The Non-Identity Problem (NIP) is the most credible and sophisticated counter-argument to antinatalism I have heard so far, and it is used by our smartest opponents. So I think it is particularly important that we thoroughly debunk it, if we are to open the way for more public debates on antinatalism in the future. The NIP is really not that complicated to debunk, and by making this clear, we could clear out a lot of confusion sowed by the other side.
The NIP is the argument that, because potential persons do not actually exist, it is meaningless to speak of their (physical or mental) states, including whether they have rights (note here that I am using the word “rights” in the loose sense of “a prohibition from harming,” not in the more technical sense that I have used in the past, because that is how it is used in this debate). Things that do not exist cannot have rights or states. Therefore antinatalists are incoherent when they say that it is “better never to have been.” It cannot be “better” because we can’t compare things that exist (the states of actual lives) to things that do not exist (the states of potential lives). They are also wrong to say that “it is harmful to bring potential people into existence,” because potential people cannot be harmed.
First of all, I have to point out that the NIP, if valid, would only refute some arguments for antinatalism, not nearly all of them. Using the categories of antinatalist arguments, I would say that the NIP only refutes philanthropic arguments, and none of the other categories are vulnerable to the NIP’s conclusion. Ecological antinatalism and its reliance on the environmental impact of humans does not rely on potential persons talk; teleological antinatalism, which exposes the lack of justification for procreation, does not rely on potential persons talk; and misanthropic antinatalism, relying on the facts of human character and history, likewise does not use potential persons talk.
So right away, we see that the NIP only refutes, at best, a group of antinatalist arguments, not antinatalism as an ideology. But it is still worth looking at whether it actually does refute the philanthropic arguments.
Objection from causal linkage
Does it make sense to say that potential people do not have rights? The group of potential people includes fetuses and the comatose. Like the combination of sperm and ovum, neither possesses personhood but might possess it at some future time. Based on this, NIP logically entails that a pregnant woman sniffing cocaine, or signing her future child into slavery, is not a breach of rights. But our intuition tells us that this is nonsense; when the children are born and the evils in question befall them, we clearly see that a human life’s rights were attacked, even if that life did not exist at the time of the crime. Stating that these actions are inconsequential is easy to refute once the child is born, therefore the possibility of said birth proves the existence of the crime.
Compare this with abortion. In a scenario where a fetus is aborted, no rights are attacked, since no harmed human being will actually result. The abortion is not a harm to the potential person; on the contrary, it prevents the harm of that person starting a life.
I think it should be clear now that the NIP is really just a semantics game of trying to escape causality based on the fact that cause and effect are separated in time, and that the final means through which the cause was transmitted did not co-exist with the cause.
A factory installs a machine which has a faulty programming. Using this machine, they produce a product which then kills three people. Do we say that the factory cannot be held responsible because the product did not exist at the time the machine was installed? Not at all. If the defect in the machine was discovered in time, anyone who would then have argued “it makes no sense to speak of the eventual product of this machine as harmful because the products do not yet exist, and you can’t attribute states to non-existing things” would be rightly seen as an insensate and dangerous imbecile, or as someone who is so mentally stunted that ey doesn’t understand cause and effect.
So what is it that does have rights? Obviously only existing people have rights, yes, but the potential person is a causal link to the future existing person. In the case of most potential persons, which are simple combinations of sperm and ovum, this existing person can only come to exist if one particular sperm and one particular ovum come into contact. So we can meaningfully say that the overwhelming majority of potential persons never come to be (and that’s a great thing!). In the case of fetuses, the existing person can come to exist if the fetus is not naturally or artificially aborted, again excluding a majority of them.
The comparison is not really between two persons
It may very well be that the premise of the NIP is not even correct, insofar as it assumes that antinatalism is literally talking about potential people as persons. In Better Never to Have Been, Benatar argues:
Comparing somebody’s existence with his non-existence is not to compare two possible conditions of that person. Rather it is to compare his existence with an alternative state of affairs in which he does not exist.
He also compares this sort of comparison with a person who considers whether to commit suicide. This obviously necessitates the same kind of comparison that we perform when we consider whether a person should be created, in reverse. Obviously this is not a comparison between two persons, either, since no person would exist after the suicide; and yet this is perfectly meaningful to us. Therefore, considering whether a person should be created must be perfectly meaningful as well. This is the first debunking of the NIP.
Objection from the contrapositive
The second is that we do in fact speak meaningfully about the states of things that don’t exist. If this is the case, then the NIP is invalid from its very first premise (that we cannot meaningfully speak about the states of things that do not exist). The blog Suicide Treatise, in its entry on the NIP, pointed this out for me, using the following example:
If one has hair, then one exists.
If one doesn’t exist, then one doesn’t have hair.
It should be clear that these two statements are logically equivalent (the second is the contrapositive of the first). If the first is true, then the second is necessarily true as well. Therefore it is meaningful. But it also concerns a thing that doesn’t exist. This, according to NIP, is impossible, despite the fact that it follows the laws of logic.
Let us take a statement used in an antinatalist argument, such as “if one doesn’t exist, then one cannot desire anything.” We can express this in the following way:
If one desires anything, then one exists.
If one doesn’t exist, then one cannot desire anything.
This surely cannot be any less valid than the previous contrapositive. The premise is true beyond any rational doubt. “I think therefore I am,” I desire therefore I am, is a very reasonable thing to say. But if it is true, then the contrapositive must also be true. Therefore it is meaningful to say that one that doesn’t exist cannot have the state of desiring anything, and there’s nothing inherently invalid with comparing the states of potential people to those of actual people.
Objection from basic moral talk
Now consider any moral argument about someone’s behaviour. Suppose you argue that I should not punch Robert in the face. Why should I not do it? For the sake of Robert as he will exist some time in the future. But this future-Robert, this person who has been harmed by my planned actions, does not yet exist. The Robert which exists at the moment of the argument has not been harmed by my planned actions. Likewise for the version of me in the future who will reap the consequences of my planned actions. If the NIP is correct, all moral discussions should be automatically invalid, including “you shouldn’t punch Robert in the face.” I wager this is a conclusion that few NIP proponents will accept (thanks to Todd from the antinatalist chat for this argument).
One may object that the person does exist, that the future-Robert is precisely the same person as present-Robert. I am not disagreeing that I can meaningfully say that they are both “Robert,” these future states of Robert are purely a product of my capacity to extrapolate causality.
Further, suppose that a natalist argues that this counter-argument is false because future-Robert is the same person as present-Robert because of continuity, and that we can speak meaningfully about future-Robert solely on the basis of present-Robert. But this objection destroys the premise of NIP as well. For surely the fetus, the potential person, is the same organism as the future existing person, and there is continuity there as much as between present-Robert and future-Robert. Therefore, if the objection is followed, we may speak meaningfully about the potential person solely on the basis of the future existing person, and NIP must be invalid.
Statements about fictional entities are another kind of meaningful statement we can make about non-existing things. We can say things like “Santa Claus is jolly,” even though Santa Claus himself does not exist, based on the stories and beliefs that do exist. This is not really relevant to antinatalism, but adds to the flaws of this argument.
This, therefore, is the second debunking of the NIP. If statements about the states of non-existing things are demonstrated to logically have truth-values, then the NIP doesn’t even get off the ground.