We would like to congratulate our post-doc, Corey Katz, on the publication of his article "Contractualism, Person-Affecting Wrongness and the Non-identity Problem" in the journal Ethical Theory & Moral Practice.
As a primer to the paper, Corey writes:
Typically, we can morally criticize actions based on their effects on individuals who exist whether the action is done or not. Let’s say Smith punches Jones and steals his wallet. Jones, a person who already exists, is made worse-off and morally wronged by Smith’s action. We can explain the moral wrong here in straightforward “person-affecting” terms.
The “non-identity problem” can arise in selection cases where a moral agent’s action - that either shapes the timing of reproduction or harms people in the distant future - is a necessary condition both for (i) the subject suffering a serious bad like incurable blindness and (ii) for the existence of that very person. Let’s say that despite being blind the person still has a life worth living, full of the goods of the taste of chocolate, the sound of music, the joy of falling in love, and the like. In that case, a tension arises between the person-affecting intuition that the moral agent has harmed or wronged the person by causing her to exist with incurable blindness and the fact that, had the agent acted differently, the person would have never had the opportunity to exist to enjoy all of life’s goods. Thus, it is not clear that the agent’s action has harmed or wronged the subject in such cases.
In response to this tension, some have looked to consequentialist moral theories that make no reference to outcomes for particular people. Others have recently appealed to a Kantian form of moral theory centered around the idea of justifiability. They argue that, in selection cases, the agent morally wrongs the subject because the agent cannot justify his actions to the subject born with incurable blindness. In reply, I argue that whether this is so is ambiguous. Even so, I work out a different sort of Kantian response to the problem.