Open Book Publishers logo Open Access logo
  • button
  • button
  • button
GO TO...
Contents
Copyright
book cover
BUY THE BOOK

6. Persons in Prospect1

I. The Identity Problem

Derek Parfit calls it the non-identity problem.2 It’s the problem of how to treat future persons given that any attempt to treat them better may result instead in their never being born. For example, the people who will have inadequate resources in the twenty-second century because of our wastefulness today will owe their existence to human couplings that never would have occurred if we had lowered our thermostats and showered less often. As those future people commute on foot or read by candlelight, they will have to acknowledge that we couldn’t have conserved resources for them, since our conserving would have prevented them from existing. Because the people affected by our wastefulness will not be identical to those who would have been affected by our conservation, there appear to be no future individuals for us to harm or benefit, whatever we do.

This description of the problem depends on an empirical assumption about the effects of our environmental policies on the makeup of the population. I will argue that even if this empirical assumption were false, the problem would remain. Even if we could ensure that the people affected by our conserving resources were identical to the people affected by our wasting them, neither group could be harmed or benefited by what we do. I call it the identity problem, to indicate that it is a variant of Parfit’s.

The Metaphysics of Survival

The identity problem, unlike the non-identity problem, hangs on controversial assumptions about the sameness of persons. It is fairly uncontroversial that two different pairs of gametes would result in the birth of two different persons, but it is more controversial whether one and the same pair of gametes would result in the birth of the same person irrespective of whatever else happened, which is the presupposition on which the identity problem is based. Moreover, Parfit himself believes that, even if the same person would be born from the same pair of gametes under different circumstances, that person would evolve, under different circumstances, so as to yield adults who weren’t related in the ways that make sameness matter.

How sameness-of-person matters, Parfit addresses in the context of sameness across time, which constitutes a person’s survival. When it comes to survival, according to Parfit, what matters — or, as he puts it, what is “worth caring about” — is the future existence of someone to whom we bear a relation of psychological connectedness and continuity. Parfit’s definition of psychological connectedness begins with Locke’s memory theory of personal identity: “Let us say”, Parfit says, “that between X today and Y twenty years ago, there are direct memory connections if X can now remember having some of the experiences that Y had twenty years ago.”3 Parfit then expands on Locke’s theory like this:

We should … revise [Locke’s] view [of personal identity] so that it appeals to other facts. Besides direct memories, there are several other kinds of direct psychological connection. One such connection is that which holds between an intention and the later act in which this intention is carried out. Other such direct connections are those which hold when a belief or a desire, or any other psychological feature, continues to be had.

Parfit defines psychological continuity as the ancestral of connectedness. That is, X’s being psychologically continuous with Y consists in there being some (possibly empty) series of subjects S1, S2, … such that X is directly connected to S1, who is directly connected to S2, … who is directly connected to Y. Parfit describes this relation between X and Y as consisting in “chains of psychological connectedness”, which may overlap.

Initially, Parfit says that what matters in survival is a relation, labeled R, which is a combination of psychological connectedness and continuity. Parfit subsequently qualifies his view, by claiming that some psychological connections are more important than others. The more important connections, he claims, are the ones that involve features that are distinctive of the individual, or features that the individual values in himself.4

I suspect that Parfit introduces these qualifications partly because he equivocates on the phrase ‘what matters in survival’.5 Sometimes Parfit interprets the question “What matters in survival?” to mean “Why should one have a first-personal interest in surviving?”6 Sometimes he takes the question to mean “Why should one have any first-personal concern for the self who will survive?”7 These two questions exhaust Parfit’s ostensible topic, but he obscures this topic with other readings of the question what matters in survival. Sometimes he takes the question to mean “What is it about one’s present self whose survival in future selves is worth wanting?”8 Sometimes he even takes it to mean “What kind of survival is worth wanting?”9

The latter readings of the question are not equivalent to the former. One’s grounds for taking a first-personal interest in future persons may not depend on their having features of oneself that one has an interest in preserving, or their living lives that one has an interest in living. Conflation of these issues crucially affects Parfit’s discussion of problem cases — in particular, the one that he calls the “Branch-Line Case”.10

In the Branch-Line Case, Parfit imagines a “scanner” that, at the press of a green button, destroys and analyzes his entire body, including his brain. The scanner is linked to a “Replicator” that assembles a molecule-by-molecule copy of him on Mars. He then imagines that the scanner is upgraded to a model that leaves his original body intact, so that there are duplicate versions of him, one on each planet. Finally, he imagines that the upgraded scanner has damaged his heart and that he will consequently die within a few days. Having received this dire prognosis, he speaks with his Replica on Mars by interplanetary videophone:11

Since my Replica knows that I am about to die, he tries to console me with the same thoughts with which I recently tried to console a dying friend. It is sad to learn, on the receiving end, how unconsoling these thoughts are. My Replica then assures me that he will take up my life where I leave off. He loves my wife, and together they will care for my children. And he will finish the book that I am writing. Besides having all of my drafts, he has all of my intentions. I must admit that he can finish my book as well as I could ….

If we believe that my Replica is not me, it is natural to assume that my prospect, on the Branch Line, is almost as bad as ordinary death. I shall deny this assumption. As I shall argue later, being destroyed and Replicated is about as good as ordinary survival.

Parfit later explains his view of the case as follows:12

It may be slightly inconvenient that my Replica will be psychologically continuous, not with me as I am now, but with me as I was this morning when I pressed the green button. But these relations are substantially the same. It makes little difference that my life briefly overlaps with that of my Replica.

If the overlap was large, this would make a difference. Suppose that I am an old man, who is about to die. I shall be outlived by someone who was once a Replica of me. When this person started to exist forty years ago, he was psychologically continuous with me as I was then. He has since lived his own life for forty years. I agree that my relation to this Replica, though better than ordinary death, is not nearly as good as ordinary survival. But this relation would be about as good if my Replica would be psychologically continuous with me as I was ten days or ten minutes ago.

Parfit does not explain why the survival of a forty-year-old Replica would be less desirable than that of a Replica produced within the past ten minutes. He seems to imply that the survival of the forty-year-old Replica would be less desirable because he has “lived his own life for forty years” and would be less likely to carry on the life that will be cut short at Parfit’s death. At the Replica’s creation forty years ago, he might have finished the book that Parfit was writing then, but he now lacks the beliefs, desires, and intentions that would enable him to finish the book that Parfit is writing now and will not survive to finish. Parfit’s judgment in this case thus illustrates his view that what matters in survival is the continuation of that in oneself or one’s life which one finds important.

Parfit concludes his discussion of the Branch-Line Case with the admission that his judgment is counterintuitive:13

… I admit that this is one of the cases where my view is hardest to believe. Before I press the green button, I can more easily believe that my relation to my Replica contains what fundamentally matters in ordinary survival. I can look forward down the Main Line where there are forty years of life ahead. After I have pressed the green button, and have talked to my Replica, I cannot in the same way look forward down the Main Line. My concern for the future needs to be redirected. I must try to direct this concern backwards up the Branch Line beyond the point of division, and then forward down the Main Line. This psychological manoeuvre would be difficult. But this is not surprising. And, since it is not surprising, this difficulty does not provide a sufficient argument against what I have claimed about this case.

Parfit’s claim, remember, is that although the Replica on the Branch Line will not be meaningfully related to the Original on the Main Line after forty years, the two are meaningfully related, at least for a short while, after the lines diverge.

Of course, none of these considerations come into play in the non-identity problem, which proceeds from the assumption that differences in our environmental policies would lead to the creation of different persons to begin with. But I want to consider policies that would be consequential for future generations without greatly affecting their composition.

For example, whether we stockpile nuclear weapons or ban them may someday make the difference between life and death for billions, but unless and until it makes that difference, it may affect the lives of only a few thousands. Across most of the world, the same people will copulate at the same times and under the same conditions irrespective of whether nuclear warheads are lurking on submarines under the sea. And the products of those unions will go on to live the same lives, unless and until the submarines fire their weapons. If the nuclear holocaust occurs in 2150, most of its victims will be the same people as would have been born if we had banned nuclear weapons in 2015. We might therefore think that they will have been harmed by our failure at arms control.

I think otherwise. The sameness of persons across these scenarios would not entail that people in one scenario would have been harmed — not, at least, in the ways that matter, according to Parfit. In order to see why, let’s return to Parfit’s Branch-Line Case.

When Parfit contemplates that case, in what sense does he find himself directing his concern “up” one line and “down” the other? Clearly, ‘up’ and ‘down’ in this case represent the direction of time. Parfit later says that psychological continuity is a transitive relation in either temporal direction but not “if we allow it to take both directions in a single argument”.14 That is, the reason why Parfit is not psychologically continuous with any of his Replicas is that the psychological connections between them run first backward in time, up to the point of division, and then forward, down the “Main Line”. But why should this change of temporal direction make any difference? Parfit doesn’t say. He simply admits that when directing his self-concern through time, he has difficulty switching directions.

I suggest that concern for his “Main Line” Replica is difficult for Branch-Line Parfit because the direction of time is also the direction of causation, which is the direction in which information can be conveyed. The change of direction severs internal communication between Parfit and his Replica, in the sense that their psychological connections cannot carry information between them. Parfit’s conception of psychological connections has all along implied that they are channels of information, but he has chosen instead to emphasize the relations of resemblance between their input and output — between experiences and the corresponding memories, intentions and the corresponding actions, psychological features and their subsequent instantiation — rather than the fact that these inputs and outputs are connected in ways that convey information.15 Yet Parfit’s difficulty in feeling concern for his Replica seems to indicate that internal communication with earlier or later selves is significant.

I now turn to an explanation of why such communication is significant. After that, I will return to the non-identity problem.

Selfhood in Dreams

Last night I dreamed that I was Wittgenstein brandishing a poker at Karl Popper. (I am prone to nightmares.)16

Now, when I say, “I dreamed that I was Wittgenstein,” my first use of ‘I’, in “I dreamed”, refers to me, David Velleman, who groaned in his sleep and then woke up remembering a nightmare. What about my second use of ‘I’, the one in “I was Wittgenstein”? That use of ‘I’ occurs within a that-clause reporting the content of my dream. That is, I had a dream with the content “I am Ludwig Wittgenstein brandishing a poker at Karl Popper.” I might even have included this content in the dream itself, since I might have dreamed of declaring, “Here am I, brandishing a poker at Karl Popper!” The reference that ‘I’ would have had within the dream itself (“Here am I…”) determines the reference of ‘I’ in my dream-report (“…dreamed that I was…”). To whom would the first ‘I’ have referred?

I didn’t dream that David Velleman was Wittgenstein. While dreaming, I was temporarily oblivious to the existence of David Velleman — oblivious, in fact, to my own actual existence under any name or description whatsoever.17 Had I dreamed of saying “Here am I”, the pronoun ‘I’ would have referred to the speaker of those words, and the speaker of those words would have been, not the actual David Velleman, but the dreamed-of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Indeed, I could have dreamed of saying, “Here am I, Ludwig Wittgenstein, brandishing a poker!”

Yet I couldn’t report the dream by saying, “I dreamed that Ludwig Wittgenstein was Ludwig Wittgenstein brandishing a poker at Karl Popper.” In “I dreamed that I was Wittgenstein,” the second ‘I’ refers to Wittgenstein, but it can’t be replaced by an expression that refers to him as Wittgenstein. And of course it doesn’t refer to me, David Velleman. What accounts for the use of ‘I’ in my dream-report?

What accounts for it is that the dream was about Wittgenstein from the first-personal point of view. In the dream, everything was represented from Wittgenstein’s perspective. The meaning rule for the pronoun ‘I’ is that it refers to the speaker, who is the subject of the perspective from which the pronoun is spoken. The dream represented everything from Wittgenstein’s perspective, and the pronoun ‘I’ spoken from the same perspective would have referred to Wittgenstein. And when I, David Velleman, report the content of the dream, I refer to Wittgenstein as ‘I’ in order to indicate that the dream was from his perspective — that he (and not Popper, for example) was the “I” in the context of the dream.

Selfhood in Memories

Now consider a veridical memory: I can remember when my grandfather took me to the Empire State Building as a child. To whom does ‘me’ refer in this memory-report?

Of course, you will say that ‘me’ refers to David Velleman. But at the moment, that answer begs the question, since we are trying to evaluate theories of personal identity, which aim to explain how one and the same person, David Velleman, could have a six-year-old self in 1958 and a sixty-two-year-old self today — or, in other words, how that six-year-old and this sixty-two-year-old could belong to one and the same person. Conveniently for us, the six-year-old went by the name of Jamie. So we can ask our question like this: When I say, “I remember when my grandfather took me to the Empire State Building”, does ‘me’ refer to David or to Jamie?

Obviously, it isn’t a sixty-two-year old who appears with his grandfather in my memory. In my memory, my grandfather (he was called Chick) is taking a six-year-old to the Empire State Building — the six-year-old named Jamie. But if I say that I remember when Chick took Jamie to the Empire State Building, I would leave out the bit about Jamie’s being me. My memory isn’t about Chick taking some six-year-old to the Empire State Building and calling him Jamie. I remember him taking the six-year-old me. But of course the expression ‘the six-year-old me’ describes the very phenomenon that we’re trying to understand. How could a six-year-old have been a past self of this sixty-two-year-old; how could he have been me?

One answer would be that my memory simply contains the thought that the character in my memory was me, the one having the memory — as if in having the memory, I point to the six-year-old and think “That’s me.” Another answer would be that my memory is accompanied by the thought that it is a memory, meaning that it represents an experience that I, the rememberer, once had — as if in having the memory, I think, “Here’s an experience from my past.”

Neither of these answers seems satisfactory. I can have a memory without realizing that it is a memory, and yet it can still be about the time when my grandfather took me to the Empire State Building. And if I remembered instead a time when my grandfather took my whole kindergarten to the Empire State Building, I could mentally point to any one of the children and think “That’s me,” but that’s not the sense in which I do in fact remember that my grandfather took me.

I propose that the sense in which I remember that he took me is the same as the sense in which I dreamed that I was Wittgenstein. The memory represents things from the perspective of the child being taken to the Empire State Building. I have a memory from a perspective in which ‘me’ would refer to Jamie — a perspective in which Jamie was “me”. In the context of my dream, “I” was Wittgenstein; in the context of my memory, Jamie is “me”.

Here is a difference between the memory and the dream. The memory gets to be “of” or about me in a different way from that in which the dream was “of” or about Wittgenstein.

The perceptual experiences that made up my dream — the sights and sounds — didn’t pick out Wittgenstein and Popper as the people involved. They were just perceptual experience from the perspective someone or other, as brandishing a poker at someone or other. In what sense, then, was it a dream about Wittgenstein and Popper? The dream-experiences must have been somehow accompanied by the thought “Wittgenstein brandishing a poker at Popper”.18 In this respect, a dream is like a game of make-believe. I can pretend to be Wittgenstein brandishing a poker at Popper, but I can’t do it just by waving a poker at you. I have to say, “Let’s pretend I’m Wittgenstein …” or something of the sort. I have to stipulate who “I” am in the make-believe; similarly, there must have been some silent thought stipulating who “I” was in my dream.

