Image via The Cookie Rookie

It began with the The New Yorker’s article on Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit (which in my head I keep pronouncing as “parfait” and I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve been denying myself ice cream or because of the piece I recently read on an Italian cardiologist’s patented performance-enhancing gelato). In any case, somehow I ended up down another fascinating road…baha!…the non-identity problem!

This is so interesting and sort of comical in how the language used to articulate the problem loops around. Honestly, I giggle as I type.

The non-identity problem, defined by Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “focuses on the obligations we think we have in respect of people who, by our own acts, are caused both to exist and to have existences that are, though worth having, unavoidably flawed – existences, that is, that are flawed if those people are ever to have them at all.”


Wiki’s definition of our obligations to “nobody” is a little easier to grasp:

“Study of weather patterns and other physical phenomena in the 20th century has shown that very minor changes in conditions at time T have drastic effects at all times after T. Compare this to the romantic involvement of future childbearing partners. Any actions taken today, at time T, will affect who exists after only a few generations. For instance, a significant change in global environmental policy would shift the conditions of the conception process so much that after 300 years none of the same people that would have been born are in fact born. Different couples meet each other and conceive at different times, and so different people come into existence. This is known as the ‘non-identity problem’.

We could thus craft disastrous policies that would be worse for nobody, because none of the same people would exist under the different policies. If we consider the moral ramifications of potential policies in person-affecting terms, we will have no reason to prefer a sound policy over an unsound one provided that its effects are not felt for a few generations. This is the non-identity problem in its purest form: the identity of future generations is causally dependent, in a very sensitive way, on the actions of the present generations.”

And boom! That’s the kicker right there. We need to consider our thoughts and actions as potential contributions to future generations. Everything is temporary and yet parts are permanent because it’s reinterpreted and carried forth by someone, like myself, who catches it in midair. And because I have grasped it, am changed forever. Be careful what you think…”as thinking makes it so” (Shakespeare) .

And I’m thinking about making one of these! Cookie Rookie’s Skinny Mint Parfait… 😛

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