- Suppose we discover how we could live for a thousand years, but in a way that made us unable to have children. Everyone chooses to live these long lives. After we all die, human history ends, since there would be no future people. Would that be bad? Would we have acted wrongly?
- Some pessimists would answer No. These people are saddened by the suffering in most people’s lives, and they believe it would be wrong to inflict such suffering on others by having children. In earlier centuries, this bleak view was fairly plausible. But our successors would be able to prevent most human suffering.
- Some optimists would also answer No. These people believe that most people’s lives are worth living. But they accept two Strong Narrow Person-Affecting Principles. On the Narrow Telic Principle:
One of two outcomes cannot be worse if this outcome would be worse for no one. On the Narrow Deontic Principle:
An act cannot be wrong if this act would be worse for no one.
- It would not be worse, these principles imply, if there were no people, since there would be no one for whom that would be worse. Nor would we be acting wrongly if we all chose to have no children, thereby ending human history.
- These principles are, I believe, deeply mistaken. Given what our successors could achieve in the next million or billion years, here and elsewhere in our galaxy, it would be likely to be very much worse if there were no future people. But these principles are not obviously mistaken.
- We may doubt that anything could be bad if it would be bad for no one.
For the full text, see Parfit - Future people, the non-identity problem, and person-affecting principles.
- Editor’s Introduction: Derek Parfit submitted a draft of this essay to Philosophy & Public Affairs on January 1, 2017, in a state that he regarded as unfinished. Parfit died unexpectedly in the early hours of the morning on January 2. The draft contained no notes, and it had various typographical errors and other small mistakes that Parfit would certainly have corrected before publication. The word “[unfinished]” appears at the end of the draft. In a cover note, Parfit indicated that the submitted draft was missing a conclusion and that he hoped to improve the article further with the aid of reviewer comments. After being accepted, the draft was sent to Jeff McMahan, who bears primary responsibility for editing Parfit’s manuscripts for posthumous publication and with whom Parfit had discussed successive drafts of the article. McMahan supplied bibliographical citations, made minimal changes to correct typographical and other minor but potentially distracting errors in the text, and inserted a few notes. He has done so in close consultation with Larry Temkin, with whose work Parfit is in dialogue at various points in the article, and made alterations only with Temkin’s agreement. The editors are grateful to McMahan and Temkin for their invaluable assistance in bringing this article to its final published state.
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