Not so with a memory. My memory is about Jamie without stipulation. Why? Because the memory is a record of an experience, and the experience was Jamie’s, hence a context in which Jamie was “me”. If Jamie had taken a photograph with his Brownie camera, it would have been an image of the Empire State Building as photographed by his camera. If I retrieved that picture from my album and scanned it into my computer, the image on my screen would also be an image of the Empire State Building as photographed by Jamie’s camera. Similarly, Jamie’s visual experience and its traces in my visual memory are both images of the Empire State Building as seen by Jamie. He and I don’t need to accompany those images with the thought “Empire State Building as seen by Jamie”. That’s what the images are, whether we think so or not.

So whereas the visual images in my dream are about Wittgenstein only by courtesy of some stipulating thought, the visual images of my memory are really about Jamie, because he experienced them and I am retrieving traces of them. Consequently, Wittgenstein can’t be the “I” of my dream unless I know who he was, so that I can (while dreaming) have a thought specifying him as the one whose experiences I am dreaming. But Jamie can be the “I” of my memories even if I have no idea who he was — even if I have amnesia about my so-called “identity”. Jamie can be the “I” of my memories so long as he is the one whose experiences I am remembering, in the sense that I am retrieving traces of them from memory.

Here is another way to put the contrast. I can dream of Wittgenstein in the first person, but only by picking him out in the third person, so as to specify (while dreaming) that he is the “I” of my dream. By contrast, I can remember Jamie in the first person without any further thought, simply because my memory is a context in which he really is “me”. You might say, I’m on first-personal terms with Jamie. To be on a “first-name basis” with someone is to be in a position to call him by his first name without being introduced; to be on a first-person basis is to be in a position to refer to him in the first person without stipulation.

I suggest that the psychological connections that matter for personal survival are connections of genuine first-person reference — connections of the sort that enable me to think about Jamie in the first person without further thought. I can think about him as “me” simply because I have first-personal thoughts that are “of” him in actual fact.

The relevant connections are causal. Like photographs, experiences are “of” whatever they are received from, and their copies are of the same things by virtue of the causal process of copying. Note, in fact, that causation is more important than resemblance. After scanning a photograph into my computer, I can apply all sorts of visual effects to it without changing what it is an image of. A distorted image of the Empire State Building is still an image of the Empire State Building. Similarly, a faulty memory of the Empire State Building can still be a memory of the Empire State Building, provided that it is causally derived from an experience (even a distorted experience) of the Empire State Building.

Here, then, is a clue to the flaw in Parfit’s reasoning about the Branch-Line Case. Shortly after the branch in the road, Parfit and his Replica are psychologically very similar, having inherited the same memories, beliefs, desires, plans, and traits from their common predecessor. But Parfit and his Replica are not causally connected with one another: neither one can inherit traces of the other’s experiences, and so neither can be the “I” in the other’s thoughts. In short, they aren’t on first-personal terms. Hence they aren’t connected in the way that matters for personal survival.

Selfhood in Anticipation

Consider now a different connection that conducts first-person reference through time. I think I’ll take my grandchildren to the Empire State Building. I have grandchildren, and I’m going to take them to the places where my grandfather took me (with some regrettable exceptions, like the old Yankee Stadium). Here I am referring to a particular future grandfather. We need a name for him, so that we can ask what makes him my future self. My eldest grandchild calls me Boppa, so let’s give the name ‘Boppa’ to the future grandfather who will take his grandchildren to the Empire State Building, among other landmarks.

I may be forming a plan — that is, a thought designed to initiate the outing that it represents. Alternatively, I may simply be predicting rather than planning the outing. If I’m predicting it, however, I am not merely predicting it; I’m predicting it with a feeling of anticipatory excitement. In either case, my thought is one that can be resolved, or given closure, by the outing that it represents — resolved or given closure either when my plan is carried out or when the associated excitement is discharged.

The reason why my present thought can be resolved in the future is that it will be stored in my memory, ready to reemerge in Boppa’s consciousness at a later date, when its sense of determination or expectancy can be discharged by the corresponding action or experience. Boppa will find himself with the thought “I am going to take my grandchildren to the Empire State Building,” and he will be in a position to see it through to its practical or experiential fulfillment by interpreting the first-person pronoun without any further thought — hence as referring to him. Indeed, my present thought includes this future resolution of itself. It represents a future outing as implementing or verifying this very thought as retrieved from memory.19 So when Boppa interprets the first-person pronoun as referring to him, he will be interpreting the pronoun as was intended when the thought was formed. I don’t mean that the pronoun was intended to refer to Boppa; I mean that it was intended to refer to whoever would retrieve the thought from memory and then be in a position to interpret the pronoun, without further stipulation, as referring to him.

In this respect, my thought is like a message in a bottle.

Suppose that I am stranded on a desert island and I launch a bottle containing a note that says, “If you find this message and bring it to my wife in New York, she will reward you with $10,000.” To whom does ‘you’ refer in the context of my note? It refers to whoever finds the note. (If the note is never found, my use of ‘you’ fails to refer.) Alone on my desert island, I have no one to whom I can refer in the second person — no one with whom I am, so to speak, on second-personal terms. In casting my message on the waters, I am hoping to get onto second-personal terms with someone, by succeeding in my attempt to refer with the pronoun ‘you’. That referential hope is part and parcel of my hope to communicate with someone by way of the message.

So it is with my thought of a future outing. I represent the outing as taken by someone who has retrieved this very thought and can resolve it without any further thought about who is meant by ‘I’. I hope that there will be a subject to take himself without further thought as the “I” in the context, just as I hope that there will be a reader to intercept the second-personal reference in my message. If my hope for the thought is fulfilled, I will have succeeded in thinking with it about a future subject in the first person. What I am hoping, then, is to get onto first-personal terms with someone in the future, someone who will fulfill my present intention or expectation.

The case of my future-directed thoughts goes beyond this analogy in one important respect. Just as I can frame a first-personal thought that Boppa will be able to interpret in the future as referring to him, he will be able to think first-personally about having himself formed that thought in the past. That is, he will be able to think “I planned …” or “I expected …” and thereby think of me without stipulating that I am who he means by ‘I’. He will therefore fulfill an intention or resolve an emotion that he conceives as having belonged to himself — that is, to someone with whom he is on first-personal terms.

Selfhood in Other Possible Worlds

What matters in survival, I suggest, is being able to think about the future as resolving this very thought. What matters is being able to have thoughts that aren’t closed off in the sense of being barred future closure. Of course, I care whether the future will answer my thoughts in the sense of bearing them out, by making them come true. But I care even more, and more fundamentally, whether my thoughts will be answered in the sense that future actions or experiences will be felt as fulfilling them, as if concluding a musical call-and-response. I don’t just care that my hopes will be fulfilled; I care that they will survive to be discharged in a sense of gratification. I don’t just care that my fears will not be realized; I care that they will be allayed or relieved.

I also care about communicating on first-personal terms with the subjects of those experiences. I think about their life “from the inside” not just by thinking about it from their point of view but also by conceiving of that point of view as one in which this very thought will emerge from memory, so that the thought itself will be “inside” the anticipated experiences, and my present self will be internally accessible to their subjects as “me”. My thought therefore presents itself as inside the point of view from which it represents future events.

This inside view of their experiences has an intimacy that I value. One important aspect of intimacy is the ability to dispense with referential cues. We recognize long-married couples, for example, by their telegraphic style of conversation, in which they use pronouns without antecedents — without even following one another’s gaze — because of already knowing what is salient to one another. Similarly, I can think of a future self as “me” and rely on him to know that I meant him — that is, the self to whom he will naturally attach the reference.20 Because referential cues are the means of coordinating different points of view, doing without them gives the impression of occupying a single point of view. Like a long-married couple, then, I and my future self seem to share a single point of view because of being referentially in sync.

If I am right about what matters in survival, then the relevant aspect of psychological connectedness is not the one that interests Parfit. What interests Parfit, as we have seen, is the relation of resemblance between the termini of psychological connections: the experiences and their corresponding memories, the intentions and the corresponding actions, the acquired attitudes or traits and their persisting instantiation. These psychological causes and effects often perpetuate various features of mine, and Parfit believes that those features which are distinctive of me, or valuable to me, count more than others in constituting what matters in survival. As I have argued, however, the aspect of psychological connectedness that really counts is the causal relation that establishes an informational channel to carry anticipations forward to their anticipated cadences, and to carry future-directed references forward to find their referents, including the future “me”. Whether the same connections preserve any of my features is relatively unimportant.

My account of what matters in survival thus explains why Parfit has difficulty caring first-personally about his Replica in the Branch-Line Case. He can neither store thoughts to be retrieved by his Replica nor retrieve thoughts that are stored by him, and so he can neither experience his future as responding to the Replica’s thoughts nor expect the Replica’s future to be experienced as responding to his. The causal tides can carry no internal messages between them. Even if the Replica finishes Parfit’s current book-project, its completion will not discharge the hopes that Parfit has now, on the Branch Line, and so Parfit can no longer aim his hopes at such an experienced fulfillment. As far as he is concerned, his book will be finished by someone else — someone who is like him, perhaps, but who is not himself, because of being in no position to complete the phrases of his current mental life.

I thus arrive at the conclusion that Parfit’s difficulty in caring first-personally about a Replica is unsurprising for reasons that do not deprive the difficulty of philosophical significance. On the contrary, his difficulty in caring first-personally about his Replica is unsurprising for the very good reason that he and his Replica are not on first-personal terms.

My conclusion has implications that reach beyond the realm of science fiction. A person’s Replicas are not the only candidate selves from whom he is causally isolated in a way that blocks internal communication, thus preventing them from being his selves in fact. Also causally isolated from the person are his other possible selves — himself as he or his life might have been. I will describe this merely possible person as himself in other possible worlds.

Before embarking on this topic, I will need to regiment my language carefully. From now on, I will use the term ‘selves’ for those subjects who are connected to me by the relation that conveys first-personal concern. Since the present question is whether inhabitants of other possible worlds can bear that relation to me, it amounts to the question whether I have other possible selves at all. The candidates for selfhood in this case are inhabitants of other possible worlds who are numerically identical to the person I am — that is, to David Velleman. I am not questioning whether David Velleman exists in other possible worlds: I think he does. What I am questioning is whether David Velleman as he might have been is any self of mine.21

But what shall we call him in relation to me? We can’t refer to him as another possible self, since his selfhood with me is the relation that is currently in question. I propose that we call him my identical.

I often wonder what would have become of me if I hadn’t decided to go back to graduate school in 1978. Maybe I would have become a freelance writer. There are possible worlds in which I did become a freelance writer: in some of them I am living just a few blocks from where I live today. I wonder whether I have children in those worlds. And so on.

The James David Velleman living in those worlds diverged from my actual path in 1978, and since then he has followed a very different path from mine. My relation to this identical is therefore similar to Parfit’s relation to his Replica in the Branch-Line Case. In order for my concern to reach the other possible David Velleman, it would have to travel “backwards up the Branch Line”, rewinding my years as a philosopher, back to the moment of my decision to go to graduate school, “and then forward down the Main Line”, playing out the life I would have lived if I had decided to become a writer instead. In my view, this maneuver cannot convey genuine self-concern, because it does not follow a possible channel of information between me and its object, and so it cannot direct my concern to someone meaningfully conceived of as “me”.

In short, my relation to the person I would have been in another possible world does not include what matters in survival. Although I am the same person as the David Velleman who became a freelance writer, he is not a self of mine in the sense that calls for me to identify with him, or to identify my interests with his. He and I may be numerically identical, but — as Parfit himself puts it — identity is not what matters.22

Back in 1978, of course, I was in a position to look down many alternative paths and to form first-personal thoughts that would have succeeded in picking out the traveler on any one of them, had he been the one to end up carrying the traces of those thoughts, available for later retrieval from memory. Looking forward, then, I could have entertained self-concern for many different possible future selves, concern that might in each case have turned out to be about a future person.

After the point of decision, however, alternative paths were closed to me not only in practice but also in first-personal thought. Whatever befalls the travelers on those paths is what would have befallen David Velleman, if I had decided differently, but his being David Velleman is, so to speak, nothing to me: it doesn’t matter in the same way as my being the one who might undergo different fates in the future, depending on what I now decide.

The Irrationality of Grudges and Regret

Here is a reason for not regretting what might have been — a reason other than the ordinary, pragmatic reason that nothing can be done about it. It is not just practically useless to have regrets about what might have been; it’s metaphysically confused, because the world as it might have been does not include anyone for whom I can have first-personal concern. I can perhaps envy the people for whom things might have gone differently, as I envy any other person. But I cannot think of them as my more fortunate selves, because they aren’t selves of mine in the relevant sense, and so I cannot regard what they have as something that I myself might have had.

At issue here is only a particular kind of regret, namely, regret about what might have been. Another kind of regret, often called agent-regret, is about what my actual selves did in the past. There is no confusion in regret over past mistakes, since I am first-personally related to the agents who made them. The confusion begins when I regret not having today what I might have had if I hadn’t made those mistakes back then.

The person who might have been better off today if I had done differently in the past — that person is inaccessible to my self-concern. Of course he is who I might have been — that is, who could have been a future self of my past self, because he is on first-personal terms with someone with whom I am still on first-personal terms. But as it turns out, selfhood is not transitive: another future self of my past self is not a self of mine. The fate of a merely possible self of mine is no more pertinent to me than anyone else’s, since I can only imagine undergoing that fate.

Thus, I shouldn’t regret not having what I could have had, because no self of mine could have had it. I can rationally envy the David Velleman who could have had what I don’t. I can also rationally gloat over what I have that he wouldn’t have. Envy and gloating are appropriate with respect to others. But regret is a first-personal emotion, and what I could have had could have been had only by someone with whom I am not on first-personal terms.

But suppose that someone stole my identity and emptied my bank account. I am now reduced to poverty, daydreaming about the comfortable life I would have had if only my passwords had been longer. Surely, the thief harmed me, and we are tempted to say that the harm consists precisely in my being poorer than I might have been. But according to my view, it seems, I have no grounds for resenting the harm, because I am not first-personally related to the David Velleman who would have been better off.

My view still leaves me grounds for resentment, however — namely, that the thief harmed my past self by depriving him of a comfortable future. When I complain, “I could have been better off,” I don’t mean, “I have a better-off possible self”; I mean, “I (in the past) had the chance of being better off in the future.”

