The Non-Identity Problem

The Non-Identity Problem

Francois Tremblay

I’ve mentioned the Non-Identity Problem (NIP) many times because it is the linchpin of any position which seeks to undermine antinatalism. It is a fairly reasonable argument, and, if true, would undermine the whole enterprise of this book, which is to expose the child and woman sides of the triangle of procreation. If the NIP is true, then there can be no child side of the triangle.

The argument is very simple: future persons do not exist, therefore it is meaningless to speak of their rights or states of being. And if that’s the case, then it is meaningless to say things like “procreation fails to take into account the values of the child” or “it is better not to have been” (to borrow the name of Benatar’s book). How can it be better not to be, if future persons do not have states of being to compare with actual persons? How can procreation take into account values that do not exist?

There are three major answers to the NIP.

1. Objection from causal linkage

This objection consists of saying that the NIP is really just a semantics game, and that it serves to obscure the cause and effect relationship between the intent to procreate, fetuses, and children. In order to illustrate this, let me use the analogy of a machine being built in a factory.

Suppose that an engineer is supervising the manufacture of a new piece of factory equipment, which is expected to produce some sort of finished product, let’s say computers. Someone else pours over the blueprints and come up to the engineer and tells him that the equipment will produce defective computers that will short-circuit on their users.

Now, if the engineer replied to this by saying, “your warning is completely useless because the defective products don’t exist yet, therefore there’s no point in talking about it right now,” what would we think of such a response? We would think it to be bizarre, because the causal chain between the error in the blueprint and the defective computers is clear to us, and the fact that the defective computers do not yet exist has no bearing on it. They may not exist at that moment, but they will exist eventually, if the project is completed.

Likewise, if the defective computers end up killing someone, we would not come to the conclusion that the engineer or the factory are not responsible because the computers did not exist at the time. As long as one can prove that they were aware of the defect, they would be held responsible. This is just simple logic.

Any future child does not exist right now, by definition. But we know that children will be born in the future, as they have been born for as long as humanity has existed. And we can predict that those children will live similar kinds of lives to those that have been lived in the past, or those we live right now. They will live in the same world we live in, and like us they will have desires, values and feelings. That’s all we need to establish in order to talk about the children’s side of the procreation triangle.

We can put this in the context of a fetus, as well. We generally believe that women shouldn’t drink or take drugs while they’re pregnant. But why should this be the case? After all, the fetus (at least early on in the pregnancy) is not a person, it’s only a future person. Sure, the fetus is an actual physical object, but it’s not a person. It has no interests or values. If the NIP is correct, we cannot make any causal connection between a person and something that is not a person yet, and that includes fetuses. But that goes against all the scientific evidence available on the subject.

One further confirming piece of evidence is that NIP-style arguments aren’t used in any other field of inquiry or scientific discipline. For example, we think it makes perfect sense to talk about concerns regarding how damage to the environment will affect future generations, even though those future generations don’t exist yet. No one pipes up to say, “those future generations you’re talking about don’t exist yet, so they have no values and interests, and it makes no sense to talk about ‘their lives’ being affected by future conditions.” If they did, their argument would be called nonsensical.

Likewise, no one talks about a physicist’s prediction about an experiment as being useless because the experiment hasn’t happened yet. No one comes up to a physicist and says “well, your paper about this theoretical particle is stupid because there’s no point in talking about a particle that we don’t know exists yet.” Again, that would just be silly.

Based on this, it is clear to me that people who use the NIP are disingenuous debaters. I highly doubt that any of them would be willing to use the NIP in any other context but antinatalism.

2. The NIP doesn’t actually apply to most antinatalism arguments

The NIP is usually brought up in response to the Asymmetry. Remember that the Asymmetry compares the suffering and pleasure contained in two states of affairs: one where a person X exists and one where that person X does not exist. It is not a comparison between two individuals (one which exists and one which does not exist), but a comparison of two states of affairs. Neither side of the Asymmetry is concerned with the state of a future person.

To make this clearer, imagine a person who is deciding whether to commit suicide. What exactly are they comparing? They are not comparing their current state with the state of their future dead self, for there is no such thing as a “dead self” (selfhood only applies to living organisms). No, I imagine that they are looking at their anticipated future, and thinking whether they would rather have that or end their life at that moment: basically, comparing the state of their life (so far) to the anticipated life they might lead if it continues.

In both cases, we’re not comparing people, but states of affairs. Neither the antinatalist nor the suicide base their argument on the state of future/dead persons. If the concept of suicide makes sense (regardless of your position about it), then there’s no reason why the concept of antinatalism wouldn’t make as much sense. The main difference in both examples is that we’re flipping the order of existence and non-existence: in the case of birth, we go from a state where person X does not exist to a state where person X begins to exist, while in the case of suicide we go from a state where person X exists to a state where person X no longer exists.

3. Objection from basic moral talk

I have already argued that the NIP makes discussion of any future-talk impossible. This fact has another far-reaching consequence. Take any mundane moral statement, such as “you shouldn’t punch Robert in the face” (note that whatever position you hold on meta-ethics is irrelevant here). It seems very clear: if you uphold this moral principle to me, and I then go and punch Robert in the face, you would find this reprehensible.

But if I was a proponent of the NIP, I could then reply something like this:

“When you said that, neither future-me (the person who punched) or future-Robert (the person who got punched) existed. So your principle couldn’t possibly have applied to either of them, as it’s pointless to talk about people that don’t yet exist. At best, your principle only applied to me and Robert at the exact moment you said the sentence. Anything else is gibberish.”

I don’t expect you to agree with this reply, as it is absolutely insane. But it is perfectly in line with the NIP. The only reason why we can say that my present self and my future self are the same person is because we acknowledge the causal linkage between them. I know I am the same person than the me from five, ten or twenty years ago because I know that my selves in the past are the cause of my current self.

As I discussed, the NIP denies the possibility of causal linkage. It cannot connect a future person to an actual person, or a blueprint to a machine. If it cannot do that, then it cannot recognize a present self and a future self as the same person, either.

Another consequence of the NIP is that we cannot make an meaningful statement about fictional persons, since after all fictional persons do not actually exist. For instance, most people in Western countries would agree with the statement “Santa Claus is fat and jolly,” even though there really is no such person as Santa Claus (if you still believed in Santa Claus until now, then I apologize for breaking the bad news). Although this objection does not apply specifically to the way NIP is used against antinatalism, it further highlights its contradictions with reality. Talk of fictional persons is so important in our daily lives that any arguments which denies its existence should be rather suspicious, to say the least.


This contribution is an excerpt from Francois Tremblay’s new book A New Approach to Procreative Ethics (

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