Persons in Prospect (Revised)
Velleman (David)
Source: Retrieved from, 31/05/2015. Originally in Philosophy & Public Affairs
Paper - Abstract

Paper StatisticsBooks / Papers Citing this PaperNotes Citing this PaperColour-ConventionsDisclaimer


  1. The Identity Problem (Revised)
  2. The Gift of Life
  3. Love and Nonexistence

Author’s Introductions
  1. The Identity Problem
    • Derek Parfit1 calls it the non-identity problem. It’s the problem how to treat future persons given that any attempt to treat them better may result instead in their never being born. For example, the people who will have inadequate resources in the twenty-second century because of our wastefulness today will owe their existence to human couplings that never would have occurred if we had lowered our thermostats and showered less often. As those future people commute on foot or read by candlelight, they will have to acknowledge that we couldn’t have conserved resources for them, since our conserving would have prevented them from existing. Because the people affected by our wastefulness will not be identical to those who would have been affected by our conservation, there appear to be no future individuals for us to harm or benefit, whatever we do.
    • This description of the problem depends on an empirical assumption about the effects of our environmental policies on the makeup of the population. I will argue that even if this empirical assumption were false, the problem would remain. Even if we could ensure that the people affected by our conserving resources were identical to the people affected by our wasting them, neither group could be harmed or benefited by what we do. I call it the identity problem, to indicate that it is a variant of Parfit’s2.
  2. The Gift of Life
    • Many people are grateful to their parents for giving them a gift consisting in life itself. Life itself is an odd sort of gift, since there is no one around antecedently to serve as its intended recipient3. Life is at best a benefit that prospective parents toss into the void in the hope that someone will turn out to have snagged it, to his own surprise as much as anyone’s. But once parents have performed this random act of kindness, they may be thought to have no further obligation to the future beneficiary, for whom they have already done more than anyone will ever again be able to do.
    • Of course, babies are needy creatures, and their biological parents generally bear the burden of seeing to it that their needs are met. This allocation of childcare duties may be no more than a social convenience, however, taking advantage of the biological fact that at least one of the parents is bound to be on the scene when the needy creature makes its appearance. Maybe alternative childcare arrangements would be just as good, if only they could be institutionalized, as Plato famously imagined. If proximity to the birth is all that biological parents have going for them as caregivers, Plato’s scheme for community nurseries may be worth considering.
  3. Love and Nonexistence
    • The birth of a child can move us to value judgments that seem inconsistent. Consider, for example, a fourteen-year-old girl who decides to have a baby. We think that the birth of a child to a fourteen-year-old mother will be unfortunate, even tragic, and hence that she should not decide to have one. But after the birth, we are loath to say that the child should not have been born. Indeed, we now think that the birth is something to celebrate—once a year, on the child’s birthday.
    • We may be tempted to say that we have simply changed our minds in light of better information. Before the birth, we didn’t know how things would turn out, and now we know more. But the birth did not bring to light any previously unknown information relevant to our judgments. Or, at least, I mean to restrict my attention to cases in which it didn’t. There may be cases in which we feared specific calamities, such as a birth defect or a descent into juvenile delinquency; and then if such possibilities don’t materialize, we change our minds. I am not speaking of such cases; I am speaking of cases in which we disapproved of the girl’s decision for reasons that are not falsified by subsequent developments, and yet we are subsequently glad about the birth. The child is raised under serious disadvantages of the very sort that we anticipated, but the severely disadvantaged child is still a child to be cherished.

  • See; downloaded 31/05/2015.
  • In this revised version, Part I has been replaced with a paper originally titled "Forget What Might Have Been"

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 3: As Matthew Hanser pointed out, no one can act with the intention of bringing a particular person into existence (“Harming Future People,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 19 [1990]: 47–70, at p. 61).

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - Jan 2020. Please address any comments on this page to File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page