The moral upshot is that resentment should wane as time passes. If, on the contrary, my resentment should be proportional to the difference between my present actual self and other present possible David Vellemans, then it should increase as time passes, since those other David Vellemans would have had capital to invest and I didn’t. The difference between our financial circumstances has therefore grown over time, and so should my resentment, if rational resentment is proportional to the difference between contemporaneous possible David Vellemans. But rational resentment is rather vicarious resentment on behalf of my past self, who recedes further and further into the past, hence further and further from my first-personal concern. In short, rationality favors letting bygones be bygones, in proportion to how far bygone they are.

The Identity Problem

An extension of this reasoning leads to the conclusion that I cannot rationally resent past actions that were taken before I was born. Resentment of past actions must be based on their having deprived my past selves of something they might have had, including possible futures. But the David Vellemans born in possible worlds that had already diverged from ours are merely my identicals, not my selves, since there is no possible channel of internal communication between us. And I don’t have any prenatal selves who might have looked forward to alternative futures consisting of my actual life and the lives of those counterfactual David Vellemans. So I have no past selves who were deprived of those futures. In sum, I am not on first-personal terms with anyone who could have been deprived of anything by actions taken before I was born.

Non-identity is thus inessential to Parfit’s problem. Recall that the non-identity problem is how our wasting resources today can harm people who will be born in the future, given that our conserving resources would have prevented those people from being born. The people who will inherit a depleted Earth from us wouldn’t have been born to enjoy the plentiful Earth that we might have left behind us instead. How, asks Parfit, will they have been harmed by their inferior inheritance?

But it now turns out that even if the people who inherit the depleted Earth would still have been born to enjoy the plentiful one, they will have no complaint against us on self-regarding grounds, since they will have no first-personal relationship to their counterfactual counterparts. They will be no worse off than they might have been, because the people who would have been better off are their mere identicals, not their selves.

Parfit thinks that the non-identity problem raises a moral objection to evaluating the effect of our actions on future generations in what he calls person-affecting terms — that is, in terms of whether our actions today will make future persons better or worse off than those same persons would otherwise have been. The moral objection to person-affecting evaluation is that it yields the morally unacceptable conclusion that we cannot harm future generations by depleting the Earth’s resources, polluting the environment, wrecking just institutions, or doing anything else that would cause different people to be born.

I have argued that person-affecting evaluation is not only morally unacceptable but metaphysically confused, and that it is confused even with respect to courses of action that would not affect who is born. People simply cannot be harmed or benefitted by actions taken before their births. The circumstances into which they are born, including the range of their possible futures, cannot make them better or worse off than anyone first-personally related to them would have been; nor, of course, do they have any past selves who could have been harmed or benefitted in that way. People’s initial endowments at birth are the baseline against which all harms and benefits to them must be assessed.

Parfit thinks that the alternative to person-affecting evaluation is to evaluate our effect on future people in terms of the average or total welfare they would enjoy, irrespective of who they would be. Unfortunately, those methods of evaluation lead to other morally unacceptable conclusions. The result seems to be a stalemate between methods of evaluation, none of which we can accept.

The way out of the stalemate, of course, is to abjure consequentialist evaluation of any kind. The right way to think about our obligations to future generations is to think, not about providing for their well-being, but about respecting their humanity, an approach that does not take account of who or how many they are. I will develop this approach in Parts II and III of this series.

II. The Gift of Life23

They will arrange for the suckling of the children by bringing their mothers to the nursery when their breasts are still full, taking every precaution to see that no mother recognizes her child.

Plato, Republic V.ii.460e

Nor is there any way of preventing brothers and children and fathers and mothers from sometimes recognizing one another; for children are born like their parents, and they will necessarily be finding indications of their relationship to one another.

Aristotle, Politics II.iii.1262a

Many people are grateful to their parents for giving them a gift consisting in life itself. Life itself is an odd sort of gift, since there is no one around antecedently to serve as its intended recipient.24 Life is at best a benefit that prospective parents toss into the void in the hope that someone will turn out to have snagged it, to his own surprise as much as anyone’s. But once parents have performed this random act of kindness, they may be thought to have no further obligation to the future beneficiary, for whom they have already done more than anyone will ever again be able to do.

Of course, babies are needy creatures, and their biological parents generally bear the burden of seeing to it that their needs are met. This allocation of childcare duties may be no more than a social convenience, however, taking advantage of the biological fact that at least one of the parents is bound to be on the scene when the needy creature makes its appearance. Maybe alternative childcare arrangements would be just as good, if only they could be institutionalized, as Plato famously imagined. If proximity to the birth is all that biological parents have going for them as caregivers, Plato’s scheme for community nurseries may be worth considering.

Aristotle criticized this scheme as unrealistic. Children who are not seen as the sons and daughters of anyone in particular will not be properly cared for, he thought; and in any case, people will seek out their own parents, children, and siblings, despite all efforts to keep them apart. As Aristotle realized, human beings have a natural tendency to find and associate with their biological relatives.

Today we can explain this tendency in evolutionary terms, since it enables each human organism to promote the propagation of his genotype and to benefit from the like tendency of his relatives. But the aims of natural selection need not be ours. If the human tendency to congregate in biological families is a vestige of natural selection, then it may be like the capacity for murderous jealousy, for example — a natural tendency that human society has no reason to accommodate. Certainly, the human affinity for consanguines is implicated in such regrettable human phenomena as racism and xenophobia. Maybe it should be killed in the cradle, as Plato suggested.

Still, that’s not what modern-day readers of The Republic think; they think that Plato’s scheme for child rearing is inhumane. Why do they think so? What would be wrong with permanently separating parents and children at birth?

I think that associating with relatives is more than a biological imperative; it’s a personal need, imposed on persons like us by our predicament as human beings. Because I believe that biological ties have value, I also believe that there are good reasons for assigning the duties of child-rearing to biological parents in the first instance. Indeed, I believe that the act of procreation generates parental obligations that cannot be contracted out to others, except when doing so is in the best interests of the child.25

These obligations arise because being begotten is not, as many believe, the original birthday present. As Seana Shiffrin has argued in a brilliant paper on claims of wrongful life, being brought into existence is at best a mixed blessing, and those who confer it are not entitled to walk away congratulating themselves on a job well done.26

Shiffrin argues that bringing someone into existence is a morally equivocal act, because it entails imposing harms on the person as well as bestowing benefits. Shiffrin argues further that a fundamental asymmetry between harms and benefits prevents the harm imposed by procreation from being justified by the benefit bestowed. And Shiffrin attempts to explain the asymmetry by proposing a philosophical account of harm, although she does not develop it fully.27

Now, although I agree with Shiffrin that bringing someone into existence is a morally equivocal act, I do not think that it can be equivocal because of conferring a mixture of harms and benefits. For as I explained in Part I, I believe that a person can be neither harmed nor benefited by being brought into existence. I will therefore devote the first half of this part to paraphrasing Shiffrin’s arguments in slightly different terms, by drawing out elements, already implicit in them, of an Aristotelian conception of human well-being. I will then draw some conclusions that are congruent with Shiffrin’s and a few more that I doubt whether she would endorse.

The best way to explain Shiffrin’s conception of harm, I think, is to apply it, not to cases of harm per se, but to the philosophical problem of distinguishing between pain and suffering. That pain and suffering are distinct is obvious from the many cases of pain that do not occasion suffering (stubbed toes, skinned knees), as well as cases of suffering that do not necessarily involve pain (loneliness, boredom).

What makes the difference between pain and suffering is coping. Suffering occurs when someone cannot or does not cope with adversity of some kind. To cope with pain or other adversity is to exercise, or to give oneself the sense of exercising, some degree of control over the adversity itself or, at least, over one’s reactions to it. Coping is therefore a way of exercising one’s will in the face of adverse circumstances, by managing one’s response to them and maybe also by managing the circumstances themselves.

When someone fails to cope, we describe him as going to pieces, falling apart, breaking down — all expressions that reflect damage not just to the body or to personal projects but to the self.28 Failure to cope entails damage to the self because it entails a defeat or disabling of the will. The person is thrown into a condition of helplessness in the face of some obstacle or assault. Stripped of his agency, he is damaged in his very personhood. The fact and the experience of this damage to the self are constitutive of suffering.29

This brief account of suffering echoes Shiffrin’s account of harm. She suggests that harm consists in a condition toward which a person finds himself in a position of passive subjection — the position, as Shiffrin puts it, of an “endurer”. She thus reverses the order of explanation between the badness of harm and our unwillingness to undergo it. It’s not that we’re unwilling to undergo something harmful because it’s bad; rather, something is bad enough to qualify as harmful if and because we find ourselves undergoing it unwillingly.

Shiffrin also briefly suggests a corresponding account of benefit. What she says is that unsought benefits are not as good as benefits that the recipient has chosen to pursue and has succeeded in obtaining. She thereby suggests that, while being passively withstood is constitutive of harm, being actively sought and attained is at least characteristic of benefit.

These remarks about harm and benefit ground Shiffrin’s explanation of the asymmetry between the harms and benefits entailed in the gift of life. In Shiffrin’s view, the asymmetry arises from the fact that the gift of life is never sought or even accepted by its recipient. He simply becomes aware, long after the fact, of having been stuck with it. Even if the recipient welcomes this gift retrospectively, his will was nevertheless preempted when it was given to him, since he had no chance to refuse or accept. The harms that accompany this gift are consequently aggravated by having been imposed on him willy-nilly, with the result that he is already in a relation of passive subjection to them from the start. And the associated benefits are somewhat undermined by lacking the features of choice and successful effort that belong to the most significant benefits.

Thus Shiffrin. Much as I admire her attempt to explain the asymmetry between the goods and ills of existence, I do not believe that a balance of goods and ills can account for what is morally equivocal about procreation. Still, I think that her explanation points us in the right direction, by pointing us toward an Aristotelian conception of human well-being.

According to Aristotle, human well-being consists in the exercise of capacities that are in excellent condition, and pleasure is that complete absorption in the exercise of one’s capacities which their being in excellent condition tends to facilitate.30 The excellent condition of one’s capacities is what Aristotle called aretê. His claim that pleasure consists in being absorbed or engrossed in exercising one’s capacities has been confirmed by research into what psychologists call “flow”.31

Aristotle’s conceptions of well-being and pleasure are hospitable to Shiffrin’s account of harm and its asymmetrical relation to benefit. Anything that casts a person into a state of passive subjection will prevent him from exercising his capacities, and it will also deprive him of the enjoyment of becoming absorbed in their exercise. Conversely, any good that is acquired through the exercise of the relevant capacities will bring with it a bonus of flourishing and “flow”, like a destination that lies at the end of an engrossing journey.

I think that Aristotle’s conceptions of human well-being and pleasure also carry implications for the value of the so-called gift of life, because they imply that human happiness takes work. It takes work in the form of exercising one’s proper capacities; more importantly, it takes work because the relevant capacities must be acquired by practice and habituation. In this respect, humans are unlike other animals, whose well-being consists mostly in the exercise of capacities that are innate. A cat is born already equipped for the activities that will constitute its flourishing; a human being must be educated and trained for his most rewarding activities.

According to the Aristotelian view, then, a human child is born with the general, second-order capacity to acquire the further, specific capacities whose exercise will eventually constitute its flourishing as an adult. The gift of life is therefore the gift of an opportunity — the opportunity to do the work and thereby gain the reward of human well-being.

This opportunity is accompanied by a corresponding threat and a corresponding risk. The threat is that if the child doesn’t undertake the work prerequisite to flourishing, it will suffer harm. And we can now see that it will be harmed quite literally, because without the capacities needed for human flourishing, the child will find itself in a position of passive subjection to its circumstances, lacking the resources to cope with them. The corresponding risk is that even if the child accepts the challenge of flourishing, it may nevertheless fail. (The streets of every large U.S. city are littered with individuals who are not coping with their circumstances, or are coping only poorly, and who are consequently faring poorly.)

The opportunity wrapped up in the gift of life is thus an offer of the sort that the child cannot refuse. To be born as a human being is to be handed a job of work, with a promise of great rewards for success, a threat of great harm for refusal, and a risk of similar harm for failure. The scene on which a human child appears willy-nilly is the scene of a predicament, a challenge with very high stakes. Hence the so-called gift of life is indeed a mixed blessing, as Shiffrin claims.

Shiffrin and other philosophers tend to view parental obligations as arising from the harms and benefits that parents confer on children by bringing them into existence. As I argued in the previous part, however, parents are metaphysically incapable of conferring either harms or benefits in that way. The Aristotelian spin that I have now put on Shiffrin’s arguments enables me to conceive of parental obligations in different terms.

What is equivocal about procreation is not that it confers both benefits and harms on the resulting child; what’s equivocal is that it throws that child into a predicament, confronts it with a challenge in which the stakes are high, both for good and for ill. Moreover, it is a challenge that no child can meet without the daily assistance of others over the course of many years, since the human infant is not at all equipped to acquire the necessary capacities on its own. In my view, those who create a child thereby incur an inalienable obligation to provide the necessary assistance.

Consider the hackneyed example of a child who is drowning at the deep end of a swimming pool. People lounging around the pool obviously have an obligation to rescue the child. But the obligation to fish the child out doesn’t fall on the bystanders equally if one of them pushed the child in. The one responsible for the child’s predicament is not just a bystander like the others, and he bears the principal obligation.

Obviously, if the responsible party cannot or will not help the child, then others are obligated to act. The child has a right to be saved by somebody if not by the person who caused its predicament. But just as obviously, the person who pushed the child into the pool should have considered beforehand, not just whether someone or other would come to its assistance, but whether he himself was willing and able to fulfill the obligation of assistance that he was about to incur. You shouldn’t go pushing children into the deep end if you aren’t willing to get wet.

Likewise with procreation and parenting. In my view, parents who throw a child into the predicament of human life have an obligation to lend the assistance it needs to cope with that predicament, by helping it to acquire the capacities whose exercise will enable it to flourish and whose lack would cause it to suffer. By choosing to create a child, perhaps even by choosing to have sex, adults take the chance of incurring this obligation. To risk incurring the obligation without intending to fulfill it is irresponsible; actually to incur it and then not to fulfill it is immoral.

I will shortly consider whether it is morally permissible for biological parents to delegate this obligation to others. Is the obligation incurred through the act of procreation an obligation to see that the child receives the needed assistance in coping with the human predicament? Or is it an obligation to render that assistance oneself, in person?32

Of course, parental obligations must sometimes be transferable in practice. A child has a right to grow up in the care of parents who are willing and able to care for it. If its biological parents do not rise to the task, then the child has a right to adoptive parents who are willing and able to take their place. Thus, the mere unwillingness of biological parents to discharge their obligations may be sufficient to ensure that those obligations may be transferred to others, in deference to the rights of the child.

But this practical accommodation does not mean that the biological parents are morally permitted to abdicate their responsibilities at will. We do not think that parents are permitted to relinquish a newborn for adoption because of a last-minute social engagement, for example, or dismay at the size of its ears.

