Why 'Nonexistent People' Do Not Have Zero Well-Being but No Well-Being at All

Ori J. Herstein, Visiting Assistant Professor, Cornell Law School


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Some believe that the harm or benefit of being brought into existence is assessed by comparing a person’s actual state of well-being with the level of well-being that person would have had had that person never existed. This approach relies on ascribing a state or level of well-being to ‘nonexistent people,’ which seems a peculiar practice: how can we attribute well-being to a ‘nonexistent person’? Some have argued that because no properties can be attributed to ‘nonexistent people’ ‘they’ may be ascribed a neutral or zero level of well-being, setting the baseline for comparatively assessing the harm or benefit of coming into existence. I argue that this approach confuses the category of having no well-being with the category of having zero well-being: ‘nonexistent people’ do not only not have any well-being-determinative properties but also cannot have such properties. And, therefore, ‘nonexistent people’ have no well-being as opposed to having zero well-being.