The Non‐Identity Problem and Future Generations

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The chapter “The Non‐Identity Problem” of the book “Reasons and Persons” by D. Parfit provides some insights into the non-identity problem and how the choices that we make today determine the quality of life as well as identity of future generations. The author takes considerable effort to not only demonstrate how the application of moral standards that seem comparatively uncontroversial can yield outcomes that most human beings may find unacceptable, but also to underscore the importance of using philosophical perspectives in determining how these common sense moral beliefs may be altered with the view to ensuring that they meet our obligations to future generations.

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From the chapter, it is clear that our actions during the present time can control the identity of future generations. Additionally, the author use time-dependence claim and origin view to demonstrate that our present-day choices can indeed affect who exists in the future (Parfit 1986). Although the author projects various arguments as to whether we benefit individuals by causing them to exist, it is argued here that we have clear moral obligations toward people who we cause to exist by our very own actions irrespective of the fact that such existences may be inescapably flawed (Boonin 2014).

Consequently, it can be argued that we owe duties of social justice to future generations because we are the reason as to why they will exist. The author uses various analogies to demonstrate the non-identity problem; however, he fails to provide clear and concise directions on what course of action to take. From the information provided in these examples, it can be argued that the moral obligations that we take cannot be worse for future generations even if they may not guarantee optimal outcomes. The major learning point from the analogy of depletion vs. conservation, in my view, is that the act of depletion is morally wrong even if it may seem appropriate for nearer generations due to improvements in standards of living and the argument that such an action may not be wrong if it does not harm anyone. Following this observation, it can be argued that it is possible for the present generation to harm future generations and therefore it is imperative to use a rights approach to solve some of the non-identity problems.

For example, we can use a rights perspective to argue that future generations have a right to enjoy present-day ecosystems and it is therefore imperative for the present generation to desist from depleting natural resources. As argued by Parfit (1986), it is morally wrong for the present generation to accord itself minor benefits in undertaking lesser depletion when it could have given much greater benefits to future generations by internalizing conservation. Although there are many right and wrong answers to such a premise, it is evident that the concepts of social justice, morality, utilitarianism, as well as rights are of immense importance in solving the numerous non-identity problems facing the present generation. As postulated by Boonin (2014), moral justifications should be used to solve the non-identity problem although the conclusion may not be agreeable to all stakeholders due to conflicting moral intuitions. Based on the readings, it can be concluded that the best way to solve a non-identity problem is to explain the conflicting moral intuitions away because most of our moral sentiments (e.g., advocating for depletion to achieve short-term gains) are such that they may result in misleading outcomes.

Reference Page

Boonin, D 2014, The non-identity problem and the ethics of future people, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Parfit, D 1986, Reasons and persons, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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Premium Papers. (2021) 'The Non‐Identity Problem and Future Generations'. 8 July.


Premium Papers. 2021. "The Non‐Identity Problem and Future Generations." July 8, 2021.

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Premium Papers. "The Non‐Identity Problem and Future Generations." July 8, 2021.