Jessica Thalia Cruz Menezes, who is eight months pregnant, at home in Recife, Brazil, 13 March 2016. The Zika virus has been rampant in the Recife region. Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty
The Zika virus raises questions about our ethical obligations towards people who might or might not exist in the future
Imagine that a 14-year-old girl, Kate, decides that she wants to become pregnant. Kate’s parents are generally broadminded, and are supportive of her long-term relationship with a boy of the same age. They are aware that Kate is sexually active, like 5 per cent of 14-year-old girls in the United States and 9 per cent in the United Kingdom. They have provided her with access to birth control and advice about using it. However, they are horrified by their daughter’s decision to have a child, and they try to persuade her to change her mind. Nevertheless, Kate decides not to use birth control; she becomes pregnant, and gives birth to her child, Annabel.
Many people might think that Kate’s choice was morally wrong. Setting aside views about teenage sexual behaviour, they might argue that this was a bad decision for Kate – it will limit her access to education and employment. But let’s imagine that Kate wasn’t academically inclined, and was going to drop out of school anyway. Beyond those concerns, people might worry about the child Annabel. Surely Kate should have waited until she was older, to give her child a better start to life? Hasn’t she harmed her child by becoming pregnant now?
This issue is more complicated than it first seems. If Kate had delayed her pregnancy until, say, age 20, her child would have been conceived from a different egg and sperm. Because of this, Kate would have a genetically different child, and Annabel would not have existed.
Kate could defend her actions: ‘I haven’t harmed my child. If I hadn’t conceived when I did, Annabel would never have been born.’ With this in mind, it might seem that Kate did not harm Annabel. After all, Annabel couldn’t blame her mother for having her so early: as long as Annabel has a life that she judges worth living, she should be grateful to her mother for becoming pregnant at age 14. Though many might still have the feeling that Kate did wrong by her child, it is hard to pinpoint a reason why the girl’s choice was wrong.
The puzzle of how to think about such cases is called ‘the non-identity problem’. The late philosopher Derek Parfit of the University of Oxford described and explored this problem in his influential book Reasons and Persons (1984). The ethical issue at the heart of the non-identity problem is about the reasons behind our actions. If doing something will harm someone – if it will make them worse off than they would otherwise have been – then we clearly have a reason not to do it. Parfit called these kinds of reasons ‘person-affecting’ – they affect specific people for better or for worse. Most of our morality and our laws centre around just these sorts of person-affecting reasons.
However, the non-identity problem arises when we face decisions that change which people will exist. In those cases, person-affecting reasons do not help us. In our case with the 14-year-old Kate, delaying her pregnancy would change who would exist in the future. It wouldn’t benefit any particular child; there is no person-affecting reason for Kate to delay her pregnancy.
In such cases as Kate’s, perhaps there is a different type of moral reason that could apply. Parfit suggested that actions can be morally worse impersonally if they cause people to exist who have worse lives than other people who could have existed. On this basis, Kate’s decision might be impersonally wrong, because the child who is born now has worse prospects than the child who could have been born later.
This example might seem far-fetched, but Parfit pointed out the very significant implications of the non-identity problem for energy policy and the environment. He imagined two policies about the use of resources. One policy, which he called ‘Depletion’, would lead to the unchecked use and eventual depletion of our natural resources. In the short term, people would be generally better off, but in several generations’ time it would lead to people on Earth living much lower-quality lives. The alternative policy, ‘Conservation’, would conserve natural resources. In the short term, people’s quality of life would not be as good, but in the long term, overall, it would be much better. However, Parfit pointed out that these different policies would affect the timing of conception and the identity of people in several generations’ time, since they would potentially have a major impact on the whole of society and the way in which people lived their lives. The people who live in a future ‘depleted’ world would be completely different from the population who would live in the ‘conserved’ world.
Parfit’s point that the world populations under the two policies will eventually be completely different seems reasonable. But many would still believe that choosing Depletion is wrong. Person-affecting reasons can’t explain this intuition; the policies won’t be better or worse for specific people. Our response to such cases suggests that we should also be concerned about impersonal reasons, reasons that don’t relate to specific, identifiable people…