post by Paul 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 grandfather's grandchild.
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. Keep it in mind as you read the following by Bryan Caplan:
If we take Winship literally, his "solution" to the problem of persistent poverty is for people likely to be persistently poor to never be born in the first place. This is an awfully misanthropic position. A lifetime of relative poverty is a lot better than no lifetime at all.
A charitable reading is that Winship, like me, thinks that would-be single moms should delay child-bearing until they - and hopefully the fathers of their children - are ready to support a family...It's easy to forget that what really counts isn't "outcomes," but individuals.
I am not concerned here to evaluate Winship's view. I instead want to point out that 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. If Winship's position is flawed, it'll have to be for some other reason.
I will return to these metaphysical issues, for they have interesting implications for what it can mean to harm another person.
*Actually, philosophers of language will tell you that counterfactuals with impossible antecedents are "vacuously true". No need to go into that here, however.
**Added several hours later, for accuracy.