More importantly, we don’t think that adults are permitted to conceive a child with the prior intention to put it up for adoption. A woman may not decide to conceive simply in order to have the experience or health benefits of pregnancy, we think, no matter how confident she may be of finding suitable adoptive parents to take over her subsequent responsibilities. Thus, we regard parental obligations as transferable, morally speaking, only under exigencies that make their transfer beneficial for the child rather than convenient for the parents.

In one case, however, we tolerate a practice equivalent to creating a child for adoption. Those who “donate” their sperm and eggs play their role in conceiving children whom they have no intention of parenting. Indeed, they play their role in conception precisely on the condition that they will never be called upon to deal with the resulting children, a condition readily accepted by those who purchase their gametes, which would be unacceptable if they came with parental strings attached.33 Why do we condone the antecedent intention to transfer parental obligations in this case?

Before I discuss the transferability of parental obligations, I want to discuss a different question raised by donor conception, about the provision that one must be able to make for future children in order to be justified in creating them. People should not create children for whom they cannot provide adequately; but what is an adequate provision? In particular, does an adequate provision require an opportunity for the child to know and be reared by its biological parents?

Here I am using the word ‘adequate’ in a sense that is relativized to a particular decision, namely, the decision whether to create a child. Most adoptive parents make more than adequate provision for their adopted children, but the relevant standard of adequacy is premised on the children’s already existing and needing a home. My question is what provision for a child is adequate to justify the decision to create it in the first place. And my view is that the standard of adequacy applicable to the procreative decision is different from the standard applicable to decisions made after the child already exists.

My arguments in Part I imply that the adequacy of a child’s initial provision is not relative to what could have been provided to the selfsame child. The child will not be in a position to identify his interests with those of the better- or worse-provisioned children he might have been. From the child’s perspective, the better or worse starts he could have had in life will not be a matter of self-interest, because his self-concern will extend only to his actual present and possible future selves, not to children inhabiting possible histories that will already have diverged from reality. When the child compares the hand he has been dealt at birth with those he might have been dealt, he will not be able to see himself as ahead or behind in the game of life; he will only see himself as starting a life that amounts to a whole new game. Hence, what could have been provided to him in particular is not especially relevant to the standard of an adequate provision.

A standard that philosophers sometimes apply to procreative decisions is whether the resulting child would have “a life worth living”. In Part III of this series, I will argue that this phrase has no meaning that can apply to procreative decisions. ‘A life worth living’ can mean “a life worth continuing”, but procreative decisions concern whether a life should be started, not whether to continue it. Alternatively, ‘a life worth living’ can mean “a life not to be regretted”, but I will argue that people are biased against regretting their existence by considerations that depend on their already existing, considerations that are irrelevant to the decision whether to bring them into existence. In any case, what’s barely preferable to nonexistence is not enough for a child by the standard of adequacy that I consider appropriate.

The standard that I consider appropriate does not peg a child’s initial provision at any particular level of happiness or well-being. Hence, it is not what philosophers call a person-affecting standard; it is rather a personhood-respecting standard.34 An adequate initial provision for a child, in my view, is one that expresses due consideration for the importance of human life.

When creating human life, we are obligated to show due consideration for it, not just for its individual possessors. The importance of human life itself forbids us to treat it lightly in creating it.

Human life is important because it is a predicament faced by a creature that matters — that is, by a person, whose success at facing it will entail the flowering of personhood, and whose failure will entail a disfigurement of that value, in the form of damage to the self. Just as we are obligated to realize the value of personhood in ourselves, so we are obligated, in creating human lives, to create ones in which that value is most likely to flower and least likely to be disfigured. In this respect, the importance of human life is like the importance of art — the kind of importance that makes something worth creating well if worth creating at all.

Due consideration for the importance of human life requires us to ensure that the human race does not go extinct, but it does not require us to create any particular human lives, or any particular number of them. With respect to individual lives, it mainly requires that we avoid creating lives that will already be truncated or damaged in ways that seriously affect the prospects for personhood to be fully realized within them.

I claim that a life estranged from its ancestry is already truncated in this way. This claim is no less than universal common sense — though it is also no more, I readily admit. I cannot derive it from moral principles; I can at best offer some reflections on why we should trust rather than override common sense in this instance.

When I say that my claim is universal common sense, I mean that people everywhere and always have based their social relationships, in the first instance, on relations of kinship, of which the basic building block is the relation between parent and child. Not every society has favored the nuclear family, of course, but virtually every society has reared children among their kin and in the knowledge of who their biological parents are. The universal consensus on this matter is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 7, paragraph 1, states: “The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.”35

When people deny the importance of biological ties, I wonder how they can read world literature with any comprehension. How do they make any sense of Telemachus, who goes in search of a father he cannot remember? What do they think is the dramatic engine of the Oedipus story? When the adoptive grandson of Pharaoh says, “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” what do they think he means? How can they even understand the colloquy between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker? Surely, the revelation “I am your father” should strike them as a piece of dramatic stupidity — a remark to be answered, “So what?”

As the stories of Telemachus, Oedipus, Moses, and even Luke Skywalker illustrate, people unacquainted with their origins have been seen throughout history as dramatically, even tragically, disadvantaged. There must be some reason why people living at different places and times, under very different conditions, have converged on the opinion that a relationship with biological parents is essential to the minimally adequate provision for a child. To be sure, other articles of age-old consensus have been rejected fairly recently in history — the permissibility of slavery, for example. But they have been rejected on the basis of soul-searching reflection, whereas the rise of donor conception has been driven by the procreative preferences of adults, with little thought for the children involved.

Ironically, the preferences of these adults are often based on the same common sense that ought to raise questions on behalf of the children. The reason for resorting to donor conception, after all, is usually the desire of an adult to have a biologically related child despite lacking a partner with whom he or she can conceive. Yet whereas the parent will be just as fully related to the child as any mother or father, the child will know only half of its biological ancestry. These adults seek to enlarge their own circle of consanguinity by creating children who will never know half of theirs. Where is the common sense in that?

As I have said, I cannot prove that knowing and being reared by biological parents is part of the minimally adequate provision for a child; the best I can do is to make plausible the venerable and worldwide conviction to that effect. People have tried living in vastly diverse ways, but they have almost always settled on lifeways that accord central importance to biological family ties. Let me offer some considerations that may explain why.

Part of the task facing a human being is to find goals and activities in pursuit of which to develop and exercise the capacities relevant to human flourishing. A human being needs to find work, employment: he needs, as we say, to get a life. A cat does not need to get a life: it instinctively does what it needs to do in order to do well. Getting a life is a task peculiar to the human being, who is not born to do anything in particular, and must therefore figure out what to do with himself.

A human being accomplishes this task by becoming a self worth doing one thing rather than another with. That is, he forms an identity — a complement of traits and attitudes, reflected in a self-image by which to guide their expression in practice. The task of identity formation is not optional for a human being. As soon as he acquires the cognitive wherewithal to ask “Who am I?” and “What am I like?”, he is obliged to start coming up with answers, in order to form a specific identity for which there will be specific ways of flourishing.36

The task of forming an identity is carried out on raw materials that are not infinitely plastic. A human being begins life with a somewhat determinate temperament and set of aptitudes, which can be kneaded into many different shapes but not into just any shape whatsoever. These individual raw materials are present at birth, as determined by the child’s genetic endowment (and perhaps by the intrauterine environment as well).

Research on twins and adoptees has shown that many psychological characteristics are heritable to a considerable degree. Genetic differences are responsible for a proportion of the variance between people not only in IQ (somewhere above fifty percent) but also for the variance in their traits of personality such as extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience (around fifty percent); in whether their interests are artistic, social, enterprising, or conventional (around thirty percent); in their inclination toward authoritarian or conservative attitudes (around fifty percent); and even in their degree of religiousness (around thirty percent).37 These measures of heritability are manifested, for example, in greater similarity between identical twins than between fraternal twins, or between biological siblings reared apart than between unrelated children reared together. In many cases, the effects of genetic endowment tend to increase with age, possibly because the influence of guardians wanes. As people approach adulthood, in other words, they come into their genetic inheritance.

Thus, the predicament into which you were born, though generically human in many respects, was also highly individual, because it required you to fashion an identity out of a genetically inherited supply of raw materials. The possibilities and constraints inherent in those materials gradually came to the fore as you grew up and formed your adult identity.

A few people in the world had already coped or were already coping with predicaments similar to yours in its distinctive features — namely, your biological parents and siblings. Not only did each of your parents form an identity out of a genetic endowment half of which was to become half of yours, but also they jointly forged an identity as a couple, by reconciling between themselves the manifestations of what were to become the two halves of your genetic endowment. Or that’s what they did if they were a couple. For that very reason, however, you stood to benefit from their being a couple; and for similar reasons, you stood to benefit from their rearing you together with your biological siblings, if any.38

This claim depends on an assumption about heritability that is politically incorrect, I know. We are supposed to believe that every child is born with the capacity to fulfill any arbitrary human aspiration. In private, however, most parents realize that part of their job is to help their child form realistic aspirations, folded into an identity in which it can truly flourish; and they realize that their ability to do so is greatly enhanced by their ability to recognize in the child various traits, inclinations, and aptitudes that they have seen before, either in themselves or in other members of the family.

In the first instance, of course, family resemblance is physical, and family members usually value the physical resemblances among them. There is a temptation to dismiss this attitude as shallow, but I think that it expresses a deep human need. For as human beings, we need to reconcile our identities as persons with our identities as animals.

The structure of human memory is such as to elicit an identification between the self who remembers and the self of the experience retrieved from memory.39 Locke thought of that identification as constituting personal identity. Even if his metaphysics was shaky, his phenomenology was impeccable: we certainly seem to have existed at whatever times and places we remember experiencing, so that our sense of persisting through time does not depend on re-identifying our bodies on different occasions. Our relation to our bodies can therefore seem to be contingent. We feel embodied in but not identical to our bodies, and so we can imagine, for example, swapping bodies with other people.

To be born in a human body is thus to be susceptible to alienation from it. We are probably the only animals capable of feeling uncomfortable in our own bodies, even hating them — and loving them, too, for that matter. Coming to terms with our bodily selves is thus a part of the human predicament.

A connection to biological parents helps us to cope with this aspect of our predicament. In infancy we learn to love human faces whose features will eventually be blended in the face that emerges in the mirror as we reach adulthood. We grow into a body akin to the bodies from which we came, while growing into a personality akin to the ones that animate those other bodies. We thus repeatedly have the sense of becoming our own parents, a common form of intergenerational déjà vu. Those who do not know their parents can only wonder who they are becoming. Hence they can only wonder, “How did someone like me come to be living in a body like this?”

Some people say that they have nothing in common with their parents and siblings. I think that they are speaking figuratively; or maybe they are just in denial. Almost all of us look and sound and feel and move and think like the people from whom we came: a genuine sport of nature is very rare. What is more likely is that a person’s similarities to his relatives lie in aspects of himself that don’t matter to him, or that he dislikes and rejects. Not valuing commonalities is indeed a way of not having anything in common, figuratively speaking; it just isn’t a way of literally having nothing in common.

Someone who doesn’t value what he has in common with his relatives may think that he need never have known them in order to forge his independent identity. I doubt it. This person is likely to have defined himself as different from his relatives precisely because they exemplified aspects of himself that he would otherwise have been unable to discern clearly enough to disdain. Learning not to be like his relatives has still involved learning from them: if he had never known them, he might well have ended up more like them.

The point is that biological origins needn’t be worth embracing in order to be worth knowing. Someone who doesn’t know his relatives cannot even turn up his nose at them. The question for him is not “Shall I follow my progenitors?” but “Am I following them?” and to this latter question he can never know the answer. He can have neither the satisfaction of continuing in their footsteps nor that of striking out on his own, because their footsteps have been effaced.

Even if a child never knows its biological parents, they usually remain significant figures in its life, figures to whom the child is likely to develop an attachment. That’s why roughly half of adopted children search for their biological families at some point, and it is why the children of donor conception are now starting to search for their families as well.40 In my view, the tendency to become attached to unknown parents bears on whether parental obligations are transferable, a question to which I now turn.

Why do these children search for absent parents who can no longer rear them and are unlikely to form a significant relationship with them? Having reached adulthood, haven’t they finally made these parents redundant? Apparently not, although we can only speculate why. Here are my speculations.

Humans are unlike other creatures in being at risk for feeling unmoored. We have both an egocentric conception of the world and an objective conception of a creature whose conception it is, a creature who is identical with the “I” at the center of that egocentric conception. Seeing the world from within our own point of view and also from without makes us susceptible to a sense of alienation. Unless we can reconcile these two conceptions of ourselves, we may suffer what might be called existential insecurity — an insecure sense of our own concrete reality.

The creature who I am is securely rooted in the objective order. It is rooted in the objective order not only by being located in time and space but also by its location in the web of causality. It didn’t just appear out of nowhere: it is the result of causal antecedents that tie it to the rest of spatiotemporal existence. Of course, I am that creature, and so I didn’t just appear out of nowhere, either: I came from the same origins. Yet in order to feel that its connections to the rest of reality are mine, I must find a way of translating them into my egocentric perspective — a way of seeing them from my point of view.

The challenge, in other words, is to identify subjectively with the objective reality of the creature who I am, by seeing how that creature’s place in reality can possibly be mine. In order to make that identification, I must see how the connections anchoring that creature in the objective order can have, from my personal point of view, the subjective significance of connections.

But of course, the “I” of my egocentric perspective is a person, for whom connections are most real when they are personal connections, consisting in felt attachments. The way to identify subjectively with the creature who I am objectively is to see its place in the objective world as my place in a personal world. Personal attachments to my causal origins, in the form of my biological parents and ancestors, enable me to experience firsthand the objective reality of the creature who I am. If I lack such subjective correlates for the connections anchoring that creature in objective reality, I am existentially insecure, because I am unable to see from my perspective how its place in reality is mine. That’s why people who don’t know their origins speak of feeling adrift in the cosmos, out of place in the world.

This sense of rootlessness is especially acute in light of elementary knowledge about the realm of living things. That realm is structured by the life-function of self-replication, which locates every living thing in a chain of progenitors and progeny. To be a living thing is to be a link in that chain. Not to experience oneself as located in that chain is to lack a sense of one’s membership in the realm of life, which is the locus of one’s membership in reality.

Most people feel a need for a connection to that realm. It can be expressed as a need for roots, for a home — for a family. It is manifested in religious creation stories and cosmologies, in the perpetuation of traditions, and in the ceremonies surrounding ancestors and memorials. The same need naturally leads children to seek an attachment to their biological parents. And it is another peculiarity of human beings to be capable of becoming attached even to figures with whom they are not acquainted.

Many animals become attached to members of their family or group, and they appear to experience grief when these attachments are severed. But they become attached only to others with whom they are acquainted and whom they can recognize by sight or sound or smell. Humans, too, become attached to one another by acquaintance, of course; but they have the unique capacity for attachment to others whom they have never met and wouldn’t recognize.

