Friday, May 24, 2013

The Nonidentity Problem

There is a problem in the philosophy of morality called The Nonidentity Problem. A member of the studio audience, Evan Dawson-Baglien, asked that I discuss it in the context of future desires. that a member of the studio audience put as follows:

The Nonidentity Problem postulates a woman who is considering becoming pregnant, but has some sort of temporary illness that somehow injures a baby in utero so that its life would be more difficult (but not so horrible that it would prefer to have never been born). The question is; would it be morally good for the woman to wait until she recovers from the illness before becoming pregnant?

Our moral intuitions, as this commenter states, seems to be that the mother should wait and conceive a healthier baby after she recovers from her illness. She has done something wrong if she does not do so.

However, one cannot argue that she harms or in anyway wrongs the baby she does not have by waiting. She would be saying, "You - the near-term baby with the less satisfying life. You're out of here. A different person with a happier life, you're in." Unless that baby suffers so badly that death would be preferable (and we are assuming it is not the case), she is better off alive than dead, and is still being given the best life she could possibly have.

If it were the same child - if her choice would be to refrain from taking alcohol and have a healthy child or to take alcohol and have a sickly child - we say she harms the child that exists. However, since - in the case we imagine, a particular child is not being made sick. Rather, a sickly child is being replaced - in a sense - by a healthier future child.

The commenter also suggested a potential answer to come from desirism.

2. Most people would feel sorry for the injured baby and feel a desire to help it. They have good reason to praise and condemn the woman for her actions.

The first part of this suggestion is accurate, but incomplete.

People have more than just sympathy and a desire to help at stake. They have many other strong reasons to promote in others a preference for healthy children over sickly children.

Imagine a small, primative community - a small family tribe - faced with this same question. A fertile woman in this tribe knows that getting pregnant during "the sickness season" tends to result in sickly children. The tribe has lived through the sickness season enough times to learn this relationship. If she puts off pregnancy until the sickness season is over, she has a better chance of having a healthier child.

We can more easily see in this case the reasons that exist in this tribe for preferring a healthy child over a sickly child. It is not just that tribe members will feel sorry for the child and want to help. It is also the case that a healthy child can make more of a contribution to the community - helping to fulfill desires for food, shelter, transportation, and caring for others who are sick or injured or getting old.

It is still true today that we have many and strong reasons to promote interests that will result in productive contributors to society than interests that produce needy dependant people. We have many and strong reasons to condemn the woman who would choose a sickly child now over a healthy child later.

This, by the way, suggests that there are reasons for establishing preferences that put off procreative sex until one has established a home environment best suited to raising children who will be net contributors to society (i.e., after marriage). Condemning the people who conceive a child they are not ready to care for follows the same reasoning as condemning people who conceive a child during "the sickness season" rather than waiting for the sickness season to pass.

In the original comment, Evan Dawson-Baglien then wrote:

This sounds workable at first, but it implies that if the woman was alone on another planet or something she would have done nothing wrong.

Actipually, it does not have that implication.

It implies that, in a world where the woman is alone, there are no reasons for action that exist on that world to condemn her actions. If desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and the woman is the only being with desires, then it follows that the only reasons for action that exist belong to the woman. Furthermore, ex hypothesi, her reasons for having a sickly child now outweigh her reasons for having a healthy child later.

We want to condemn that choice. One way to do so is to postulate that there is some reason for action that exists to be found in the "healthy child later" - a type of reason that exists independent of desire. However, what is this alternative reason for action? How does it work? How do we find out about it?

There is a better explanation for what is going on that does not require inventing these mysterious desire-independent "reasons for action that exist".

When we use the words "permissible" and "wrong", we are speaking in this world - in the here and now. The woman may be alone on the planet. However, we, here, on present-day earth, surrounded by billions of other people, are not on that planet with her. And the people we are talking to are other humans in the here and now as well.

One of the major uses of moral language is to mold the desires of those around us. To say that something is wrong is not only to report that people have many and strong reasons to condemn it. The phrase itself carries that condemnation that it says people are justified in delivering. To say that something is wrong is to say that those who have an attitude of condemnation and aversion towards that state are better people than those who are indifferent to or like such a state.

