Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"Costs" vs. "Harms" and Rights in Light of the Non-Identity Problem

So I've been talking a lot about the implications of the Non-Identity Problem for the way we think about our obligations to future people, and I came up with the idea that perhaps we want to talk about "costs" to future people, as opposed to "harms," because the concept of harm doesn't seem to apply. In my most recent post on the subject, I created a thought experiment which (I hope) demonstrated that costs can be imposed on people in spite of the fact that these costs don't represent harms (I'll be referring to the thought experiment in this post, so you might want to have read it before continuing on here). I concluded that post wondering what ethical significance we could attribute to these costs, since they don't actually represent harms.

In an earlier post, I suggested that Sidney's de-pantsing couldn't possibly be a violation of any rights held by him:
...when we talk about an infringement of rights, we compare a certain outcome to a baseline. In a paradigm case, we might say that if I infringe your right not to be robbed by robbing you, I "move you away" from the baseline of you not being robbed, in the "direction" of you being robbed. And if I infringe your right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, I must be bringing it about that you do not inherit an unspoiled Earth. And indeed I do. But I can't coherently say that I "move you away" from a baseline of inheriting an unspoiled Earth. So instead I have to say that I simply place you in a situation in which you are not on the baseline.

Is this morally the same sort of thing? If the critical element of a rights infringement is that I bring it about that you aren't on the baseline, then my action might qualify as one. But we have to acknowledge that your rights are not to "remaining on the baseline" or "not being moved away from the baseline." They're purely to "being on the baseline," even though you couldn't possibly have been there. We would have to say that the "movement away" from the baseline is not an essential part of the equation. But honestly, I think it is.

In his boldly titled essay, "The Non-Identity Problem," James Woodward disagrees. He discusses the choice of an energy policy which will cause a nuclear catastrophe in the future, and writes, "...the sort of analysis I have been exploring explains the wrongfulness of the choice of the nuclear policy by focusing on the difference between the situation of the nuclear people under the choice of the nuclear policy (when they are killed, injured, etc.) and an (unattainable) baseline situation in which the nuclear people exist and these violations of their rights do not occur. This difference represents a loss which, arguably, one can coherently think of as happening to the nuclear people."

It's almost amusing how similar Woodward's point is to what I've been saying. Really, there is only one major difference between our thinking. Woodward thinks that these events which represent departures from an abstract baseline represent violations of rights, where I do not. Why does Woodward think that this is the case? He writes, "Presumably what the nuclear people will complain about is the fact that many of their number have been killed, injured, poisoned, and so forth. Presumably they will not say, "We recognize that nothing wrong has been done to us. What awakens our indignation is rather that even better off people would have been produced if the alternative energy policy had been chosen."" And I agree. Just as Sidney would complain about having had his pants pulled down, and that the problem with Vlad's actions seems to be tied to the costly event that Sidney will be put through, it does seem that what's wrong with the nuclear policy is that it brings it about that people are killed, injured, poisoned, etc.

But remember that we have assumed as a precondition that all of these people had lives that were worth living. A reasonably strong case could seemingly be made that while these people would complain about these things, and think that they were wronged, their anger would be irrational. By saying that their rights had been violated, they would need to say that their existence violated their rights. And as long as they didn't wish that they had never been born (or as long as it didn't actually "harm" them to be born), we might say that their complaints represent a desire to have their cake and eat it to. Accordingly, I find myself unconvinced by Woodward's point.

It seems to me that a better place to start would be with a statement like, "It is wrong to act in such a way that a person comes into existence, upon whom the consequences of your actions will impose costs, but who will not have been provided with proper compensation for those costs." In my thought experiment, costs were imposed upon Sidney by Vlad's actions, and he was not provided with any form of compensation. In the same way, the nuclear people are not compensated for the damage done to them by the nuclear catastrophe. Accordingly, this principle would say that Vlad acted badly, and the policymakers acted badly, which I think reflects our intuitions about the situations. Further, it would capture an intuition, which Woodward and I share, that if we provided proper compensation to future people for costs our actions impose on them, then our overall actions would be acceptable.

There's another important factor which is dealt with by this principle, which was touched on by Steve Vanderheiden in his essay, "Conservation, Foresight, and the Future Generations Problem." Even if, as I have discussed, we think that Sidney and the nuclear people do not have their rights violated by the actions of the people in the past, we don't think that Sidney or the nuclear people would look back on those actions with approval. We might imagine Sidney saying, "Sure, I wouldn't trade the opportunity to live for not getting my pants pulled down. But still, Vlad was wrong to launch the rocket; he never should have done it. It's true that if he had acted rightly, I wouldn't exist. But I can accept that without wishing that I had never been born."

I think I'm happy with this, so I'll stop here.

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