Those who study and counsel adoptees believe that they feel the loss of the birth parents they never knew, and that their sense of loss is comparable to that of children who experience parental death or divorce.41 How can a child experience the loss of parents with whom it has had no relationship to begin with? The answer is that a child is capable of forming attachments to absent figures, provided that they are present to its thoughts as real objects.

Typically, an object is first presented in thought when it is perceived, whereupon a mental file may be opened to store information received from it via perception.42 Such a file is used for thinking about the thing directly, in a way that is not mediated by a description or a concept. One does not merely have an existentially quantified belief to the effect that something satisfies various predicates; one does not merely have various beliefs whose subject-terms pick out the same thing under various descriptions; one has a mental file that stands for the thing and collects predicates descriptive of it, much as the thing itself unifies a bundle of properties.

Though a mental file is typically connected to its object by a channel of perceptual information, it can also stand for an object without such a connection.43 If a creature can have intentions with respect to its own mental representations, then it can open and maintain a file intended to stand for a single thing. It must somehow pick out what the file is to stand for, but thereafter it can use the file to treat the thing as an immediate object of thought.

Of course, there is no point in opening a mental file for something that probably doesn’t exist or cannot be picked out as its intended referent. But no such risks can deter a child from opening mental files for a biological mother or father with whom it is unacquainted. Every child can be certain of having one and only one such mother and father, to whom it can refer as “my mother” and “my father”, and for whom it can therefore open files in the assurance of their standing for unique individuals. The child can fill these files with speculations about its parents, and it can become attached to those parents by thinking about them in this distinctively objectual way.

These considerations about the need and the capacity for attachment to biological parents are what lead me to think that parental obligations are nontransferable. The obligations are nontransferable, I think, because they arise in the context of a personal relationship.

Let us consider the daughter of a sperm donor, so that we can rely on pronomial gender to keep the parties straight. If the mother is like other recipients of donated sperm, she may insist that the girl has no use for her biological father, because he is “nobody to her”. This statement is demonstrably false. The daughter may be nobody to him, because he can think of her only under the description “my possible children”, never knowing whether he is referring to anyone at all. But to her he is a real person, locatable in thought, no matter how elusive he may be in time and space. Like every human child, she knows that with the word ‘father’, she can reach down a causal chain to address a single other human who is partly responsible for her existence.

In trying to cope with the predicament entailed by her existence, the daughter can want to be helped, not just by some paternal figure or other, but by the particular father who introduced her into that predicament; who links her to humanity, the realm of life, the causal order; who is her prototype and precursor in personal development; and who could give her a hint of how psyche and soma might be reconciled in her case. Out of those needs, the child can establish a mental representation capable of sustaining an emotional attachment to her father, and she can then frame a demand addressed directly to him, whether or not she knows his earthly address. So personal a demand, so obviously justified, deserves to be answered in person.

I know that my view seems grossly unenlightened. What passes for enlightenment today, however, 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. Neither belief is true; either belief can lead to a wholesale violation of rights. The rights violated in the present case are the rights of children.

One objection to arguments like mine is that they seem to cast aspersions on donor-conceived children, by implying that they should never have been born. I do not think that my arguments yield that implication in a form that should give offense; in Part III of this series, I explain why. Another objection is that the children of donor conception are likely to waive any claims they may have on their biological parents. I deal with this objection in Part III as well.

A final objection to my arguments is that donor-conceived offspring have received the gift of life, which they wouldn’t have received without the help of a sperm or egg donor. But I have argued that 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.

Note, moreover, that an obligation undertaken in bad faith cannot be excused by the fact that the party to whom it is owed was better off for its having been undertaken. If my promise to assist you with a risky project gives you the necessary confidence to begin it, then I am still obligated to assist you even if, in retrospect, my defaulting on the promise would not cause you to regret having begun. And if I know in advance that I am going to default on my promise, then I cannot justify issuing it on the grounds that it will induce you to begin a project that you will subsequently be glad to have begun, despite my expected default.

In this last example, my behavior is somewhat analogous to that of a sperm donor, only not quite as bad. The sperm donor doesn’t induce his offspring voluntarily to enter the predicament of human life, on the grounds that they will be glad to have entered it; and he doesn’t just expect to have an all-things-considered reason to default on those obligations. The sperm donor throws his offspring into the human predicament willy-nilly, on the basis of a positive intention to default on the obligations that he thereby undertakes, since he wouldn’t have undertaken them, in the first place, if he hadn’t planned to default on them. I don’t think that he is morally entitled to bank on his children’s forgiveness in this way, even if they do eventually forgive him.

III. Love and Nonexistence44

The birth of a child can move us to value judgments that seem inconsistent. Consider, for example, a fourteen-year-old girl who decides to have a baby.45 We think that the birth of a child to a fourteen-year-old mother will be unfortunate, even tragic, and hence that she should not decide to have one. But after the birth, we are loath to say that the child should not have been born. Indeed, we now think that the birth is something to celebrate — once a year, on the child’s birthday.

We may be tempted to say that we have simply changed our minds in light of better information. Before the birth, we didn’t know how things would turn out and now we know more. But the birth did not bring to light any previously unknown information relevant to our judgments.46 Or, at least, I mean to restrict my attention to cases in which it didn’t. There may be cases in which we feared specific calamities, such as a birth defect or a descent into juvenile delinquency; and then if such possibilities don’t materialize, we change our minds. I am not speaking of such cases; I am speaking of cases in which we disapproved of the girl’s decision for reasons that are not falsified by subsequent developments and yet we are subsequently glad about the birth. The child is raised under serious disadvantages of the very sort that we anticipated, but the severely disadvantaged child is still a child to be cherished.

We knew in advance how we would feel. Even as we deplored the girl’s decision, we knew that we would welcome the child. We may even have cited this prospect to ourselves as a reason for softening our opinion: “Don’t condemn her for deciding to have a child,” we might have said, “Once it is born, you’ll be delighted.” But such arguments could not dispel our sense that something was wrong.

One might think that these judgments can be reconciled, after all, because their objects are not the same. When we think that the girl should not have a baby, the object of our judgment is a quantified proposition, about her having some baby or other, whereas it is the birth of a particular baby that we will celebrate.47 And of course we can consistently think that her having a baby is unfortunate in general but not in the case of her having some particular one, since the general rule affirmed by our first judgment may allow for an exception noted by the second.

Yet the attempted reconciliation appears to be blocked by the fact, which was known to us in advance, that any baby she had would be welcomed. How can we judge that a fourteen-year-old’s having a baby would be unfortunate as a rule if we also judge that any particular instance of the rule would be an exception?

I do not think that we actually change our minds after the birth of this child, if a change of mind would entail giving up our antecedent judgment. We still think that the girl should not have had a baby, delighted though we are with the baby she has had. That one judgment predominated beforehand and the other afterward should not be allowed to obscure the fact that we are of two minds about the case.

One might hope to dispel the appearance of inconsistency by claiming that the former is a prima facie judgment, deploring any birth only insofar as the mother was underage and thus leaving open the possibility of mitigating circumstances. But we don’t just think that the girl should not have had a baby insofar as she is underage; we think that she should not have had a baby all things considered; and yet we are glad about the birth of this baby all things considered as well.

The mother herself may regret her decision. She may wish that she hadn’t had a baby, may believe that she shouldn’t have had one. But of course she still loves the baby and is thankful that it was born. As in our case, her judgments persist in light of one another. That is, she regrets having had a baby when she did even though it was this baby; and she is thankful for this baby even though she had it when she did.

This conundrum is one of several that Derek Parfit considers in Part IV of Reasons and Persons, the part devoted to “Future Generations”. I want to suggest a solution that Parfit doesn’t consider. Parfit’s entire discussion presupposes that our value judgments must be consistent as descriptions of the things they evaluate: they must be satisfiable by some distribution of positive and negative value across the possibilities. I think that the present case gives us reason to reject this assumption.

How could it be rational to have such different attitudes toward one and the same event? The answer lies in the different modes of presentation under which the event is viewed.

Our unfavorable judgment is about the baby under a description. What makes this judgment tenable despite our countervailing judgment is not, as we initially suspected, that it is general rather than singular. We think not only that the girl should not have had a baby at fourteen but that she should not have had the baby she had at fourteen, thus considered under a definite description that picks it out uniquely. The reason why these judgments withstand our favorable judgment about the baby is that, whereas they rely on descriptions, the favorable judgment is about the baby considered demonstratively, as “this baby”, “him”, or “her”.

Why does it matter whether we can make judgments about the baby considered demonstratively? The reason is that such judgments are guided by emotions that depend on acquaintance-based thought. One such emotion is love.48 In the context of its mother’s love, the child is presented to her mind as it is known to her directly via sight and touch. She does not love it under descriptions of the form “such-and-such a child” or “the so-and-so” or even as “Fred” or “Sue”. The latter modes of presentation would have been available to her even if she had merely heard the child described or referred to by name, in which case she would be in no position to love it. Unlike those modes of presentation, acquaintance-based thought is a way of being mentally in touch or en rapport with an object; and the rapport it entails is prerequisite to the emotion of love.49

Our mental relation to something can determine which attitudes toward it are rational. Before we are acquainted with a baby, we can approve or disapprove of it, but loving it is quite impossible, in my view, and hence not rational, either; whereas loving a baby after being acquainted with it is the easiest thing in the world; rational, too.

The different responses that are rational to have toward the baby, as we think of it under different modes of presentation, account for our different value judgments about its birth. We should feel free to experience these responses and hold the corresponding judgments, because value is the shadow of such attitudes, not an independent standard of their correctness. If the attitudes make sense, then the fact that they cast conflicting shadows cannot undermine their authority. And they make sense, despite the conflict between their shadows, because their intentional objects are different in ways that rationally affect the emotions informing our judgments.50

The child may see his mother’s regret, and as he approaches adulthood, he may find the words for what he sees: “You wish you hadn’t had a baby when you were so young, don’t you?” If the mother is wise enough to realize that she cannot hide her feelings, her answer will be “Yes.” “So you wish that I hadn’t been born?” No, not at all.

What does the child’s second question mean? He is asking whether his mother loves him and is thankful that he exists. But what he wants to hear, in wanting to hear that she loves and cherishes him, is that she loves and cherishes him as the child of her acquaintance, the child she sees and hears and held as a baby in her arms. He doesn’t care how she feels about the child she had when she was fourteen, under that description. Let her regret having had the child so described, so long as he himself, as he is known to her directly, can still be sure of her love.

The child may be similarly ambivalent about his own birth considered under different modes of presentation. If he has grown up disadvantaged by his mother’s immaturity, as I have imagined, he may conclude from his own experience that the child born to his mother when she was fourteen should not have been born. And yet he may have a healthy self-love that makes him thankful for having been born.

I think that similarly conflicted reactions can arise in the parents of children who are born severely disabled. These parents are, so to speak, doomed to love a child such as is regrettable to have or to be — regrettable, that is, when considered as such a child, not, of course, as this child. In this respect, the parents are caught in a bind partly created by their love for their own child, a bind of a sort that makes the birth of such a child all the more tragic. Similarly, a child born into unfortunate circumstances is doomed to be attached to a particular existence such as is regrettable to have. As an adult, he may resent the fact that his inevitable self-attachment forces him to be thankful for having been given a life of such an unfortunate kind.

Obviously, all-things-considered judgments had better not conflict if they are to provide practical guidance. Before conceiving her child or carrying it beyond the point where abortion became unavailable, the girl had to choose one way or the other, and we may have been called upon to advise her. Under those circumstances, being of two minds would have been problematic.

Under those circumstances, however, grounds for ambivalence were lacking. Before the child existed, he was not available to be loved or valued in other acquaintance-based ways. The mother’s potential love for her child, or his potential self-love, were not antecedent grounds for choosing to create him, since she could not choose to create him in particular, considered demonstratively, as he would subsequently be loved.51 Her choice was not whether to create him but whether to create a child. And of course she should have waited to create a child until she was better prepared to care for it.

Our conflicting value judgments are rationally tolerable because they are retrospective and hence not action-guiding.52 Given that there is no longer any occasion to make a decision, we can afford to hold conflicting judgments about the decision that was made. The pragmatic drawbacks of ambivalence have fallen away, and the only remaining drawback would be a need to make judgments that reflect some real distribution of value among the former options. In my view, however, there is no such distribution of values, and so ambivalence about the case can be perfectly rational.

My view leads me to question a term that figures prominently in Parfit’s work and the literature that it has spawned. The term is ‘a life worth living’. I believe that there is no coherent concept attached to this term.

Ordinarily, when we ask whether a life is worth living, we are asking whether it is worth continuing. Then our question is whether the benefits of continuing to live will adequately repay the subject for the associated burdens. An apparent problem with even this ordinary sense of the term is that it requires a comparison where comparison seems impossible. For whether the benefits of continued life are worth the burdens must depend on the alternatives: any balance of benefits to burdens may in principle be worthwhile if all of the alternatives would be worse. But in the case of continued existence, there is no balance of benefits and burdens with which to compare, since the alternative is nonexistence, in which there would be no subject to whom benefits or burdens could accrue. How, then, do we tell whether life is worth continuing?53

This problem is easily solved. When we ask whether a life is worth continuing, we are asking whether the subject has good reason to go on, and such a reason would consist in some event whose inclusion in his life would make it better as a whole. When someone wants to live long enough to finish an important project or have some meaningful experience, he probably thinks that doing so would help to complete his life or bring it closer to perfection.54 And in that case, he is making a comparison for which the requisite alternatives are to hand — namely, his life extended to include the valued event, on the one hand, and his life cut short without including it, on the other. He can consider whether the one life would be a better life to have lived than the other. If the answer is yes, then he will say that the prospect of the event gives him a reason to live.

But this sort of reason for him to live is not necessarily a reason to be glad that he was born. Having started an important project, he may judge that he will have lived a much better life if he finishes it than if he dies leaving it unfinished; and yet he need not think that his finishing the project will justify his very existence, since the value of finishing the project may be contingent on his having started it. If he had never existed to start the project, his not existing to finish it might have been neither here nor there.

Of course, a life may qualify as not worth living at all if it is not worth continuing from the very outset, in the sense that every increment to its duration makes it a worse life on the whole. But the opposite of being not worth living at all in this sense cannot serve as a standard for which lives are worth living, if that standard is to guide procreative decisions. For we can hardly justify initiating a life on the mere grounds that there would not immediately be reason to terminate it. Thus, which lives are worth continuing cannot tell us which lives are worth creating.

Unfortunately, Parfit uses the term ‘a life worth living’ in the latter sense, and this sense of the term gestures toward a truly impossible comparison. A person cannot compare the value that his life has for him to the value that nonexistence would have had, since nothing has value for the nonexistent.