To say that the woman has done nothing wrong is to tell other people on this world to have and to promote a general attitude of indifference to what she has done.

However, we now need to ask, "What reasons for action do we have for promoting this attitude of indifference in the here and now?" That attitude of indifference will likely likely make similar behavior more common in this world. We actually have many and strong reasons to prevent that. We have many and strong reasons to reject the claim that there is "nothing wrong" with the woman's choice of having a sickly child now, even on a world where she is alone.

To state it directly, the claim that she "has done nothing wrong" is false. That statements means that the people of this world - here and now - the audience to whom the speaker of that statement is speaking - should have an attitude of indifference towards her actions. That is simply not true. Instead, we have any and strong reasons to promote an aversion to the woman's choice - to praise those who have such an aversion and to condemn those who do not - among fellow humans in the here and now. The statement that accurately makes that claim is the statement that that the choice she makes is wrong.

Again, this is consistent with saying that there is no reason for action that exists in her world for making a different choice. It happens to be true that no reason for action exists on her world for making a different choice. However, that does not imply that the people of this world would benefit from an attitude of indifference - which is what we would be saying if we said "she did nothing wrong".

The woman making the decision may be alone on her own world. However, we, who are judging her, did not follow her there. We are still here, surrounded by people whose desires and aversions have an impact on whether our current desires will be fulfilled or thwarted. Telling people to be indifferent towards the woman's choice creates attitudes in the here and now that puts the fulfillment of our desires in this world at risk. Consequently, we tell people - what is in fact true - to have an aversion to the option of having a sickly child over a healthy child. We do this by saying that she did, in fact, do something wrong


Peter Hurford said...

"Instead, we have any and strong reasons to promote an aversion to the woman's choice - to praise those who have such an aversion and to condemn those who do not - among fellow humans in the here and now."

What reasons are those?

Kuroneko (Aaron Zeng) said...


These are reasons such as our desires for healthy contributors to society rather than dependent, needy people. These desires aren't inherent, so if the woman lived in a world all on her own, there would be no one else to say that her decision was "wrong". However, we condemn the woman's choice because of our desires.

@Mr. Fyfe, I hope I interpreted this the way you meant. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kuroneko - that seems accurate.

The main issue is that we cannot fine tune desires and aversions precisely. We cannot learn to like peas at 3:00 and intensely dislike them at 3:01.

An indifference towards a woman having a sickly child on a world where she is alone risks creating an indifference that we have reason not to promote in this world.

If we could precisely tune our indifference to that world we would have no reason to promote an aversion.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I should add that, even where it is possible to promote certain distinctions in people's desires, there is a question of whether or not it is worthwhile to do so.

In this case, we may be able to cause people to have an affective distinction between women who choose sickly children over healthy children in this world and an imaginary woman alone on an imaginary world.

But what "reasons for action" exist for going through this effort? We have more of a reason to leave this affective distinction blurred and focus on areas where affective distinctions have important real-world consequences.

@blamer said...

It's been a while I know, but I'm going to jump right in.

This: "One of the major uses of moral language is to mold the desires of those around us."

Why must we talk in good versus evil? "Our moral intuitions... the mother should wait... She has done something wrong if she does not do so." Why not good versus better?

Perhaps I'm alone in moralising that the ethicist OUGHT to re-frame such imagined) moral dilemmas as a chance to better" our black-and-white thinking.

Most moralisers MIGHT reason the source of their moral intuition is "feel sorry for the injured baby... [claiming] good reason to praise and condemn the woman for her actions". Yet I would posit that moralisers are more similar to myself (though yes I'm wary that's a famous bias of brains) -- I feel myself reasoning from inside the woman's current shoes and certainly NOT the unborn's future mind.

In summary,
- MORAL LANGUAGE pretends our strong feelings bubble up from clever thoughts (really, vice versa)
- ETHISTS can do better than play into our default bias towards black-and-white moral language
- EMPATHY is (by default) a loyalty to (imagined) similar minds

Care to comment/correct?

Apologies in advance I've I'm working outside the framework of your blog, Mr Alonzo Fyfe... I suppose I cannot help but moralise & bounce my ideas off you all, the safely like-minded :)