In one of my earlier posts I introduced the non-identity problem. This time I want to discuss some ways that have been suggested to deal with the counter-intuitive properties of the problem that claim that we cannot harm future persons if their existence depends on the harming action.

The philosopher David Heyd discusses four possible strategies to deal with the non-identity problem and its counter-intuitive properties:

  1. Denying it is a problem to begin with.
  2. Aspiring to solve it in some (yet unknown) integrative moral theory in the future.
  3. Attenuating it so as to make it more palatable to our moral intuitions and theories.
  4. Biting the bullet, i.e. accepting all the implications of the non-identity problem [1]

The first option is taken by utilitarian philosophers who believe in impersonal values. This means that value (such as goodness, justice and liberty) are not attached to particular persons but to the world as such and what is important is that we maximize positive value in the world, no matter how it pertains to single individuals. This view is not bothered by the non-identity problem as the identity of the single person is of no importance. But the avoidance comes with a price and utilitarian theories have a range of major problems to deal with such as the “repugnant conclusion”[2] Because utilitarian theories face some of those problems, impersonal views have been rejected by a wide range of philosophers from John Rawls to Martha Nussbaum.

The second suggested solution is by Derek Parfit (the one who most poignantly formulated the problem) who struggled to find a solution of the problem that combined both his impersonal intuitions and the constraints posed by the non-identity problem. In the end Parfit expressed the hope that future moral theory would make progress in the future and supply us with a theory that could deal with the problem.

The third option according to Heyd can be split into two streams of suggestions. In the first one philosophers attempt to combine both impersonal and person-affecting views in an attempt to deal with the implications of the problem taking on Parfit’s challenge to develop the theory that escaped Parfit. Proponents of the second strategy stick with the person-affecting views as they believe that value is attached to persons and not impersonal. Many of them try to reinterpret or modify certain parameters of the non-identity problem to not have to deal with its counterintuitive properties. One way to do so (not discussed in Heyd’s paper) is by working with a different conception of harm.

The final solution suggested by Heyd is to bite the bullet and accept the implications raised by the non-identity problem, which in my view is less a solution but rather a capitulation to the problem.

Up until today, the discussion is ongoing of which of the four strategies should be preferred to deal with the non-identity problem. I personally find one such proposed solution developed by Meyer[3] particularly convincing and useful for my research. It falls in the third category, promoting a person-affecting view. In his proposed solution Meyer deals with the implications of the non-identity problem, suggesting a threshold notion of harm. He claims that such a threshold understanding of harm is unaffected by the non-identity problem as a conception of harm based on a threshold does not require a hypothetical comparison with the situation that would have occurred in the absence of the harming action. The threshold conception is based on the idea that people should not be worse off than they ought to be. Of course it comes with a number of caveats, one for example is that if we use such a conception we have to define that threshold of harm.


[1] Heyd, D. (2009) The Intractability of the Nonidentity Problem. In: Roberts, M. A. Wasserman, D. T (eds.). Harming Future Persons: Ethics, Genetics and the Nonidentity Problem. Springer. 3-28. p. 5.

[2] The repugnant conclusion is a problem in population ethics, where utilitarian views lead to the absurd conclusion that the world would be a better place if we created as many persons as possible as long as they have lives that are barely worth living. For a detailed discussion of the repugnant conclusion see

[3] Meyer, L. (2003). Past and Future: The Case for a Threshold Conception of Harm. In: In Meyer, L. Paulsson, S. and Pogge, T. eds. Rights, Culture and the Law, Themes from the legal and political philosophy of Joseph Raz. Oxford University Press. 143-159.