Parfit offers a solution to this problem. His solution is to ask whether the person, if born, would live to regret it. According to Parfit, the subject’s retrospective preference, actual or ideal, between his existing and his never having existed determines whether his life is worth living.55

But as I have pointed out, the child of a fourteen-year-old mother may regret the birth of the child his mother had at fourteen while being thankful that he was born. He thus regrets his birth under one mode of presentation but not under another. The question is which attitude determines whether his life is worth living, according to Parfit. My sense is that Parfit wants to give the benefit of the doubt to lives whose subjects would be thus conflicted. That is, he judges a life to be worth living unless the person living it would regret his own birth even when thinking of himself demonstratively. The result is that Parfit takes sides with the inevitable attachment that a person feels for himself by acquaintance — the very attachment that may force him to be thankful for an existence that he thinks undesirable for anyone to have.

My own inclination is to see this preference as rather cruel. I am inclined to say that we should not bring people into lives that they can be thought of as forced to be thankful for. In any case, we cannot assume that there is a fact of the matter as to which criterion of regret we should apply when judging whether lives are worth living. Hence we still lack a determinate comparison that would give a clear meaning to the term ‘a life worth living’.

My explanation of our value judgments also bears on the problem that dominates Part IV of Parfit’s book, the so-called non-identity problem. In the case of the fourteen-year-old girl, the non-identity problem is supposed to be this: If she postpones motherhood until she is older, she will not have the same child. So the child she has at fourteen cannot be harmed by being born to an underage mother, since he cannot be born to a mother who is mature. How, then, can his mother’s decision be wrong?

Parfit fleetingly considers what I believe to be the correct solution to this problem. The solution is that a child has a right to be born into good enough circumstances, and being born to a fourteen-year-old mother isn’t good enough.

This solution relies on an understanding of rights as including more than morally protected interests.56 As I argued in Part I, a child’s initial provision in life makes no difference to his interests, because he cannot identify his interests with those of the children he would have been if differently provisioned. In Part II, I considered the standard of adequacy for a child’s initial provision, arguing that the appropriate standard reflects our obligation to show due consideration for the importance of human life itself. Human life is best seen as a predicament, and the creature thrown into that predicament is a creature that matters, because of being a person, whose success or failure at coping with the predicament will entail the flourishing or withering of personhood.

In creating human lives, then, we must take care that they afford the best opportunity for personhood to flourish. We are obligated to give our children the best start that we can give to children, whichever children we have; and so we are obligated to have those children to whom we can give the best start. A child to whom we give a lesser initial provision will have been wronged by our lack of due concern for human life in creating him — our lack of concern for human life itself, albeit in his case.

If the fourteen-year-old girl decides to have a child, he will probably grow up to be glad that he was born, but he may also feel that he was not given due consideration at his conception. What will have been slighted, from his perspective, is not his well-being but rather the importance of humanity in him — in him, that is, as the instance of humanity that ended up being involved, not as the antecedent target of the slight. For a person can be wronged by being the one who ends up at the receiving end of disregard for the value of humanity in general.

A person suffers such a wrong, for example, when he meets the fate that others risked imposing, not on him in particular, but on someone or other, say, when they chose to dispense with expensive provisions for public safety. And he suffers that wrong even if his interests are not adversely affected — say, because he happens to be nearing the end of a terminal illness. Personhood has been disrespected, and he turns out to be the instance of personhood involved. Such is the wrong suffered by a child who ends up at the receiving end of a mother’s disregard for the personhood of her unspecifiable future children.

The child may therefore blame his mother, despite being glad to exist. And whereas his reason for blaming her was available to her antecedently as a reason against having a child, his reason for being glad to exist was not available to her as a reason in favor of having one, since it consists in an attachment that depends on his existence. Hence no considerations of identity or non-identity should have confused the girl about whether to have a child.

Parfit initially seems to think that the right to have been created with due consideration for humanity is a right whose violation can always be excused, on the grounds that the holder of this right wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t already been violated. Parfit then realizes that it may be wrong to create someone holding an already violated right.

Yet Parfit dismisses this solution to the non-identity problem on the grounds that the child, being glad that it was born, is likely to “waive” its birthright. Since the violated right created by the mother is bound to be waived, he thinks, she is off the hook. Here Parfit’s reasoning is confused in two respects, one of which involves the nature of acquaintance-based value judgment. (I’ll discuss the other confusion in a footnote.)57

The fact that a child would be glad to have been born does not entail that he would excuse his mother from her procreative obligations. He can reasonably say to his mother, “I’m glad that I was born, but you were wrong to have a child in my case.” Not only can he reasonably say this; he probably will say it, once he realizes that other children have been given, and sensibly regard themselves as entitled to, the best start in life that their parents could provide to a child. He will continue to assert his birthright, despite being glad that he was born.

My attempt to vindicate these seemingly inconsistent judgments depends on the claim that they are based on a rational pair of attitudes. Yet the attitudes themselves may seem irrational precisely because they support conflicting judgments about one and the same event. How can it be rational for a person to be glad, all things considered, about his mother’s having done something that he regards, all things considered, as regrettable?

Let me outline a conception of value that supports this claim.58 I’ll start with the relation between value and evaluative response.

There are people whom I like despite knowing that they aren’t very likeable, and then there are people whom I know to be likeable even though I just don’t like them. Similarly, there are some jokes that I laugh at while judging that they aren’t funny, and other jokes in which I can see the humor without being at all disposed to laugh. But when I say that I find someone likeable, or find something funny, I am doing some third thing. On the one hand, I am not just liking or laughing; I am discovering — “finding” — some quality that merits a response. On the other hand, I am not simply judging that the relevant quality is present; I am finding it with the relevant sensibility, precisely by responding. I am detecting likeability or humorousness with the appropriate detector, namely, liking or laughter.

To find someone likeable or admirable or enviable, to find something interesting or amusing or disgusting — these are what might be called guided responses, responses that are somehow sensitive to indications of their own appropriateness. Guided responses are not value judgments or evaluations, since they are still conative or affective rather than cognitive. But they resemble judgments in being regulated for appropriateness, and so they are more than mere responses. Finding someone likeable is more judgmental than merely liking him, but it need not entail passing judgment on his likeability. It is rather a matter of liking him in a way that is sensitive to what makes him worth liking. We can mark the partial similarity of such guided responses to value judgments, or evaluations, by describing them as instances of valuing.

My analysis of valuing resembles a familiar analysis of action.59 According to the latter analysis, action differs from mere bodily movement in virtue of being performed for reasons. Bumping into someone, for example, can be an accidental bodily movement, but if one bumps into him for a reason, then it’s not just a movement but an action. This analysis of action can be taken as a clue to the nature of reasons for acting. It implies that reasons for acting are considerations such that, when bodily movement is regulated in accordance with them, it rises to the status of action. That is, reasons are considerations whose regulatory influence can make the difference between an accidental collision and a shove.

My analysis of valuing offers a similar clue about reasons for valuing. I have said that finding someone likeable is not just liking him but liking him in a manner sensitive to whatever makes liking him appropriate. But if anything makes liking him appropriate, then it qualifies as a reason for liking him. To find someone likeable is thus to like him for a reason. What makes for the guided response that amounts to valuing, in other words, is that the response is guided to its target by reasons. And the relevant reasons are those considerations whose guidance would make the difference between merely responding to it and valuing it — between, say, liking someone and finding him likeable, or laughing at something and finding it funny.60

If my next step were to say that reasons for liking someone consist precisely in his likeability — that reasons for valuing something, in general, consist in its value — then my analysis would be fairly pointless. No philosophical work would have been done, since value is the term most in need of analysis. My aim is to fill that need, by proposing the opposite order of constitution. Something’s value, I want to say, consists in there being reasons for valuing it, which are considerations whose regulatory influence would turn a brute response to it into an instance of valuing. Whatever it is about someone, consideration of which would guide us to like him in a way that amounted not just to liking him but to finding him likeable — that is what constitutes likeability. Likeability is that whose detection amounts to finding someone likeable rather than merely liking him; humorousness is that whose detection amounts to finding something humorous rather than merely laughing at it.

The question, then, is how responses are regulated when they are more than casual or haphazard. What is guided laughter or guided liking?

Experimental psychologists have shown that we actually do regulate our responses in accordance with an identifiable set of conditions. We tune our responses so that they make sense in light of our conception of ourselves and our circumstances.

In one experiment, male subjects approached by an attractive female interviewer on a long, wobbly footbridge over a deep canyon showed greater signs of being attracted to her — were more likely to telephone her afterward for a promised debriefing, for example — than subjects approached by the same interviewer on a solid wooden bridge farther upstream.61 These subjects appear to have perceived their anxiety as attraction and acted on that perception. The converse effect has also been demonstrated: subjects are less likely to report or display an emotional response if they have been given an alternative explanation for its symptoms. For example, shy people placed in a socially awkward situation do not feel or act shy if told that they have been exposed to a stimulant that tends to cause the heart to pound.62

How does this mechanism work? Attribution theorists generally explain it in terms of a drive toward self-understanding — or, as they prefer to say, toward “cognitive consistency”. This cognitive drive gives us a strong incentive to react in ways that we can explain in light of the circumstances, and to behave in ways that we can explain in light of our reaction. Feeling stirred, we look to our circumstances to suggest an interpretation, and we then behave accordingly. In doing so, we can shape an inchoate disturbance into a specific response, or transform one response into another.

Initially we may feel excitations that could be symptomatic, say, of nervousness, fear, or awe. Which of these responses we interpret ourselves as having depends on which response would make sense to us under the circumstances; how we go on to behave depends on how it would make sense for us to behave, given the response we interpret ourselves as having; and we thereby give our initially ambiguous feelings the stamp of nervousness, fear, or awe, depending on which would maximize the overall intelligibility of situation, self, and behavior.

Why do our excitations come to fulfill our interpretation of them? The reason is that our actions feed back into their psychological sources both causally and conceptually. Fearful actions can turn our response into fear partly by shaping the response itself, in the way that smiling has been shown to affect our mood.63 Fearful actions can also help to constitute which response we are having, since part of what makes the difference between nervousness and fear is how it is manifested in behavior.

Rather than accept our response as fear, we can even say, “I refuse to be afraid,” meaning that we are interpretively marshalling our excitations into awe or nervousness — or perhaps even shyness — by crediting ourselves with one of those attitudes and following suit in our behavior. If we succeed in making the alternative interpretation stick, then we may indeed have implemented a decision as to our response.

Having noted this way of regulating our responses, we need look no further, I suggest, for the kind of regulation that turns our emotional responses into valuations rather than brute reactions.64 Reacting becomes valuing when it is regulated by the subject’s conception of what it would make sense for him to feel. The considerations whose influence turns reaction into valuation are reasons for valuing, and they turn out to be considerations of intelligibility. So the considerations that make something valuable, by providing reasons to value it, are considerations in light of which valuing it makes sense.

Here I may seem to have turned an obvious explanation on its head. The obvious explanation is that conditions make a response intelligible because they make it appropriate, whereas I have said that conditions make a response appropriate because they make it intelligible.65 I am well aware of reversing this explanatory order. I do so without apology, on the methodological grounds that it assigns to the explanandum that term which is more in need of explanation. We can explain our responses without invoking evaluative notions, whereas we have difficulty explaining the nature of values at all. If the former explanations can help to provide the latter, progress will have been made.

This methodology is especially helpful, I think, in accounting for the subtle shades of objectivity and subjectivity in our guided responses. On the one hand, the conditions of appropriateness for a response appear to depend on the sensibility that is capable of it. What makes something appropriate to admire depends somehow on what an admiring sensibility is attuned to, which is what tends to elicit admiration from a sensibility equipped for that response. On the other hand, the conditions of appropriateness for a response cannot be read off the actual responses of the relevant sensibility. What’s appropriate to admire isn’t merely what admiring subjects actually do admire. So how can what’s admirable depend on the responsiveness of an admiring sensibility without collapsing into whatever actually elicits the admiring response?

This problem comes in varying degrees. To begin with, some things just aren’t likeable or admirable, and their lack of likeability or admirability seems to be independent of the subject’s perspective. But then we allow for individual differences of taste, which entail that what is likeable or admirable for me needn’t be so for you. Even these person-relative values seem to transcend the actual responses of the relevant persons, however, since my likes and dislikes can fail to detect what is really likeable from my perspective. Then again, you and I can criticize one another’s sensibilities as needing cultivation or refinement, as if there were an objective criterion of good taste. And yet different values appear to differ in their susceptibility to such a criterion, since we allow more leeway for tastes in liking than in admiration.

How can the conditions of appropriateness for a response be objective in some cases and relative to individual sensibilities in others, while also allowing for rational criticism of those sensibilities, and to different degrees for different reactions? The answer, I suggest, is that the fundamental standard of appropriateness for a response is its intelligibility, which is determined partly by the psychological nature of the reaction itself and partly by differences among individual sensibilities, which can themselves be compared and criticized on grounds of intelligibility.

Consider what makes it intelligible to admire someone. Admiration has a distinctive functional role: it disposes one to emulate the admired person, to defer to him, and to approve of his words and actions. In acquiring these dispositions, one may become either more or less intelligible to oneself, depending on one’s other attitudes: beliefs with which the person’s opinions may harmonize or clash; ideals that he may or may not exemplify; interests that he may or may not share; likes and dislikes of other people whom he may resemble.

If someone falls short of one’s own ideals or ambitions, specializes in what strike one as trivialities, espouses what seem like idiocies, reminds one of a hated foe, and resembles no one else whom one admires, then admiring him would make no sense, and in two respects. First, it’s hard to explain why one would acquire a disposition to emulate and defer to someone of that kind; and second, acquiring that disposition would make it hard to figure out how it made sense to behave. Would it make sense to emulate the person’s failure in the very pursuits at which one otherwise hopes to succeed? Would it make sense to defer to his judgments contradicting one’s deepest beliefs? These questions would have no clear and uncomplicated answers, if one really came to admire him. That’s why he isn’t admirable, whether or not one admires him in fact.

As this example illustrates, the criterion of appropriateness for a response is holistically interdependent with those for other responses, as are the corresponding values. Whether it makes sense to admire someone who excels at a pursuit to which one has hitherto been indifferent may depend on whether it makes sense to begin taking an interest in that pursuit, which may of course depend on whether it makes sense in other respects to admire the person. Similarly, a state of excitation may need to be diagnosed as either fear or awe or nervousness, but it is unlikely to be all three at once. What’s frightening may therefore depend on what’s awesome or unnerving, and vice versa. That is, what it makes sense to interpret as, and thereby resolve into, awe may depend on what it makes sense to treat as fear or nervousness instead.

Sometimes different responses may be simply incompatible. Fear, anger, ennui, and disgust tend to dampen amusement, and so it can be difficult to understand why we are laughing at things that would ordinarily frighten, offend, bore, or sicken us.66 We say, “That’s not funny,” though sometimes we are laughing as we say it; and then we may add, “So why am I laughing?” This rhetorical question confirms that the unfunny is that which we don’t understand laughing at. The reason why we don’t understand laughing at something is not that it is unfunny; rather, we don’t understand laughing at it because it’s boring or offensive or disgusting — or utterly unlike the other things that amuse us — and the resulting incongruousness of laughing at it is the reason why we think it isn’t funny, despite our laughter.

