Non-Identity for Non-Humans


This article introduces a non-human version of the non-identity problem and suggests that such a variation exposes weaknesses in several proposed person-focused solutions to the classic version of the problem. It suggests first that person-affecting solutions fail when applied to non-human animals and, second, that many common moral arguments against climate change should be called into question. We argue that a more inclusive version of the person-affecting principle, which we call the ‘patient-affecting principle’, captures more accurately the moral challenge posed by the non-identity problem. We argue further that the failure of person-affecting solutions to solve non-human versions of the problem lend support to impersonal solutions to the problem which avoid issues of personhood or species identity. Finally, we conclude that some environmental arguments against climate change that rely on the notion of personal harm should be recast in impersonal terms.

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  1. 1.

  2. 2.

    Hanser (1990) is perhaps the one exception.

  3. 3.

    We will not defend the view that our existence is precarious in the way needed to generate the NIP. However, the view is defended at length by Parfit (1984) and Parsons (2003).

  4. 4.

    Adapted from various sources, including (Holtug 2004; Norcross 1999; Parfit 1984; Roberts 2003; L. S. Temkin 2003)

  5. 5.

    Clare Palmer (2011, 2012) offers a notable exception to this trend. Palmer points out that the NIP can arise in an array of cases involving non-human animals, particularly selective breeding practices.

  6. 6.

    Markie says that the NIP “is that of explaining the moral status of actions in which the agent’s choices determine who will exist, thus limiting whether a particular alternative can make specific persons worse off than they would have been otherwise” (Markie 2005, p. 290). Smolkin describes the challenge posed by the NIP in the following way: “a person performs an act that is a necessary condition for some person to come into being, and this act will (foreseeably) result in that future person having a life that contains certain serious hardships but that is, on balance, worth living. Our response to such actions is that they are (at least, prima facie) morally objectionable, but it is puzzling what the nature of this objection could be, since the act is not worse for the person that comes into being” (emphasis added, Smolkin 1999, p. 194).

  7. 7.

    According to one common way of thinking about patiency, X is a moral patient just in case X’s interests have non-instrumental moral significance. One may, of course, question the extent to which some of the aforementioned beings are patients in the proper sense of the term, but a criterion of patiency is not our concern in this paper.

  8. 8.

    Obviously we do not have the space here to canvass the variety of options on offer, but there is a robust debate in the environmental ethics literature about moral considerability and moral status, defending a range of positions, from biocentric individualism to ecocentric holism.

  9. 9.

  10. 10.

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    We should add a caveat here: we are setting aside concerns about the phenomena of tipping points and accelerated climate change due to feedback loops, the obtaining of which could, under the right circumstances, be expected to manifest noticeable harmful effects for non-human animals during their lifetimes (Cox et al. 2000; Lenton et al. 2008). If these possibilities were to obtain, the current generation’s emissions, insofar as they were responsible for reaching the tipping point, could be properly described as harmful for the current generation of non-human animals. Catastrophic climate phenomena like tipping points and accelerated climate could be expected to drastically affect the reproductive behavior of non-human animals, however, thus amplifying the non-identity effect. Therefore, their obtaining would actually undermine the view that the current generation’s emissions are harmful for future generations of non-human animals.

  14. 14.

  15. 15.

    We thank a referee for this journal for their helpful comments regarding these two points.

  16. 16.

    Emphasis added.

  17. 17.

    Even the most staunch advocates of animals rights will not object to the deception of an animal for the sake of securing a minor benefit to either the animal itself or its owner.

  18. 18.

    Hanser (1990).

  19. 19.

    Hanser (1990), p. 58)

  20. 20.

    Pafit’s principle Q (1984) is perhaps the best known version of this impersonal solution: “If in either of two outcomes the same number of people would ever live, it would be bad if those who live are worse off, or have a lower quality of life, than those who would have lived” (Parfit 1984, p. 360). Principle Q is not a principle about wrongdoing, but it can be easily modified to be one. When it is so modified, it implies the existence of wrongdoing that does not harm or wrong any individual. It thereby entails the rejection of PAP and the personal view of harm.

  21. 21.

    See Anglin (1977); Hurka (1982a) and Hurka (1982b) for discussions of averagist theories.

  22. 22.

    See Hurka (1983); Ng (1989), and Sider (1991) for discussions of diminishing marginal value theories.

  23. 23.

    These consequences are painstakingly articulated in Huemer (2008, 911—916).

  24. 24.

    Geach (1956), Kraut (2007), and Thomson (2001) have raised objections to the claim that a world can be better than another simpliciter or in a perspective-neutral sense. We are unmoved by these objections. See Klocksiem (2011) for a defense of perspective-neutral intrinsic value.

  25. 25.

    We thank a referee for this journal for pressing us to offer a more robust reply to the concern about the RC.

  26. 26.

    Acknowledgements removed for blind review.


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Correspondence to Duncan Purves.

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Purves, D., Hale, B. Non-Identity for Non-Humans. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 19, 1165–1185 (2016).

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  • Non-identity problem
  • Derek Parfit
  • Non-human animals
  • Harm
  • Future generations