What duty do you have to future beings?
Is it fair to class anonymous sperm donors as ‘deadbeat dads’?
There is a movement to get anonymous donor conception outlawed
Environmentalists often talk about the duties we have to future generations. But it’s not clearly precisely why individuals born in decades to come should blame us specifically for their predicament.
The English philosopher Derek Parfit has introduced what’s known as “the non-identity problem”. In short, it says that since any change in our behaviour today will lead to different people being born in the future, then we can’t rightly be said to have harmed those who are, in fact, born. Why? Because if we acted differently they wouldn’t have the “gift of life”.
The conundrum feeds into a broader debate about responsible parenthood, and, more controversially, surrogacy and sperm donation. If you have a child and abandon it, does the “gift of life” cancel out the harm you have done to your offspring?
No, replies David Velleman, professor of philosophy at New York University, because such a gift is non-existent. “Life is not a gratuitous benefit but a predicament with which the recipients require a kind of assistance that they will justifiably call on their biological parents to provide.”
His thinking leads to a view on assisted reproduction that, he admits, “seems grossly unenlightened”, but he argues “what passes for enlightenment today . . . strikes me as the mirror image of the purported enlightenment of the eugenics movement a century ago. Back then, the people who claimed to know better than common sense believed that a person’s biological heritage was all-important; today they believe that it is utterly insignificant”.
Velleman provides today’s idea: Anonymous sperm donation is wrong because the offspring are denied knowledge of their biological heritage .
Can you explain, first of all, ‘the non-identity problem’?
David Velleman: “One way I like to put it is that if we had turned the lights off more often or showered less often we would have had sex at different times with different people, and so different children would have been born. And Parfit argues that, therefore, if instead we had wasted those resources and damaged the environment, the children who would be born could not be said to have been harmed by our behaviour because they wouldn’t have been born if we had behaved differently.
“Therefore, according to Parfit’s version of the problem, no future person is harmed by our behaviour.”
How do you answer the problem?
“I try to argue it’s a false problem. I don’t think that the concept of harm should be understood as a comparison between how well off someone is and how well off someone would have been if one had behaved differently. I don’t think that harm can be measured by a comparison between someone’s actual life and someone’s alternative, possible life that they would have lived.”
How does such thinking impact on environmentalism?
“What’s wrong with irresponsible behaviour today with respect to the environment and resources is not that particular future individuals will be worse off than they otherwise would have been.