Identity and Misanthropy
By Bryan Caplan
Paul Kelleher’s critique of my recent post on mobility and misanthropy is a rare pleasure. He begins by carefully explaining and defending a position on personal identity that I’ve repeatedly championed. Kelleher:
The following claims seem true: I could have gone to a different
college. I could have been a doctor instead of a professor. I could
have died early.
The following claims seem patently false: I could have been a lego
block. I could have been my grandfather’s son instead of my
So what makes a counterfactual about me true, while others are obviously ridiculous?*
Philosophers tend to agree that in order for such a claim to be
true, it must presuppose that I am identical to the individual who grew
out of the particular sperm and egg that combined to make me. That is, if it makes sense to imagine that that individual–the individual created by that
unique sperm/egg pair–went to a different college or, heaven forbid,
died in an early car accident, then these counterfactuals about me can
be true. But if it doesn’t make sense to speak of these things
happening to me, then they are probably false. That’s why I could never
have been a lego block.
One implication of this view is that if my parents had decided not
to have a baby in 1979, and instead had waited two years, then it is
quite probable that I would never have existed. After all, my parents did
have a child two years after they had me–they had my brother–and he
is a wholly different individual from me. He is a wholly different
individual because he resulted from a different sperm/egg pairing. On
the other hand, if my parents had–miraculously–saved the specific
sperm and egg that in fact created me and then joined them in 1981
instead of 1979, then, yes, that would have been me.
This is the currently dominant view of the metaphysics of existence in contemporary analytic philosophy.
So far, Kelleher and I are in profound agreement. So where’s the dispute? Kelleher:
if Caplan is correct that it is “misanthropic” to prevent an individual
from existing, then Caplan faces the very same charge of misanthropy.
For in delaying procreation, prospective parents virtually guarantee
that the child who’s born later is a metaphysically different
individual than the child who would have been born if the delay had not
occurred. Indeed, if a woman ends up procreating with a different man
down the road, then it is metaphysically certain that the resulting
child is not the same individual who would have been born if there had
been no delay. This raises a serious problem for Caplan. He thinks it’s
wrong (or at least bad)** to deny individuals existence. But that is
what I’m doing right now by typing this blog post instead of
procreating. And it is what prospective parents would be doing by taking Caplan’s own
advice to delay procreating by a few years. If neither I nor those
prospective parents are doing anything wrong in failing to procreate
here and now, then Caplan is wrong that it is necessarily misanthropic
to prevent someone’s existence.
Reply: My original post was objecting to the view that, holding the welfare of all other people
fixed, the creation of an additional relatively poor person is bad. My claim is that, all else equal, it’s misanthropic to prefer the existence of no one to someone. Indeed, that’s almost a definition of misanthropy. I’m not saying that:
a. It’s misanthropic to prefer the creation of one person to the creation of a different person.
b. It’s wrong (or even bad) to fail to make unlimited sacrifices to create additional people.