Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 9, pp 2371–2390 | Cite as

Impossible obligations and the non-identity problem

  • Robert NoggleEmail author


In a common example of the non-identity problem (NIP), a person (call her Wilma) deliberately conceives a child (call her Pebbles) who she knows will have incurable blindness but a life well worth living. Although Wilma’s decision seems wrong, it is difficult to say why. This paper develops and defends a version of the “indirect strategy” for solving the NIP. This strategy rests on the idea that it is wrong to deliberately make it impossible to fulfill an obligation; consequently, it is wrong for Wilma to create Pebbles because doing so makes it impossible to fulfill her obligation to protect her child from harms like blindness. A challenge for the indirect strategy is the well-known “rights waiver problem”: Since Pebbles’s very existence depends on Wilma’s having made herself unable to fulfill an obligation to Pebbles, Pebbles is likely to waive that obligation. I address this problem by recasting the indirect strategy in terms of a non-grievance evil. I argue that deliberately making it impossible to fulfill a moral obligation manifests a defective attitude toward morality—an attitude which sees moral obligations as things to be dodged whenever they are inconvenient. Next, I argue that acting on this attitude is a wrong-making feature that is independent of any wrong that might be done to Pebbles. I conclude that Wilma’s decision remains wrong even if Pebbles waives any objection to it.


Non-identity problem Procreation Ethics Ought implies can 



I am grateful to David Boonin and to several anonymous reviewers for extensive and challenging comments on previous drafts of this paper. An early version of this paper was presented at the 2015 meeting of the Northwest Philosophy Conference, and I am grateful to the audience for helpful discussion.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and ReligionCentral Michigan UniversityMount PleasantUSA

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