Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach and Future Humans: the Non-Identity Problem and a Threshold Notion of Harm

Melin, Anders (2016). 'Nussbaum's Capabilities Approach and Future Humans: the Non-Identity Problem and a Threshold Notion of Harm' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

Recently, the Capabilities Approach has been applied also to questions of environmental ethics. Since one of the questions that have been discussed most intensively within environmental ethics is what obligations we owe future humans, this raises the question of whether, and if so how, we can justify concern for the capabilities also of future humans. In this paper the theoretical point of departure for analyzing this question is the version of the Capabilities Approach put forward by Martha Nussbaum. So far Nussbaum has not discussed the issue of justice towards future individuals in detail. In Frontiers of Justice Nussbaum agrees with Rawls’s assertion that his conception of justice can be extended to handle the problem of future persons, and therefore she concludes that she does not need to treat the issue. However, as has been pointed out by Krushil Watene, this conclusion is problematic, among other things because the foundation of justice within the Capabilities Approach is not a contract between independent individuals who seek mutual advantages as it is within Rawls’s theory of justice, but the fact that individuals are intrinsically social and cannot imagine living a good life without relationships. Therefore, the question of justice to future individuals seems to require a treatment of its own within the Capabilities Approach (Watene, 2013, 21-29).
                      In order to develop an approach to the question of justice towards future humans within the framework of the Capabilities Approach, one central problem that needs to be analyzed is the Non-Identity Problem. It has shown to be one of the most intractable problems when it comes to justifying responsibilities towards future humans. In short, the Non-Identity Problem rests on the fact that some of our actions do not only influence the conditions of future individuals but also which individuals will exist in the future, which makes it difficult to conclude that our actions have harmed certainly individuals since they would not have existed if we had acted differently (see, for example, Parfit, 1986, pp. 352-380).
The non-identity problem rests on a certain view of what it means to harm someone. First, it presupposes what is commonly known as the person-affecting restriction, that is, the notion that for something to be bad, it has to be bad for someone. According to this assumption, we cannot conclude that something is bad unless it has negative effects on someone. Moreover, it also presupposes a view of harm that can be labelled as comparativism about harm, that is, the notion that for someone to be harmed by an action, that someone must be left worse-off than what would have been the case if some alternative action was performed (see, for example, Meyer, 2003, pp. 147-149).
                      The issue of justice towards future individuals has been debated within a rights-theoretical framework, and that debate has relevance for the Capabilities Approach. Within the rights-theoretical debate, the most common option for solving the Non-Identity Problem is to abandon the notion of comparativism about harm by identifying harm in a way that is not comparative or counterfactual. A common solution is to define harm according to a certain threshold. By creating conditions so that individuals at a certain point of time exist under a certain threshold, it is then argued that we have harmed them, in spite of the fact that they would not have existed at all if we had acted differently. In the context of future generations, the most reasonable version of such a notion of harm is expressed in terms of a certain threshold, which people should not fall beneath (Meyer, 2003, pp. 152-155).
                      However, certain objections have been raised against threshold notions of harm. One objection is connected with the fact that thresholds are context-sensitive. Conceptions about what is required for living a decent life vary considerably over time. This fact makes it difficult to determine what should be the threshold for people in the distant future. A third objection is related to the causal distance between one’s action and its consequences. Even if our actions will contribute to the bad conditions that future individuals will live under, they will not be the only determinants of those harms. Which people will be harmed and to what extent will also be determined by the political decision at that future point of time. For that reason, it is more appropriate to be concerned with how future generations as wholes fare, rather than how future individuals fare since that is to a large extent determined by decisions taken in the future (Brännmark, 2015, pp. 4-7).
The paper will discuss whether these objections can be refuted and what the implications are for the possibility of justifying concern for future humans within the framework of Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach.
Keywords: capabilities approach, future humans, non-identity problem, threshold notion of harm

scroll to top