Rights, Indirect Harms and the Non-Identity Problem
McBrayer, Justin Patrick
Bioethics 2008 July; 22(6): 299-306
The non-identity problem is the problem of grounding moral wrongdoing in cases in which an action affects who will exist in the future. Consider a woman who intentionally conceives while on medication that is harmful for a fetus. If the resulting child is disabled as a result of the medication, what makes the woman's action morally wrong? I argue that an explanation in terms of harmful rights violations fails, and I focus on Peter Markie's recent rights-based defense. Markie's analysis rests on the notion of an indirect harm, and I show that the calculation of an indirect harm relies on an improper baseline for the determination of whether or not an action adversely affects a patient's interests. I also defend an impersonal duty-based analysis of the wrongdoing in non-identity cases against an objection by Markie. I close by arguing that the rights-based analysis is insensitive to context and that context is morally relevant in the determination of the moral valence of actions in cases of non-identity. This failure provides a pro tanto reason to favor an impersonal duty-based analysis of the wrongdoing in non-identity cases.
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