Beneficence, Non-Identity, and Responsibility : How Identity-Affecting Interventions in Nature can Generate Secondary Moral Duties

Gary David O'BRIEN*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In chapter 3 of Wild Animal Ethics Johannsen argues for a collective obligation based on beneficence to intervene in nature in order to reduce the suffering of wild animals. In the same chapter he claims that the non-identity problem is merely a “theoretical puzzle” (p.32) which doesn’t affect our reasons for intervention. In this paper I argue that the non-identity problem affects both the strength and the nature of our reasons to intervene. By intervening in nature on a large scale we change which animals come into existence. In doing so, we enable harmful animals to inflict harms on other animals, and we put other animals in harm’s way. The harms that these animals will inflict and endure are foreseeable. Furthermore, since non-human animals aren’t moral agents, harmful animals cannot be morally responsible for their harmful actions. I argue therefore that by causing animals to exist, knowing that they will inflict and suffer harms, we become morally responsible for those harms. By engaging in identity-affecting actions then we take on secondary moral duties towards the animals we have thereby caused to exist, and these secondary moral duties may be extremely demanding, even more so than the initial costs of intervention. Finally, these duties are duties of justice rather than duties of beneficence, and as such are more stringent than purely beneficence-based moral reasons. Furthermore, this conclusion flows naturally from several plausible principles which Johannsen explicitly endorses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)887-898
Number of pages12
JournalPhilosophia (United States)
Issue number3
Early online date27 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Animal Ethics
  • Environmental Ethics
  • Kyle Johannsen
  • Non-Identity Problem
  • Wild Animal Ethics
  • Wild Animal Suffering


Dive into the research topics of 'Beneficence, Non-Identity, and Responsibility : How Identity-Affecting Interventions in Nature can Generate Secondary Moral Duties'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this