the full power of the nonidentity problem: if the choice is not bad for the future person it seems most adversely to affect, then on what basis do we say that choice is wrong?

The nonidentity problem has implications for moral theory, population policy, procreative choice, children’s rights, bioethics, environmental ethics, the law and reparations for historical injustices. The contributors to this collection offer new understandings of the nonidentity problem and evaluate an array of proposed solutions to it. Aimed at philosophers, legal scholars, bioethicists and students in all these disciplines, this collection is a thorough exploration of one of the most fascinating and important moral issues of our time.





Children's rights Consequentialism Ethics Future Generations Harm Ligation Reproductive bioethics genetics justice morality will

Editors and affiliations

  • Melinda A. Roberts
    • 1
  • David T. Wasserman
    • 2
  1. 1.Dept. of Philosophy and ReligionThe College of New JerseyEwingUSA
  2. 2.The Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University Yeshiva UniversityAtizapan Estado de MéxicoNew York CityUSA

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