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Impossible obligations and the non-identity problem

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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.

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  1. A different version of the NIP (not discussed here) arises when a society decides among policies which both affect the well-being of future people and change their identities.

  2. This problem only arises if we claim that Wilma’s imposing a non-comparative harm on Pebbles violates an obligation to Pebbles. Harman avoids making this claim, and thus avoids this problem.

  3. This paragraph draws on ideas found in Boonin (2014), p. 111–113.

  4. This point was raised by an anonymous reviewer.

  5. As an anonymous reviewer observes, some readers may regard this approach as avoiding rather than solving the NIP. Such readers are welcome to substitute “avoid” for “solve” in what follows.

  6. The final clause addresses cases like this one (which was posed by an anonymous reviewer): I expect you to ask me to drive you to the airport on Tuesday. I do not want to do this, but I know that when you ask me, I will nevertheless agree unless I have a prior commitment. So, before you ask, I schedule a root canal for Tuesday. When you ask for a ride, I decline, citing the root canal. Without the final clause, PDI would implausibly condemn scheduling the root canal, since doing so makes it impossible to do what I would have otherwise been obligated to do. With the final clause, PDI does not condemn my scheduling the root canal, since it is my declining to agree to drive you to the airport that makes doing so non-obligatory rather than my making it impossible by scheduling the root canal.

  7. David Boonin raised this objection in comments on an earlier version of this paper.

  8. More precisely: Anyone who has a child is obligated to protect that child from blindness; consequently, a childless person does not violate this obligation (no one is obligated to have a child in order to fulfill the obligation to protect a child from blindness).

  9. An anonymous reviewer raised this objection.

  10. As an anonymous reviewer observes, this obligation is likely to exist as part of the obligation that Wally owes to the university.

  11. Lotz (2011), pp 115f., draws a similar conclusion about depraved procreative intentions.

  12. This possibility was raised by an anonymous reviewer.

  13. This worry was suggested by an anonymous reviewer.


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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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Correspondence to Robert Noggle.

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Noggle, R. Impossible obligations and the non-identity problem. Philos Stud 176, 2371–2390 (2019).

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