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Parfit and the Non-Identity Problem

April 23, 2013

We talked a bit about the non-identity problem in class on Monday. Here’s the abstract for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s entry on this topic:

The nonidentity problem probes some of our most intuitive beliefs regarding the moral status of acts whose effects are restricted to persons who, at the time the act is performed, do not yet but will exist. As we try to articulate just when, and why, some such future-directed acts are wrong, we find ourselves forced to think carefully about the structure of moral law: is it “person-affecting” in nature or is it “impersonal” in nature? Can, in other words, an act that affects no person who does or ever will exist for the worse be wrong? Or is the wrongness of any particular act dependent (at least in part) on something beyond what that act does, or can be expected to do, to any such person?

You can read the rest here.

The non-identity problem gets its definitive statement, as mentioned before, in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. though I believe I said in class Chapter 17, rather 16 as I should have. Parfit is a remarkable individual in many ways, and that comes through in a well-known interview he did with the New Yorker (you might need a subscription for this, but I suspect it’s accessible through the USAFA domain).

Full disclosure: Parfit was, as I said in class, one of my thesis advisers, and I was a  great admirer of his even before I worked with him, so I make no claim to total objectivity in referring you to his work.


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