Contractualism and the Non-Identity Problem


This paper argues that T.M. Scanlon’s contractualism can provide a solution to the non-identity problem. It first argues that there is no reason not to include future people in the realm of those to whom we owe justification, but that merely possible people are not included. It then goes on to argue that a person could reasonably reject a principle that left them with a barely worth living life even though that principle caused them to exist, and that current people could not justify creating people with barely worth living lives on the grounds that it caused those people to exist.

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  1. 1.

    Two notable exceptions that I will address in this paper are (Kumar 2009, 2015) and (Parfit 2011)

  2. 2.

    A prominent example of the distinction between harming and wronging can be found in (Woodward 1986).

  3. 3.

    Imagine gene therapy is done on an existing embryo to remove a genetic disability. On the psychological view, the person who results after the therapy is a different person from the one that would have resulted without the therapy because each will have different experiences that affect their psychological state and therefore their identity (Belshaw 2000).

  4. 4.

    Scanlon writes, for instance: “When we judge a person to have acted in a way that was morally wrong, we take her or him to have acted on a reason that is morally disallowed…or to have failed to see the relevance or weight of some countervailing reason which, morally, must take precedence” (Scanlon 1998, p. 201).

  5. 5.

    His example asks us to imagine that we can choose a policy of Conservation where we save resources for the future and sacrifice a small amount of quality of life ourselves, and at the same time cause a particular group of future people to exist with a high quality of life. The alternative is to choose Depletion where we deplete resources in order to increase our own standard of living thereby creating a different group of future people who will enjoy a quite low standard of living.

  6. 6.

    Many thanks to the anonymous reviewer for Ethical Theory and Moral Practice for pressing this objection.

  7. 7.

    Woodward’s example of Jones being denied boarding on a doomed airplane due to his race is another example where he could reasonably reject a principle allowing racial discrimination, even though the discrimination resulted in a higher level of well-being compared to what he would have had if he had not been discriminated against.

  8. 8.

    Finneron-Burns (2015)

  9. 9.

    I put aside the fact that a burden of prohibition might be felt by current people who would wish to create children with barely worth living lives. I think this is a valid consideration in determining the permissibility of procreation, but does not directly bear on the non-identity problem.

  10. 10.

    Some utilitarians might point to another countervailing reason which is the creation of lives with positive utility. I do not have space to fully address this option, but I do not believe this reason would ‘count’ within the contractualist framework as it is not a personal reason.


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Versions of this paper were presented at the Universities of Oxford, Pavia, and Manchester; I am grateful to these audiences. I am also very grateful to Simon Caney and David Miller, Tim Campbell and the anonymous reviewers for Ethical Theory and Moral Practice for extremely helpful written comments on earlier drafts. This work was undertaken with the financial support of the Swedish Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Finneron-Burns.

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Finneron-Burns, E. Contractualism and the Non-Identity Problem. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 19, 1151–1163 (2016).

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  • Non-identity problem
  • Contractualism
  • T.M. Scanlon
  • Future generations
  • Intergenerational justice