Thus, what it makes sense to be amused by depends in part on what it makes sense to be disgusted, bored, or offended by. And each of these latter responses has its own functional profile, determining how it fits into our self-understanding, perhaps in conjunction with yet other responses. What’s admirable or desirable may therefore bear indirectly on what’s amusing, by way of what is or isn’t boring.

These examples illustrate, further, the idiosyncratic nature of responses and the corresponding values. What makes sense for me to admire is not necessarily what makes sense for you to admire, in light of the functional-explanatory connections between admiration and other responses such as belief, desire, love, hate, fear, and awe, in which you and I may also differ. Each of us can thus have sensibilities in light of which things can be valuable for one of us without necessarily being valuable for the other, because valuing them makes sense for one but not for both.

Idiosyncrasy has its limits, however. There are many responses that all of us tend to have by virtue of our common human nature. Such nearly universal responses include an array of physiological appetites; an aversion to pain, separation, and frustration; an inclination toward pleasure, connection, and the fluid exercise of skill; the inborn and automatic fight-or-flight response; an interest in the human face and form; an initial dislike of snakes, spiders, blood, and the dark; and so on. Given the holism of what makes sense in our responses, these fixed points of human nature constrain most if not all of our values. Some things are desirable for any human being, because desiring them will make sense for anyone; other things simply cannot be desirable, because desiring them won’t make sense for anyone. That’s not to say that everyone desires the former and doesn’t desire the latter; rather, it’s to say that everyone would make more sense to himself desiring the former and not desiring the latter, given his natural endowment as a member of the species.

The fixed points of human nature place different degrees of constraint on the intelligibility of different responses. Disgust is directly plugged in to the physiological reactions of gagging and retching; desire is regularly sparked by the appetites, but it can also flare up independently, in response to just about anything; there may be nothing that human nature determines us to admire, and yet admiration is deeply embedded in the network of other attitudes; whereas amusement mostly floats free of the network, except for the few connections through which it is inhibited by fear, disgust, anger, and boredom. What makes sense by way of each response is consequently more or less constrained, depending on its degree of natural connectivity.

I believe that the previously noted shades of objectivity and subjectivity can be explained by these considerations — idiosyncratic differences in how it makes sense to respond, commonalities based in our shared nature, the possibility of responding incongruously and of cultivating more intelligible responses. As the intelligibility of a response is more closely tied to our individual characters, the response is susceptible to more specific guidance from a personal standard of appropriateness; as the intelligibility of a response is more closely tied to our common nature, the response is susceptible to more specific guidance from an interpersonal standard; and a standard of appropriateness may itself be improved, as the corresponding sensibility is rendered more intelligible.

A sensibility can become more intelligible, for example, by following recognizable regularities. Practical reasoning therefore favors cultivating appreciative responses to things that belong to general kinds, kinds that are recognizable, if not by explicit description, then at least by family resemblance. Whatever makes it intelligible for me to laugh at a particular joke — thereby making the joke amusing, at least for me — would make it intelligible for me to laugh at any relevantly similar joke, which would therefore qualify as amusing for me, too.67 Insofar as I can generalize about what kinds of jokes amuse me, or what kinds of people I admire, I can better understand why I am laughing at a particular joke or emulating a particular person.

Practical reason thus encourages me to identify kinds of jokes, recognizable by family resemblance if not by description, that constitute what is amusing for me. It thereby pushes me toward a position that appears to confirm the view that being amusing-for-me is a real, descriptive property of things. The reason why amusingness-for-me comes to seem like a real property, however, is that I have cultivated a sense of humor that is regularly responsive to jokes of recognizable kinds, so that I can understand being amused, when I am amused. The same goes for my senses of admiration, inspiration, disgust, and so on: they have been cultivated under rational pressure to be responsive to recognizable kinds of things, which constitute what is admirable, inspiring, or disgusting for me.

Thus, the notion that values are properties distributed consistently among things or states of affairs is actually the reflection of a pattern into which our evaluative responses tend to fall when regulated in accordance with reasons for responding, which are conditions in light of which a response would make sense. The ultimate criterion of appropriateness for an evaluative response is intelligibility, which can be characterized independently of any postulation of values and can therefore be constitutive of values instead.

Although the most intelligible responses are usually those which are consistent across recognizable kinds of things and coherent with our other responses, departures from this pattern can be more intelligible in isolated cases. After all, intelligibility is a holistic matter of overall explanatory coherence, which sometimes requires trade-offs between alternative marginal gains or losses. And because values are constituted by intelligible responses rather than vice versa, we should tolerate cases in which the most intelligible responses cannot be modeled by a consistent distribution of values: they are simply cases in which the normal pattern of intelligibility doesn’t hold.

As I have pointed out, conflicting attitudes can undermine intelligibility by making it difficult to identify an intelligible course of action. But in the case of procreative decisions, some of the most significant attitudes are essentially retrospective — such as love for a particular child, which is not available antecedently to guide the decision. It makes no sense to conceive a child out of love for it, an attitude that will not be possible until it exists. After the child exists, both thankfulness and regret may make sense as responses to it under different modes of presentation; and they may make sense all things considered, as parts of a holistically intelligible set of responses.

Consider again the parents of a severely disabled child. These parents may feel that if they truly love their child, as they unquestionably do, then they cannot lament the fact of having had a disabled child, all things considered; and yet they cannot help lamenting what is unquestionably a lamentable fact. The resulting sense of emotional dissonance can wreak additional damage on the child and the family. In my view, however, there is no dissonance between the emotions themselves; the dissonance is between values that the emotions are mistakenly taken to reflect.

The parents should therefore forget about evaluating their child’s existence and feel the emotions that clearly make sense for them to feel. What’s intelligible in their responses may cast an inconsistent set of shadows on the world, but they are, after all, only shadows.

Let me turn, finally, to the topic with which I started this series: our obligations to future generations. In Part I, I argued that the inheritance we pass on to future generations cannot harm or benefit them, and that our moral relations to them must therefore be conceived in different terms. In Part II, I argued that our moral relations to future people should be conceived in terms of an obligation to take due consideration for the importance of human life, as the context in which personhood is realized or damaged. In this part, I have argued that the gratitude felt by future persons for their existence will be rationally compatible with resentment over their progenitors’ lack of due consideration for human life in their case. The supposed gift of life will therefore be no compensation for the wrong we do in disregarding the possibilities for human flourishing or suffering in the future.


1 This series was first published in Philosophy & Public Affairs 36 (2008): 221-288. It was written in conjunction with an undergraduate course on “Future Persons” taught at New York University in the fall of 2007. Thanks to the participants in the course and to Imogen Dickie, Jeff Sebo, and the editors of Philosophy & Public Affairs. Part I replaces the corresponding part in the published version.

2 Parfit first discussed the problem in “On Doing the Best for Our Children”, in Ethics and Population, ed. Michael D. Bayles (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1976), pp. 100-115. See also Robert Merrihew Adams, “Existence, Self-Interest, and the Problem of Evil”, Noûs 13 (1979): 53-65; Gregory S. Kavka, “The Paradox of Future Individuals”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 11 (1982): 93-112 ; and Thomas Schwartz, “Obligations to Posterity”, in Obligations to Future Generations, ed. R. I. Sikora and Brian Barry (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), pp. 3-13. I will deal primarily with Parfit’s discussion of the problem in Part IV of Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

3 Reasons and Persons, p. 205. Parfit modifies this definition by adopting Sydney Shoemaker’s concept of “Q-memory” to cancel the possible implication that X’s remembering Y’s experiences already entails by definition that X is the same person as Y (pp. 219-223). I will assume that ‘memory’ means “Q-memory”.

4 For the importance of a feature’s distinctiveness, see pp. 300-301 and note 6 on p. 515. For the importance of a feature’s value to the subject, see p. 299. See also the discussion of “The Nineteenth Century Russian” on pp. 327-329.

5 This point was made by Paul Volkening Torek in an unpublished paper and in his Ph.D. dissertation, Something to look forward to: Personal identity, prudence, and ethics, University of Michigan, 1995. For the idea that “what matters in survival” is ambiguous in Parfit’s usage, see also Tamar Szabó Gendler, “Personal Identity and Thought-Experiments”, The Philosophical Quarterly 52 (2002), pp. 34-54.

I also suspect that Parfit equivocates on the term ‘continuity’. In some contexts, he uses ‘continuity’ for the ancestral of connectedness. But because he emphasizes the connections that consist in the mere persistence of a trait or attitude, he sometimes understands ‘continuity’ to mean “qualitative continuity”, in the sense that denotes the absence of abrupt qualitative changes. See, e.g., p. 301 of Reasons and Persons.

6 See, e.g., p. 260.

7 See, e.g. pp. 282-283.

8 See, e.g., pp. 284, 394, 392.

9 See p. 301.

10 This case is first introduced on pp. 199-201. It is discussed again on pp. 287-289.

11 p. 201.

12 p. 289.

13 Ibid.

14 p. 302.

15 See pp. 286-287, where Parfit discusses the case in which psychological continuity and connectedness have a cause that isn’t reliable. Parfit says that a Replica to whom one is unreliably connected is just as good as one to whom one’s connection is reliable. He compares this case to that of a medication that effects a cure sometimes but not reliably: “This effect is just as good, even though its cause was unreliable.” This analogy suggests that what matters in survival are the effects of one’s causal connections to future selves, not the connections themselves.

16 This and the next several sections draw on material from my “Self to Self”, The Philosophical Review 105 (1996): 39-76; reprinted in Self to Self: Selected Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 170-202. That paper draws in turn on Bernard Williams’s “Imagination and the Self”, in Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956–1972 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 26-45. Parfit makes a similar point on p. 221:

Since Jane seems to remember seeing the lightning, she seems to remember herself seeing the lightning. Her apparent memory may tell her accurately what Paul’s experience was like, but it tells her, falsely, that it was she who had this experience.

There may be a sense in which this claim is true. Jane’s apparent memories may come to her in what [Christopher] Peacocke calls the first-person mode of presentation. Thus, when she seems to remember walking across the Piazza, she might seem to remember seeing a child running towards her. If this is what she seems to remember, she must be seeming to remember herself seeing this child running towards her.

We might deny these claims. In a dream, I can seem to see myself from a point of view outside my own body. I might seem to see myself running towards that point of view. Since it is myself that I seem to see running in this direction, this direction cannot be towards myself. I might say that I seem to see myself running towards the seer’s point of view. And this could be said to be the direction in which Jane seems to remember seeing this child run. So described, Jane’s apparent memory would include no references to herself.

Though we could deny that Jane’s apparent memories must seem, in part, to be about herself, there is no need to do so. Even if her apparent memories are presented in the first-person mode, Jane need not assume that, if they are not delusions, they must be memories of her own experiences….

17 For help with this analysis of first-person reference in dreams, I am indebted to Imogen Dickie.

18 The thought “I am Wittgenstein”, as entertained by the “I” of the dream, would not have been sufficient, since it would have been compatible with the dream’s being about a madman who thought he was Wittgenstein.

19 See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception: “[W]ith my immediate past, I have also the horizon of futurity which surrounded it, and thus I have my actual present seen as the future of that past. With the imminent future, I have the horizon of past which will surround it, and therefore my actual present as the past of that future” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings, ed. Thomas Baldwin [London: Routledge, 2003], p. 82).

20 This intimacy would be lacking if I were going to undergo fission, as in the Branch-Line Case. I discuss this issue in “Self to Self”.

21 In considering this question, I needn’t worry about the metaphysical dispute between counterpart theorists and theorists who posit strict transworld identities. Whether another possible David Velleman is related to me in the way that justifies self-concern doesn’t depend on whether he is strictly identical to me or merely more similar to me than anyone else in his world. (I do wonder, however, whether the inaccessibility of transworld identicals to self-concern played a role in David Lewis’s intuitions when he developed his counterpart theory.)

22 Thanks to Elena Weinstein for making this connection. As Matt Hanser has pointed out to me, this conception of what matters in survival helps to explain why, as Lucretius observed, we want to die later but don’t regret not having been born earlier. We cannot complete psychological cadences for the past selves who would have been born earlier, but we can start psychological cadences for our longer-lived future selves to complete. Some explain the difference by arguing that we would not have been identical with a person born earlier. (See Thomas Nagel, “Death”, in Mortal Questions [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991], pp. 4-10.) I think that the explanation does not depend on the necessity of our origins. Even if we could have been identical with an earlier-born person, our relation to that person lacks what matters in survival.

23 This part was presented to the Legal Theory Working Group at The Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy, University of Buffalo, and to the Legal Theory Workshop at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. I also had helpful discussions or correspondence on the topic with Jules Coleman, Daniela Dover, Robin Jeshion, Arthur Ripstein, Brian Slattery, and Paul F. Velleman.

24 As Matthew Hanser pointed out, no one can act with the intention of bringing a particular person into existence (“Harming Future People”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 19 [1990]: 47-70, p. 61).

25 For a different defense of the same position, see Rivka Weinberg, “The Moral Complexity of Sperm Donation”, Bioethics 22 (2008): 166-178.

26 Seana Valentine Shiffrin, “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm”, Legal Theory 5 (1999): 117-148. Brad Inwood has directed me to Seneca’s De Beneficiis, Book 3, Sections 29-38. For example: “[I]t is a pretty trivial benefit for a father and mother to sleep together unless there are additional benefits to follow up on this initial gift and to consolidate it with additional services to the child. It is not living which is the good, but living well. And I do live well. But I could have lived badly” (Section 38, Inwood’s translation).

27 That the goods and ills of existence are in some sense asymmetric is an intuition discussed by several philosophers. See, e.g., Trudy Govier, “What Should We Do About Future People?”, American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 105-113; David Benatar, “Why It Is Better Never to Come Into Existence”, American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1997): 345-355; and Michael Tooley, “Value, Obligation and the Asymmetry Question”, Bioethics 12 (1998): 111-124. The issue is also discussed by Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 391.

28 For this account of suffering, see Eric J. Cassell, “Recognizing Suffering”, The Hastings Center Report 21 (1991): 24-31. See also Kathy Charmaz, “Loss of Self: A Fundamental Form of Suffering in the Chronically Ill”, Sociology of Health & Illness 5 (1983): 168-195.

29 Because coping is an exercise of the will, it requires choice on the part of the subject. That’s why we can sometimes think that people have chosen to suffer, although we’re never quite sure. There is no clear line between inability and unwillingness to cope, but there certainly are cases in which someone could cope but chooses not to; or maybe he cannot choose to cope.

30 ‘Well-being’ and ‘flourishing’ are not precise equivalents for Aristotle’s ‘eudaimonia’, since they can be achieved at a particular time, whereas eudaimonia can be achieved only over the course of an entire life.

