MT22 Internal Research WiP Seminar: Professor Dominic Wilkinson

The identity problem

Abstract: When we make decisions that will affect people not yet conceived, this can sometimes change the identity of those who exist. For example, because of our decision Fred could be born rather than Francis. Or 100 children may be born to parents who (if we had made a different choice), would have given birth to 100 different children.

How should we think about these decisions? In particular, should our approach be any different for these than for decisions that do not affect the identity of those who exist? If so, how different; how much does identity matter?

This question is important; in some situations we may be able to choose between these two different types of decision. For example, some forms of genetic modification may or may not alter the identity of a future child. Does that have implications for which forms of germline gene therapy we should pursue? Policies designed to reduce birth defects from taking certain medicines during pregnancy may or may not affect the future identity of children. On some philosophical views it may be much more important to pursue one of these policies rather than the other. But it is challenging to identify the degree of difference between them. Is the difference large or small? Furthermore, it is potentially extremely important to be clear whether identity will be affected or not. That might affect the permissibility of certain options. But it can be difficult to know, in some cases, whether or not the identity of the future individual will change. There may not be a determinate answer.
In this paper, I examine the extent to which identity matters in future people choices. I develop and defend what I call a two-tier deontic view, arguing that the degree to which identity matters is not fixed. It depends on the nature of the decision-maker, and the extent of their obligations to specific future individuals. Identity indeterminacy in the cases I describe is not necessarily a problem, since in many cases decision-makers do not have clear duties to individuals: we ought to treat these types of decisions symmetrically.

In-person Venue: Suite 1 Seminar Area, Littlegate House, 16-17 St Ebbe’s Street, Oxford OX1 1PT (buzzer 1)

Zoom option available: email for links