The Paradox of Future Individuals
Kavka (Gregory S.)
Source: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Spring, 1982), pp. 93-112
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. I have heard a rumor, from a reliable source, that I was conceived in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Had my father been on duty at Camp Kilmer that fateful weekend, or had there been an earthquake in central New Jersey at the wrong moment, or had any of innumerable other possible events occurred, the particular sperm and egg cells from which I developed would never have joined, and I would never have existed. This observation about the precariousness of my origin reflects a basic fact about identity and existence that seriously complicates attempts to understand our moral relationship to future generations. Which particular future people will exist is highly dependent upon the conditions under which we and our descendants procreate, with the slightest difference in the conditions of conception being sufficient, in a particular case, to insure the creation of a different future person.
  2. This fact forms the basis of a surprising argument, discovered independently by Robert Merrihew Adams, Derek Parfit, and Thomas Schwartz, to the effect that we have no moral obligation to future generations - beyond, at most, the next few - to promote their well-being. The argument goes as follows. Let us assume that sameness of genetic structure is, for practical purposes, a necessary condition of personal identity. Then any event that affects the conditions under which a particular conception takes place (that is, any event that influences which particular sperm and egg cells come together under favorable conditions) will influence who exists. As a result, any proposed policy that would directly or indirectly affect conditions for conception (that is, who mates with whom, and when) on a worldwide scale over a significant period of time would result in an entirely different set of human individuals coming into existence than otherwise would. Now suppose, as seems reasonable, that the various broad-ranging policies designed to promote better living conditions for future generations (for example, population control or resource conservation) would, if practiced, affect conditions for conception worldwide. Further, let us allow that if we do not practice these policies, future people will not be so badly off that it would have been better for them never to have existed.
  3. Granted these assumptions, are we obligated to practice controlled growth policies in order to bring about better living conditions for future people? No, for we harm no one if we follow an alternative policy, call it laissez faire. Consider the individuals in the overcrowded world that would result from laissez faire. They are not worse off than if we had acted to bring about the less crowded state of the world, for in that case they would not have existed. And, by hypothesis, their existence is not worse than never having existed. But these people are all the people there are, if we practice laissez faire. Thus, in doing so, we make no one worse off (than he otherwise would be) and hence do nothing wrong. We are therefore under no moral obligation to future people to pursue controlled growth policies in order to promote their well-being.
  4. This argument poses a paradox. It moves by a correct route from plausible premises about biology, personal identity, and moral obligation to a strongly counterintuitive conclusion. I dub this the Paradox of Future Individuals and shall explore it to see what can be learned from it. First, the view about moral obligation that the paradox presupposes is laid out. Then this view is discussed in light of our intuitions about certain hypothetical situations involving the creation of persons.

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