Impossible obligations and the non-identity problem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


In a common example of the non-identity problem (NIP), a person (call her Wilma) deliberately conceives a child (call her Pebbles) who she knows will have incurable blindness but a life well worth living. Although Wilma’s decision seems wrong, it is difficult to say why. This paper develops and defends a version of the “indirect strategy” for solving the NIP. This strategy rests on the idea that it is wrong to deliberately make it impossible to fulfill an obligation; consequently, it is wrong for Wilma to create Pebbles because doing so makes it impossible to fulfill her obligation to protect her child from harms like blindness. A challenge for the indirect strategy is the well-known “rights waiver problem”: Since Pebbles’s very existence depends on Wilma’s having made herself unable to fulfill an obligation to Pebbles, Pebbles is likely to waive that obligation. I address this problem by recasting the indirect strategy in terms of a non-grievance evil. I argue that deliberately making it impossible to fulfill a moral obligation manifests a defective attitude toward morality—an attitude which sees moral obligations as things to be dodged whenever they are inconvenient. Next, I argue that acting on this attitude is a wrong-making feature that is independent of any wrong that might be done to Pebbles. I conclude that Wilma’s decision remains wrong even if Pebbles waives any objection to it.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2371-2390
Number of pages20
JournalPhilosophical Studies
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 15 2019


  • Ethics
  • Non-identity problem
  • Ought implies can
  • Procreation


Dive into the research topics of 'Impossible obligations and the non-identity problem'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this