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Can it Ever Be Better Never to Have Existed At All? Person-Based Consequentialism and a New Repugnant Conclusion

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Broome and others have argued that it makes no sense, or at least that it cannot be true, to say that it is better for a given person that he or she exist than not. That argument can be understood to suggest that, likewise, it makes no sense, or at least that it cannot be true, to say that it is worse for a given person that he or she exist than that he or she never have existed at all.

This argument is of critical importance to the question of whether consequentialist theory should take a traditional, aggregative form or a less conventional, person-affecting, or person-based, form. I believe that, potentially, the argument represents a far more serious threat to the person-based approach than does, for example, Parfit's two medical programmes example. Parfit's example nicely illustrates the distinction between aggregative and person-based approaches and raises important questions. But the example — though not, I think, by Parfit — is sometimes pressed into service as a full-fledged counterexample against the person-based approach. As such, I argue, the example is not persuasive. In contrast, the Broomeian argument, if correct, is definitive. For that argument relies on certain metaphysical assumptions and various uncontroversial normative claims — and hence nicely avoids putting into play the controversial normative claims that lie at the very heart of the debate.

The purpose of the present paper, then, is to evaluate the Broomeian argument. I argue that this potentially definitive challenge to a person-based approach does not in fact succeed.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of York, Heslington, York UK

Publication date: 2003-10-01

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