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Morally, should we prefer never to have existed?

Pages 655-666
Received 14 Oct 2012
Accepted 06 Feb 2013
Published online: 12 Apr 2013


We can morally compare possible alternative states of affairs, judging that various actual historical occurrences were bad, overall—the Holocaust, World War I, and slavery, for example. We should prefer that such events had not occurred, and regret that they had occurred. But the vast majority of people who now exist would not have existed had it not been for those historical events. A ‘package deal’ is involved here: those events, together with oneself; or, the absence of the historical calamity, and the absence of oneself. So, all considered, ought one to prefer never to have existed, and to regret that one exists? Not in itself, of course, but as part of the conjunction? There seems to be a strong case for saying that morally one must wish and prefer that certain historical events had not occurred, even if that would have meant that one would never have existed. One ought to regret, all considered, that the aggregate state of affairs that includes one's existence is the one that materialized. After setting out this idea, I explore arguments against it, and attempt to reach a conclusion.


1 As CitationRobert Merrihew Adams [2009: 2] notes, the significance of the chanciness of individual existence was already recognized by Leibniz. Yet, curiously, the importance of this topic for our view of the past has hardly received any attention, outside of the theological context. A few of the essays in CitationTabensky [2009] begin to correct this neglect; see primarily Adams, and the reply by CitationMetz [2009], who both focus on love. See also the challenge as to whether we can honestly apologize for the crimes of our ancestors, crimes on which our existence may depend, in CitationThompson [2000], and a reply by CitationLevy [2002], who claims that the air of paradox follows only from a confusion of temporal perspectives.

2 It might be thought that the odds of a given individual's coming into existence are in any case so slim, that historical changes could not make much of a difference [Roberts Citation2009]. But recall that we already exist. What matters here are not the odds before we came to exist, but the chance that those same contingencies that brought us into existence (or contingencies of similar efficiency) would still exist, had causally effective factors in our actual history been interrupted. We indeed came into being against the odds, but the same sort of factors that made the odds so difficult in the first place (such as the great sensitivity of the circumstances of procreation), would be almost certain to make any historical changes fatal to the emergence of such fortuitous contingencies as were in fact manifested in our coming into existence.

3 This recalls discussions of cases such as those of severely handicapped people. One may want to say that (a) impersonally, the birth of other, healthy people instead would have been preferable; and that (b) had those handicapped people been aborted close to the time of conception, then on a plausible view of personhood this would not have wronged them (for no one who does not exist can be wronged). Nevertheless, once those people already exist and have lives worth living, which they also see as worth living, it becomes more difficult to say that it is regrettable that they exist. See, for example, CitationMcMahan [2005].

4 The problems involved are in fact much wider. The question whether we ought to prefer that a different world had existed involves not just the thought that such a world would be morally better, all considered, yet would also lack the existence of myself and my loved ones. A different world would also be one where Bach, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Hume and Einstein would not have existed, and it is quite conceivable that the artists, philosophers or scientists in that world would not have been as great. But I will not consider these further complexities.

5 Drafts of this paper were presented at the Israeli Philosophical Association annual meeting, the Department of Philosophy at the University of Turku, the Seminar in Moral Philosophy at Oxford University, the British Society for Ethical Theory annual meeting at Nottingham, the Rocky Mountain Ethics Conference in Boulder, and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. I am grateful to participants on all those occasions for very helpful comments, and owe particular gratitude to Belinda Roberts who was the commentator on my paper at RoME. I am very grateful to Jean Kazez for an early discussion in the blog Talking Philosophy, to Neil Levy for correspondence, and to Gabriel Citron, David Enoch, Cécile Fabre, Zohar Geva, Amihud Gilead, Guy Kahane, Menachem Kellner, Arnon Keren, Iddo Landau, Larry Lengbeyer, Eduardo Rivera López, Tal Manor, Jeff McMahan, Ariel Meirav, Melinda Roberts, Talia Shaham, Daniel Statman, David Wasserman, Rivka Weinberg, and two anonymous referees for the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, for very helpful comments on drafts of the paper.

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