The Idea of Moral Duties to History

I argue that there exist duties that can be called "Moral duties due to history" or, shorter, "Duties to History" (DTH). My claim is not the familiar claim that we need to learn from history how to live better in the present and towards the future, but that history itself creates moral duties. There exist special obligations in response to the past; in addition to those obligations we currently recognise to the present and the future. If convincing, this means that our lives ought to be guided, in part, not only by our obligations to the living but by the DTH. This is a surprising result, with significant and sometimes perplexing implications. My focus will be on the obligations of individuals in the light of history rather than on collective duties.



"The Idea of Moral Duties to History", Philosophy 96 (2021):  155-179.

The Moral Evaluation of Past Tragedies: A New Puzzle

The past is full of terrible tragedies, including slavery, World War I, and the Holocaust. Morality would clearly appear to support the preference that the victims of those calamities would have lived free and peaceful lives. And yet, a puzzle or even a paradox appears to be lurking here. Moral evaluation can be either personal or impersonal, yet neither one of these two perspectives, nor any other prevalent moral evaluation of events, appears to yield the morally expected conclusion. To the best of my knowledge this puzzle has not been discussed before. If there is no way to escape this surprising conclusion, then morality appears to be much more grim and unsympathetic than we normally think.


Journal of Moral Philosophy

"The Moral Evaluation of Past Tragedies: A New Puzzle", Journal of Moral Philosophy 17 (2020): 188-201.

We are all in this world together

Many people find themselves ruminating on the existence of others, and wishing that they had not been born. This may come about innocently enough, as when one is stuck in traffic and laments that there are so many other drivers on the road to where one is intending to go; but also exists in more ominous form, when people wish that whole groups had not been born or, at least, had not been in one’s vicinity: the poor or the rich, immigrants or locals, people of a certain ethnicity or religion. I call these thoughts "preferences for others' nonexistence" (PON). I show that the Nonidentity problem or effect by and large excludes PON thoughts, showing them to be (given plausible assumptions) irrational, and indeed self-defeating. The self is held hostage by the other. We come to exist together, or not at all.



"We Are All in this Life Together", Iyyun 68 (2020): 85-93.

The Nonidentity Problem: United and Unconquered

The nonidentity problem (henceforth NIP) is one of the great moral discoveries of the 20th century; and a philosophical classic. It is a single, simple, powerful, philosophical conundrum. It has in many cases a solution, but cannot be dismissed, and retains its paradoxical force. I will aim to present my own take on it, and defend the NIP from the original and challenging attack by Melinda Roberts and David Wasserman in "Dividing and Conquering the Nonidentity Problem" (this volume). In the process, I will reject the positions they offer on each of the two alleged problems into which they divide the NIP, offering some less familiar arguments, particularly about individual contribution and the special role of parenting. I will also explicate why I think that it is in any case a mistake to see the NIP as composed of two distinct problems, showing both its unity and the broadness of its manifestations; illustrate how my recent "historical" exploration of this problem is helpful; and will conclude by defending the idea that the nonidentity problem typically has a solution but is nevertheless a large and significant problem, an "existential paradox".


Current Controversies in Bioethics

"The Nonidentity Problem: United and Unconquered", in S. Matthew Liao and Colin O'Neil, eds., Current Controversies in Bioethics. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Gratitude: The Dark Side



Perspectives on Gratitude

"Gratitude: The Dark Side", in David Carr, ed., Perspectives on Gratitude. New York: Routledge, 2016.

External Link

Morally, Should We Prefer Never to Have Existed?

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.


Australasian Journal of Philosophy

"Morally, Should We Prefer Never to Have Existed?", Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91 (2013 ): 655-666.

Life is Good

David Benatar has made a number of distinct claims leading to the conclusion that giving birth to people harms them, that it is overall impermissible to do so from a moral point of view and that, hence, giving birth needs to be strongly discouraged. In the response to his work, his exciting direct antinatalist arguments have taken center stage. The issue whether life is all that bad or is in fact good has been relatively neglected. I take up this matter, and argue that there is a strong case to be made for the goodness of life, in a way that significantly affects the plausibility of Benatar?s views.


South African Journal of Philosophy

"Life is Good", in a symposium on David Benatar's Better Never to Have Been, South African Journal of Philosophy 31 (2012 ): 69-78.

Preferring Not to Have Been Born



Australasian Journal of Philosophy

"Preferring Not to Have Been Born", Australasian Journal of Philosophy 75 (1997 ): 241-247.

Is There a Moral Obligation to Have Children?

I argue, counter-intuitively, that under certain conditions many people are under some moral requirement to attempt to bring children into being (in order to raise them). There is only rarely a strict obligation to have children, but more moderate, inclining moral considerations in favour of having children, have a place in our moral world. I begin by considering a large number of arguments of favour and against the possibility of an obligation to have children. Then I examine when the weight of one set of arguments is greater. And I conclude by pointing out some general lessons from the discussion.


Journal of Applied Philosophy

"Is There a Moral Obligation to Have Children?", Journal of Applied Philosophy 12 (1995 ): 41-53.

Who Should a Utilitarian Be?

I argue that utilitarianism has serious difficulties in accommodating the central human need of maintaining one's identity, over a long period of time. There is no clear reason in utilitarian terms for remaining oneself, and there might well be good reason for transforming oneself into someone else. If my arguments are convincing being a utilitarian becomes, if not incoherent, then at least very unattractive for most human beings.



"Who Should a Utilitarian Be?", Iyyun 44 (1995 ): 91-98.

The Good, the Bad, and the Nonidentity Problem: Reflections on Jewish History



Jewish Philosophy in an Analytic Age

"The Good, the Bad, and the Nonidentity Problem: Reflections on Jewish History", in Jewish Philosophy in an Analytic Age, Sam Lebens, Dani Rabinowitz and Aaron Segal, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.