Rights, interests, and possible people
Parfit (Derek)
Source: Samuel Gorovitz, Andrew L. Jameton, Ruth Macklin, John M. O’Connor, Eugene V. Perrin, Beverly Page St. Clair & Susan Sherwin (eds.) Moral problems in medicine, Prentice-Hall, 1976, pp. 369-375
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction1 (arbitrarily truncated)

  1. Do possible people have rights and interests? Professor Hare has argued that they do. I shall claim that, even if they don't, we should often act as if they do.
  2. We can start with future people. Suppose that the testing of a nuclear weapon would, through radiation, cause a number of deformities in the people who are born within the next ten years. This would be against the interests of these future people. These people will exist whether or not the weapon is tested, and, if it is, they will be affected for the worse – they will be worse off than they would otherwise have been. We can harm these people though they don't live now, just as we can harm foreigners though they don't live here.
  3. What about possible people? The difference between these and future people can be defined as follows. Suppose that we must act in one of two ways. "Future people" are the people who will exist whichever way we act. "Possible people" are the people who will exist if we act in one way, but who won't exist if we act in the other way. To give the simplest case: if we are wondering whether to have children, the children that we could have are possible people.
  4. Do they have rights and interests? Suppose, first, that we decide to have these children. Can this affect their interests? We can obviously rephrase this question so that it no longer asks about possible people. We can ask: can it be in, or be against, an actual person's interests to have been conceived? I shall return to this.
  5. Suppose, next, that we decide not to have children. Then these possible people never get conceived. Can this affect their interests? Can it, for instance, harm these children?
  6. The normal answer would be "No." Professor Hare takes a different view. We can simplify the example he discussed. We suppose that a child is born with some serious handicap or abnormality, which is incurable, and would probably make the child's life, though still worth living, less so than a normal life. We next suppose that unless we perform some operation the child will die; and that, if it does, the parents will have another normal child, whom they wouldn't have if this child lives. The question is, should we operate?
  7. Hare suggests that we should not. […]


For the full text, see Parfit - Rights, interests, and possible people.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:
  • Presented as a lecture at Case Western Reserve University.
  • This essay is a portion of an address written in 1973 as a companion piece to R.M. Hare's "Survival of the Weakest".

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)

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