The Non-Identity Problem.

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.

25 thoughts on “The Non-Identity Problem.

  1. Srikant August 11, 2011 at 21:01

    “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.”
    Smartest opponents? I never saw them as smart. But probably it’s because you see them that way that you could calmly come up with this:
    “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,”
    How neatly it rubbishes them!

    I got to see a NIP guy recently somewhere. I think these NIP people are just, you know, seeing us talk something they don’t like, sometimes in a smart-sounding language, so they juggle up similar phrases to say what they like, and also sound smart like us.

    • Francois Tremblay August 11, 2011 at 23:31

      They are the “smartest” people who argue against us, relatively speaking. I didn’t say they were smart. So far the caliber of intelligence of the people arguing against us is pretty low. I expect this will change, which is why we need to address these arguments NOW instead of LATER.

  2. n8chz August 12, 2011 at 07:44

    It sounds like maybe they are saying “non-identity problem” when they mean “identity non-problem.”

  3. Noor August 12, 2011 at 18:09

    I think part of the reason people conflate the ‘actual’ and ‘potential’ persons part is because of the reverse of the time/continuity thing. If you’re going to say a potential person shouldn’t exist, then you might as well say the actual person shouldn’t exist either. At least that’s how it goes for a lot of people’s logic.

    Also I’m not sure whether the talk about potential persons makes too much sense, insofar as they just sounds like souls, an infinite number of them waiting to enter each baby.

    I don’t think the pregnant woman signing her baby into slavery is a completely valid comparison to potential people either. I don’t really buy into the anti-abortion rhetoric, but I do think ‘life’ *partially* begins at conception…so if a non-pregnant woman signed a contract promising any future children into slavery, that might be a better comparison.

    • Francois Tremblay August 12, 2011 at 18:15

      “I think part of the reason people conflate the ‘actual’ and ‘potential’ persons part is because of the reverse of the time/continuity thing. If you’re going to say a potential person shouldn’t exist, then you might as well say the actual person shouldn’t exist either. At least that’s how it goes for a lot of people’s logic.”

      What I am saying is that we can meaningfully talk about the properties of potential people. Nothing to do with potential people being equal to actual people.

      “Also I’m not sure whether the talk about potential persons makes too much sense, insofar as they just sounds like souls, an infinite number of them waiting to enter each baby.”

      No… precisely my point is that we are not talking about souls. Potential people do not exist. They do not have desires and do not suffer. The reason why we can talk about potential people is because they may become actual persons- either because of a fetus, as a sperm and egg, or any other form.

      “I don’t think the pregnant woman signing her baby into slavery is a completely valid comparison to potential people either. I don’t really buy into the anti-abortion rhetoric, but I do think ‘life’ *partially* begins at conception…”

      “Life” is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about personhood and vested interests. It is not relevant to us when a fetus is alive.

      “so if a non-pregnant woman signed a contract promising any future children into slavery, that might be a better comparison.”

      That example can be used too, sure.

  4. […] gap that voluntaryists and other opponents can exploit (much like natalists try to exploit the gap between conception and birth as an argument against the rights of future people). By separating the act from its context (such […]

  5. […] as I have addressed when I talked about the Non-Identity Problem, it makes sense to speak of a fetus embodying rights, despite the fact that a fetus does not […]

  6. […] have previously discussed how to debunk the Non-Identity Problem, hoping to put it to rest. It doesn’t seem that this is happening, however. The natalists […]

  7. polisny August 17, 2012 at 11:32

    No, this is wrong. You cannot talk about potential persons as though that is what anti-natalism is about. You are not talking about potential persons at all. You are talking about “would never exists” and thus, an unrelated “state of affairs” that would have no meaning since there would be no agency in that hypothesis for your brand of consequentialism to function.

    A potential person means one that will come into existence.
    The problem of non-identity is the same as “nothing.” One cannot talk about the methaphysics of nothingness. It is, no thing. No state, no action, no existence. And, the very argument that you advance wants to talk about the world as though no persons could be talked about.

    It doesn’t work. You are obliged to talk about potential persons, which refutes your argument from the get go since in the very prefix and root of the doctrine we see that it is not about potential lives but about no lives and an apparently detached morality that exists “out there,” when, in actuality, you are using your consequentialism from our perspective and applying it to a world without agency, wherein of course no -ism would exist.

    This brand of ethical consequentialism is as suseptible as any consequentialism. It is an attempt at focusing on one, singular value as though humans agreed that such were compass enough. But, we don’t.

    • Francois Tremblay August 17, 2012 at 12:30

      “You cannot talk about potential persons as though that is what anti-natalism is about. You are not talking about potential persons at all.”

      Apparently you were not very careful in reading my entry, since I specify that what I am talking about is states of affairs:
      “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. ”
      So, this is not news to me.

      “And, the very argument that you advance wants to talk about the world as though no persons could be talked about.”
      What? That makes no sense. Of course people can be talked about, and there are plenty of antinatalist arguments that pertain to people and societies that exist. It’s just not within the purview of this particular argument.

      “your consequentialism ”
      I am not a consequentialist, and I’ve written extensively against consequentialism. So I’m not sure what ass you pulled that from.

