Paradox of Non-Identity

What is the Paradox Of Non-Identity?

Imagine you have a choice that will change someone’s future, but that person doesn’t exist yet. Your choice could create a situation that isn’t the best for this future person, but if you made a different choice, that person would never be born at all. This tricky situation is what we call the Paradox of Non-Identity. It asks us a tough question: Can we say an action is wrong if it leads to the birth of a specific person who wouldn’t have been born otherwise, even if their life might be tough because of our action? Think about this: if we didn’t make the choice, that person wouldn’t have a life at all, good or bad. So, it’s really hard to say we hurt someone when our action is the reason they have any chance to live their life, to begin with.

Here’s a simpler way to look at it: the Paradox of Non-Identity shows up when our choices now affect the future in big ways, like deciding who will eventually get to live on Earth. If our actions today create a future that’s not perfect for these future people, it’s not easy to say that we hurt them because these same actions are why they exist at all. It’s like a future puzzle: our decision doesn’t just change what will happen, it also changes who will be there to see it happen!

Key Arguments

  • The Timing of Actions: We’re talking about things we do now that change who gets to exist later on, not what happens to people already here.
  • The Non-Identity of Individuals: We don’t know who the future people are because the choices we make help determine who they will be.
  • Moral Responsibility: This paradox makes us wonder what we’re responsible for when our actions might not hurt a specific person we know but still seem kind of wrong.
  • The ‘No Harm’ Argument: Some say if no one is made worse off by what we do (because those people wouldn’t have been around anyway), then we didn’t really cause harm.
  • The Impersonal Principle: There’s an idea out there that we should care more about making the overall outcome the best it can be, instead of focusing on how specific people are affected, supporting the belief that some actions are wrong just because they make the world a less good place.


  • A government decides not to fight climate change. This means future people will live in a hotter world with more problems. Some argue it’s not harm since those future people would only experience life in that new world. But others say it’s a bad choice because it makes for a hurtful future overall.
  • A teenager chooses to have a baby, knowing the child might not have the easiest life. This is an example because the child that is born wouldn’t have a life at all without the teenager’s decision, so it feels strange to say the teenager harmed them.
  • Parents decide to have a baby when they know it might inherit a serious illness. This shows the paradox because although the child’s life might be tougher, it’s still a life they wouldn’t have had if not for the parents’ decision.
  • A country chooses to use resources now instead of saving them for later generations. Future people may have fewer resources, but if different people existed then (due to different choices), the specific future people with fewer resources wouldn’t be there to miss them.
  • A doctor advises a treatment for a pregnant woman that will cure her illness but reduce the quality of life for her future child. It’s tough to call it harm to the child because that particular child’s existence relies on this treatment happening.

Related Topics

When we talk about the Paradox of Non-Identity, some other ideas come up that are related:

  • Future Ethics: This is about how we should act now to make sure the future is a good place for the people living there, even if we don’t know who they’ll be.
  • Environmental Justice: It’s about making fair choices so that people in the future (and all around the world) can enjoy a clean and safe planet.
  • Reproductive Rights: These are the decisions about having kids, and they’re connected because they influence not only if kids are born, but in what circumstances they’re born into.
  • Genetic Engineering: When scientists change genes to prevent diseases, it’s part of the conversation because it affects who the future people will be and their quality of life.
  • Population Ethics: This is the study of how the number of people, and who they are, can change what’s considered good or bad action for society.

Why is it Important

The practical side: On a daily basis, these ideas are at play when we make laws about how we treat the environment, how we plan families, or how we create policies that will shape society for years to come. If we don’t think about who will be here tomorrow and what their world will look like, we might make choices that leave them with big problems.

Personal choices: Even individual decisions, like having children, can be seen through this paradox’s lens. When to have kids, under what conditions, and knowing they might face certain challenges is a real-life application of these philosophical thoughts.

The big picture: As a society, we’re constantly looking ahead, trying to build a better world. But if we don’t consider how our actions today can shape who will exist tomorrow and the world they’ll live in, we might wind up doing more harm than good, even with the best intentions.


The Paradox of Non-Identity is more than just a philosophical brain-teaser. It plays a significant role in how we make choices, from the individual level all the way up to decisions that nations face. By diving into this paradox, we learn to think more critically about our actions, our responsibilities, and the legacy we’re creating for those who will come after us. So, next time you face a decision that might change the future, keep in mind that it’s not just about the immediate consequences but also about who will be here to experience them and how it’ll shape their lives.

In the end, exploring the Paradox of Non-Identity helps us to consider our impact more profoundly and guides us toward decisions that not just feel right for today but also set the stage for a hopeful tomorrow.