31 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).

32 Jeff Sebo has directed me to Henry Sidgwick’s remarks on the subject: “This … we might partly classify under … duties arising out of special needs: for no doubt children are naturally objects of compassion, on account of their helplessness, to others besides their parents. On the latter they have a claim of a different kind, springing from the universally recognized duty of not causing pain or any harm to other human beings, directly or indirectly, except in the way of deserved punishment: for the parent, being the cause of the child’s existing in a helpless condition, would be indirectly the cause of the suffering and death that would result to it if neglected. Still this does not seem an adequate explanation of parental duty, as recognised by Common Sense. For we commonly blame a parent who leaves his children entirely to the care of others, even if he makes ample provision for their being nourished and trained up to the time at which they can support themselves by their own labour. We think that he owes them affection (as far as this can be said to be a duty) and the tender and watchful care that naturally springs from affection: and, if he can afford it, somewhat more than the necessary minimum of food, clothing, and education” (The Methods of Ethics [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1981], p. 249).

33 My discussion of donor conception will be confined to the typical case of anonymous donation between strangers. Cases of donation within families, or of “open” donation, are significantly different in respects that would call for different treatment.

34 For a similar view, see Rahul Kumar, “Who Can Be Wronged?”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 31 (2003): 99-118.

35 For more on the Convention, and some social and legal perspectives on this issue, see footnote 3 in chapter 5 of this volume (“Family History”), and the works cited therein.

36 As Sophia Moreau has pointed out to me, there are cultures in which one’s identity is largely dictated by social convention. Even within these cultures, however, the individual remains responsible for a significant degree of self-definition. From our cultural distance, the nineteenth-century British housemaid seems to have been stamped with a prefabricated identity; below stairs, however, that housemaid may have been no less self-defined than we are today.

37 My argument does not rest on any particular quantitative measures of heritability. I cite these statistics only for the sake of suggesting a rough order of magnitude to which psychological traits are probably heritable. In considering the statistics, keep in mind that what accounts for variance among individuals does not necessarily account for variance among groups. For example, individual variance in skin color is largely heritable, but the variance between lifeguards and coal miners is almost entirely due to environment.

The statistics cited here are drawn from Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., “Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits: A Survey”, Current Directions in Psychological Science 13 (2004): 148-151. On the heritability of values and religious attitudes, see Laura B. Koenig and Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., “Genetic and Environmental Influences on the Traditional Moral Values Triad — Authoritarianism, Conservatism, and Religiousness — as Assessed by Quantitative Behavior Genetic Methods”, in Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion, Volume I: Evolution, Genes, and the Religious Brain, ed. Patrick McNamara (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), pp. 31-60.

38 My arguments in Part I imply that the benefit in question consisted, not in a counterfactual life history that would have been preferable, but rather in an improvement that could have been brought about in your actual future prospects. Of course, if your parents conceived you with the intention of transferring their parental obligations to others, then this benefit may have been ruled out before you existed, hence before you had any future prospects to be improved. As I explain at the end of this part, however, it would have been wrong of your parents to conceive a child with the intention of refusing to provide the relevant benefit when it became possible to provide it.

39 I discussed this phenomenon in Part I, and I have discussed it before in “Self to Self” and “So It Goes” (chapter 8 of this volume).

40 See footnote 2 of “Family History”, chapter 5 of this volume.

41 See David M. Brodzinsky, “A Stress and Coping Model of Adoption Adjustment”, in The Psychology of Adoption, ed. David M. Brodzinsky and Marshall D. Schechter (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 3-24; and Steven L. Nickman, “Retroactive Loss in Adopted Persons”, in Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief, ed. Dennis Klass, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven L. Nickman (Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1996), pp. 257-272.

42 See Robin Jeshion, “Acquaintanceless De Re Belief”, in Meaning and Truth: Investigations in Philosophical Semantics, ed. Joseph Keim Campbell, Michael O’Rourke, and David Shier (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2002), pp. 53-74. I am grateful to Jeshion for suggesting this way of expressing what was a vague intuition on my part.

43 Again, see Jeshion, “Acquaintanceless De Re Belief”.

44 This part was presented to the graduate student colloquium at New York University (February 2008); at The Fourth Steven Humphrey Excellence in Philosophy Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara (February 2008), where the commentator was Mark Schroeder; to an ethics conference at Northwestern University (May 2008), where the commentator was Richard Kraut; to a seminar on the ethical significance of emotions at the Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (Oslo, June 2008); and to the philosophy department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For comments and suggestions, I am grateful to the participants in these events and to Paul Boghossian, Caspar Hare, Robin Jeshion, Nishi Shah, and Sharon Street.

This part bears some similarity to Larry S. Temkin’s “Intransitivity and the Mere Addition Paradox”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 16 (1987): 138-187. Both seek to show that a combination of views about future persons is not as paradoxical as it seems. The difference between the papers is this: Temkin focuses on failures of transitivity among comparative judgments; I address a different problem, in which the value of a general state of affairs appears inconsistent with the values of all possible instances. I am unsure whether the metaethical solution that I propose for the latter problem is called for by the former.

The paper also overlaps in important respects with Caspar Hare’s “Voices from Another World: Must We Respect the Interests of People Who Do Not, and Will Never, Exist?”, Ethics 117 (2007): 498-523. In the last section of that paper, Hare discusses the difference between de re and de dicto concern for persons, which is more or less the same difference that I discuss here.

Finally, Jeff McMahan discusses many of the same issues in “Preventing the Existence of People with Disabilities”, in Quality of Life and Human Difference: Genetic Testing, Health Care, and Disability, ed. David Wasserman, Jerome Bickenbach, and Robert Wachbroit (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 142-171. My approach to these issues is similar to McMahan’s in some respects and different in others. The closest similarity is to remarks that he makes about “attachments” on pp. 159ff. The greatest difference is that McMahan analyzes cases of this kind as involving changes of evaluative judgment, whereas I analyze them as involving pairs of judgments that seem inconsistent only if understood in mistakenly realist terms.

45 This case is discussed by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons, chapter 16.

46 McMahan makes the same point, on p. 155.

47 This reconciliation is the one that I propose in “Family History”, chapter 5 of this volume. I now regard it as inadequate.

48 On the role of perception in love, see my “Love as a Moral Emotion”, Ethics 109 (1999): 338-374, reprinted in Self to Self, pp. 70-109, and “Beyond Price”, chapter 4 of this volume.

49 Thus, an expectant mother who says that she already loves her future child may not be speaking the truth, in philosophical strictness. She may be imagining how she will love the child, mentally simulating what it will be like to love the child, or having fantasies of loving it. But until she becomes acquainted with it, her emotion cannot be love.

When does a prospective mother become acquainted with her child? I would say that she becomes acquainted with it when she first perceives it. And when does she first perceive her child? I would say that she perceives the child at the point traditionally called quickening, when the fetus begins to make movements that she can feel. Thus, the tradition that interpreted quickening to be a morally relevant threshold was not just a superstition, in my view; it drew what may indeed be a morally relevant distinction.

50 This dissolution of the problem would be unnecessary if our emotions led us to judgments positing distinct and incomparable values. If we judged merely that the girl’s initial decision was imprudent, whereas the baby is beautiful, then we could interpret our judgments as descriptions satisfiable in the one and only actual world, on the grounds that beauty has nothing to do with prudence. Pluralism about values could thus spare us from resorting to antirealism.

But I am imagining us as drawing — as I think we do draw — all-things-considered conclusions about whether a baby, or this baby, should have been brought into existence. And I am imagining that, whereas we still think that the girl shouldn’t have had the baby she did, we think otherwise about this baby’s having been had. Pluralism about value won’t render these judgments compatible.

Parfit considers other ways of dealing with the conflict, but none strikes me as satisfactory. For example, Parfit claims that, were he the child of a birth that was unfortunate when viewed prospectively, he would agree in retrospect that he shouldn’t have been born. I think that he might indeed hold this judgment, but I think that he would also be glad to have been born, so that the former judgment doesn’t settle the issue.

I also prefer this solution to the one favored by McMahan, according to which we change our minds about the girl’s decision to have a baby. McMahan considers a solution like mine, when discussing the evaluative import of “attachments to particulars”, but he ultimately drops the solution in favor of one based on a change of mind.

51 See Matthew Hanser, “Harming Future People”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 19 (1990): 47-70, p. 61.

52 I do not accept Allan Gibbard’s conception of value judgments as hypothetical plans for what to do if in the relevant agent’s circumstances (Thinking How to Live [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003]). Plans are not evaluative, and evaluations are not plans. When the girl decided to have a baby, the natural expression of her plan would have been “I’m going to have a baby” — not “Having a baby is the thing for me to do.” And if she had said, “Having a baby is the thing for me to do,” a natural rejoinder would have been “So are you going to have one?” — which would have been an inquiry as to her plan.

53 Some think that a life is definitely not worth continuing if the benefits of each additional moment are less than the burdens. I do not believe that the value of continuing a life can be reduced to a balance of these momentary values. See my “Well-Being and Time”, chapter 7 of this volume.

54 See Bernard Williams’s discussion of “categorical desires” in “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”, in Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956–1972 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 82-100.

55 See p. 487: “[A person] might … decide that he was glad about or regretted what lay behind him. He might decide that, at some point in the past, if he had known what lay before him, he would or would not have wanted to live the rest of his life. He might thus conclude that these parts of his life were better or worse than nothing. If such claims can apply to parts of a life, they can apply, I believe, to whole lives.” In my view, Parfit here misinterprets the comparison that is made by someone who regrets having continued to live after some point in the past. According to Parfit, the person is judging his life since that point to have been “worse than nothing” — worse, that is, than nonexistence. I would say that the person is judging his life with its recent continuation to be worse than the life he would have had without it.

56 For this point, and its application to the non-identity problem, see Rahul Kumar, “Who Can Be Wronged?”.

57 Ordinarily, the prospect of waiving a right arises in the context of three possible outcomes. We can (1) retain the right in order to ensure either (a) that it will be fulfilled or (b) that we will have legitimate grounds to protest its nonfulfillment; or we can (2) waive the right. Entertaining all three outcomes, we may prefer to retain the right, even though we would prefer to waive it if outcome (1)(a) were excluded. That is, we may think that retaining the right for the sake of possibly having it fulfilled would be sensible, but that retaining it merely for the sake of having grounds for protest would be petty and foolish.

Given our preferences, the party against whom we hold the right can induce us to waive it if he can manage to take outcome (1)(a) off the table. But surely a waiver obtained by such means would not be normatively valid. He cannot gain release from fulfilling our right by confronting us with the fact that he isn’t going to fulfill it, so that our only alternative to waiving the right is to retain it for the petty purpose of lodging a protest.

To be sure, the child of a fourteen-year-old mother cannot exactly claim that she has taken outcome (1)(a) off the table: it was never on the table for this particular child. And yet the child may still waive his birthright because his only alternative is to complain that it cannot be fulfilled. And such a waiver is granted less voluntarily, because it is granted in the presence of fewer relevant alternatives, than the waiver of a right that can still be fulfilled. Its validity is therefore questionable.

58 This conception of value is defended at greater length in my “A Theory of Value”, Ethics 118 (2008): 410-436, and in Lecture 2 of How We Get Along (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

59 When I speak of action, I mean specifically human action. I agree with Harry Frankfurt that the concept of human action may be “a special case of another concept whose range is much wider”, in that it encompasses action on the part of nonhuman organisms (“The Problem of Action”, American Philosophical Quarterly 15 [1978]: 157-162; reprinted in The Importance of What We Care About [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988], 69-79, p. 79). As Frankfurt explains, the generic concept is that of behavior controlled by the organism, not just one of its constituent subsystems or parts. On this subject, see my “What Happens When Someone Acts?”, Mind 101 (1992): 461-481; and “Identification and Identity”, in The Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt, ed. Sarah Buss and Lee Overton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 91-128, reprinted in Self to Self: Selected Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 330-360. See also my “The Way of the Wanton”, in Practical Identity and Narrative Agency, ed. Kim Atkins and Catriona MacKenzie (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 169-192, reprinted in The Possibility of Practical Reason, second edition (Ann Arbor, MI: Maize Books, 2015).

60 Here I am ignoring the case of acting or responding for bad reasons, which do not actually make the action or response appropriate. The case of bad reasons must be analyzed in terms of good ones, which must therefore be analyzed first.

61 Donald G. Dutton and Arthur P. Aron, “Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 30 (1974): 510-517. I review related research in “From Self Psychology to Moral Philosophy”, Philosophical Perspectives 14 (2000): 349-377, reprinted in Self to Self, pp. 224-252. Among my claims in that paper is that various disagreements among researchers in this field — which I am glossing over here — are based on misunderstandings that obscure broad areas of agreement.

62 Susan E. Brodt and Philip G. Zimbardo, “Modifying Shyness-Related Social Behavior Through Symptom Misattribution”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41 (1981): 437-449.

63 See James D. Laird, “The Real Role of Facial Response in the Experience of Emotion: A Reply to Tourangeau and Ellsworth, and Others”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47 (1984): 909-917; and Sandra E. Duclos, James D. Laird, Eric Schneider, Melissa Sexter, Lisa Stern, and Oliver Van Lighten, “Emotion-Specific Effects of Facial Expressions and Postures on Emotional Experience”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (1989): 100-108.

64 For an insightful description of this process as it may take place in child development, see Barbara Herman, Moral Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 13-18.

65 In “The Authority of Affect”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63 (2001): 181-214, Mark Johnston argues that the positive or negative affect involved in a desire can render its motivational force intelligible by presenting its object as “appealing” or “repellent”. I am not speaking of intelligibility in this sense; I am speaking instead of the psychological-explanatory intelligibility of a response, in light of its role in a person’s mental economy.

66 I don’t mean to deny the possibility of sick and offensive humor. But these forms of humor usually work by testing the limits of the disgusting or offensive; they fall flat as soon as they cause genuine disgust or offense. We laugh partly out of surprise at what we can see or hear without becoming sick or angry; beyond that point, the laughing stops.

67 On a particular occasion, of course, the relevant similarity may not be an intrinsic quality of the joke itself: what makes it intelligible for me to laugh on this occasion may be that I’m drunk or nervous, which would make it intelligible for me to laugh at just about anything. Yet I am also under rational pressure to identify kinds of jokes that regularly tend to amuse me by themselves, so that I can comprehend my responses to jokes more generally, without reference to the circumstances. And a joke that’s amusing for me on this occasion because I’m drunk or nervous may not be intrinsically amusing for me — not “really” amusing, I might say — because it is not the kind of joke that generally makes it intelligible for me to laugh. This notion of what is “really” amusing (or desirable or admirable or whatever) solves a problem raised by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson in “The Moralistic Fallacy: On the ‘Appropriateness’ of Emotions”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61 (2000): 65-90.