    • filrabat August 20, 2012 at 23:28

      1. “A potential person means one that will come into existence”.
      I’m afraid this is just plain mistaken. A potential person means one that COULD come into existence, whether it actually will do so or not”. Your previous paragraph is based on this faulty definition of “potential”, so I see no point in addressing it
      “The problem of non-identity is the same as “nothing.” One cannot talk about the methaphysics of nothingness. It is, no thing. No state, no action, no existence. And, the very argument that you advance wants to talk about the world as though no persons could be talked about.”
      You’re simply not taking the passage of time into account, not to mention “What ifs?” We can talk about what can happen to a person who might be born five years from now. If 20 years in the future, three bullets hit his chest, then he is extremely likely to be dead. If the person is not born, then the person will not get three bullets to the chest. Unless there’s some special force that prevents people born five years from now from being killed in such a manner, I don’t think you can claim ‘we can’t talk meaningfully about anything’. How is the example of the not-yet-existent product killing three people NOT an example of talking meaningfully about things that don’t presently exist but almost certainly will? Between the Nov. 2000 election and the USSC decision that caused Bush to be elected, people talked meaningfully about possible scenarios, even though neither one at the time existed (If Bush wins… and If Gore wins…). Again, sounds like a case of talking about potential (my definition, not yours) presidencies that may actually exist. Insurance companies also talk about potential homes that don’t actually exist (i.e. if a house with X characteristics is built on Y soil type with a foundation with Z characteristics). If we could not talk about things that don’t exist (like a particular house), then insurance companies would not be able to predict anything in the first place (and hence not be profitable enterprises)
      Because the whole rest of your post is based on the faulty definition of “potential” you used, I see no point in addressing the rest of your post.

  8. […] As for those of you who believe the argument is pointless because we cannot speak meaningfully about what does not exist, I’ve already debunked that position in my entry on the Non-Identity Problem. […]

  9. […] * The Non-Identity Problem. […]

  10. […] be “better” than pain because it is not good “for anyone” (because of the non-identity problem, which is wrong in itself) is a confusion between ethics and prudential reasons. The good, by […]

  11. Amalga June 10, 2013 at 20:41

    It is not true that the lack of desire is the same as a desire being fulfilled, one leads to memories and enjoyment. I have no desire to say go and have an indepth chat with a friend, but I do not get enjoyment from not doing it, nor do I have the memory of not doing it. It might be similar in the sense there is no desire after the fact, but really it is not the desire we are seeking to get rid of.

    If you do not kill yourself, you are simply being hypocritical. Like some existentialist said: if you aint killed yourself, then you think life is worth it. It is a contradiction from this point of view to then assume that these potential people, when actualised, might not think it is worth it.

    • Francois Tremblay June 10, 2013 at 20:52

      I think you posted this on the wrong entry. This entry doesn’t say anything about frustrationism. Nevertheless…

      “It is not true that the lack of desire is the same as a desire being fulfilled, one leads to memories and enjoyment.”
      I think the trouble is with your term “the same.” Obviously they are not just a rephrasing of each other, so they are not “the same” in that sense. But they are “the same” in the sense that having a desire, and then having the desire be fulfilled, cancels itself out. You end up in the same situation. The memory, I think, is inconsequential to the argument…

      “If you do not kill yourself, you are simply being hypocritical. Like some existentialist said: if you aint killed yourself, then you think life is worth it.”
      Of course I think MY life is worth it: I was already born and I have values and attachments that I seek to perpetuate. Like most AN critics, you are confusing life-worth-starting with life-worth-continuing. Read this:
      https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/the-equivocation-on-life/

  12. Amalga June 10, 2013 at 20:44

    *will not think it is worth it.

  13. […] child’s rights, consent, or anything like this, because the future child does not yet exist. As I have demonstrated, the Non-Identity Argument is easily and decisively refuted both intuitively and logically, so I […]

  14. […] moral difference. I have already addressed the general form of this argument in my entry on the Non-Identity Problem, so I will not repeat all the points […]

  15. […] It’s just harder to do the math where potential lives are concerned, and things like the Non-Identity Problem do occlude our view of the […]

  16. […] a similar fashion to the Non-Identity Problem, I imagine some may object that “a world without sentient life” cannot be a value […]

  17. Brian L January 8, 2015 at 19:46

    Natalists always talk about doing things in the now for the benefit of future lives ie. “Our children, and our children’s children. Economists, ecologists, and others I can’t think of off the top of my head, talk about future people, their impact, and how they will be impacted. Yet no one calls them on a NIP. Why just us? Am I not understanding, or do I understand enough that I see through the NIP issue as a non-issue?

    It pissed me off when I spoke to some philosophy lecturer and, with very little exposure to AN, he threw the NIP issue at me, dismissively. Unfortunately, I am none too quick in verbal debating, and have no background in philosophy, so I dropped it. But I knew, intuitively, he was incorrect in his dismissal. Thus I’m thrilled to have come across this post.

    • Francois Tremblay January 8, 2015 at 21:13

      Yes, the NIP is the “sophisticated” reply (i.e. the only reply they have that’s not basically an insult or or a misdirection) to antinatalism. That’s why I thought it was particularly important to address it.

      People don’t use the NIP against economists and ecologists because their arguments are mainstream enough to not be rejected out of hand. But antinatalist arguments MUST be rejected out of hand because their conclusions are intolerable. Therefore they will use any excuse to rationalize them away. But yea, what you just said is a huge point, I think.

  18. […] should be addressed: but so far I don’t believe it has been addressed, except through the Non-Identity Problem, which is a […]

  19. […] great example of that was given to me by reader Brian L. in a comment to my entry on the Non-Identity […]

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