Should We Be Grateful for Our Existence?

——Bilde: Poem of the Soul, Louis Janmot——

The question I will try to answer in this article is whether we should be grateful for our existence or not. Do we owe our parents gratitude for bringing us into this world? Underlying this is the question of when we begin to exist. The so-called “Non-Identity Problem”, first formulated by Derek Parfit in 1980, highlights the issues related to existence and gratitude. By using the non-identity problem, and particularly Parfit’s “Dependence Claim”, I will attempt to formulate how we should understand our existence. Whether we owe our parents gratitude or not depends a lot on our idea of being “benefitted”. Have we been “benefitted” – or perhaps harmed – by gaining life rather than remaining non-existent or “potential human beings”? This question is important to answer when we proceed to discuss obligations, and what we potentially owe our parents, if anything. Our idea of existence as potentially beneficial or harmful will also help us to understand how we should behave towards future generations. Should we plan for a future in which it is a loss if not enough people are benefitted with existence? Or should we consider it harmful to curse children with existence, and refrain from the practice of creating them altogether? In the following I will be considering when gratitude is owed in general, when we begin to exist, and how our parents’ behaviour and life-choices can be said to warrant gratitude or condemnation. I will begin by introducing the non-identity problem, and present some cases in which we are met with the said problem. I will then move on to briefly to discuss gratitude, which will lead me to look into what is understood by benefitting someone. From these preliminary discussions, I will try to answer the question of whether we owe gratitude for our existence.

The Non-Identity Problem

How do we determine the moral status of non-existing individuals, and what responsibilities, if any, do we have regarding these merely potential human beings? A starting point for the Non-Identity Problem is the fact that each of us might never have existed. In formulating the problem, Parfit introduces what he calls the time-dependence claim (hereafter referred to as “the Dependence Claim”).

Time – Dependence claim: If any particular person had not been conceived when he was in fact conceived, it is in fact true that he would never have existed

The Dependence Claim shows exactly how one should answer the question posed in the introduction: namely that if you had had different parents, you would never have existed in the first place. You could only have come into existence at the time and in the manner that you actually did. This Dependence Claim lies at the heart of our understanding of existence and will be a recurring theme throughout this article. Below I have included the structure of his thinking when it comes to future people. This structure shows us what type of choices we are truly facing when we are considering two outcomes of an action.

According to Parfit, most of our moral thinking regards Same People Choices. Same People Choices are the choices we face in which the identity of the people we are considering will not be affected. Parfit points to the fact that because we assume, when we are discussing what is morally correct, that it is the same individual we are envisioning in the different scenarios. We are very rarely facing Same People Choices, but rather Different People Choices. This means that as a consequence of our actions, different individuals will come into existence. The implication of this is that there is no one being benefitted or harmed if we commit morally impermissible acts towards future generations. I will come back to this point later on in the article.

The Non-Identity Problem begs a few questions, but one in particular is whether bringing someone into existence should be considered “beneficial”. Given the premise that the individual’s life is worth living, are we therefore benefitting this person? If I act in such a way that infringes upon the rights of future people, and in this act affect which people will exist, am I then acting immorally towards that person? If we believe that existence is beneficial to the person coming into existence, then we should also believe that everyone should be grateful for the acts that have led to their existence, no matter how immoral they happen to be. By going back to the Dependence Claim we will see that it cannot be considered immoral to birth a child with a severe or painful birth defect. This is because of the fact that if it wasn’t for that birth defect, that specific child wouldn’t have been born in the first place. The implication here is that it cannot be said to be better for someone not to exist, because they would only ever have been able to have that specific type of existence. Trying to answer whether life should be considered a gift, and that existence benefits us is essential if we are to solve the non-identity problem.

There are in particular three intuitions about morality that become problematic, when seen in light of the Non-Identity problem. Firstly, there is the intuition that morality has to be person-based. By this we mean that if something is said to be morally bad, it is because someone has to be worse off because of it, or it has to be bad for someone. If there is no single identity that is worse off because of our action, can we truly claim that it is morally impermissible or that it is generally bad? The second intuition that the non-identity problem sheds light on is the intuition that bringing to existence a person whose life is that is unavoidably flawed, but not so flawed that it is not a life worth living, is not bad for the person brought into existence. By this we mean that bringing to term a child that will without question be born with a painful birth defect, is not worse for that person than not being born. If the child does not have the painful birth defect, then that specific child is not born in the first place. This goes back to the Dependence Claim: If the child hadn’t been born then and there, it wouldn’t be that child at all. There was always only one outcome possible for that specific individual; in this child’s case it was that it was born with a birth defect.

The third intuition becomes clear when discussing cases of non-identity problems: Some existence-inducing acts can be wrong even though they don’t make things worse for anyone. This however seems difficult to accept when confronted with the Non-Identity Problem. If an act doesn’t have to be “bad for” someone they cause to exist and suffer or any other future person, are any acts towards future generations immoral? We are here  discussing different people cases, which means that though we are comparing two different future worlds, where one is morally better than the other, there exists not one single individual who will be worse off in the difference between these two scenarios – because there will necessarily be different individuals in the different scenarios. So how are we then to judge the morality of acts towards future generations? In the following I will be using the Non-Identity Problem to distinguish between different types of ideas on “coming into existence”.

Non-Identity cases

In the following I will be discussing three specific cases that can be examples of when the Non-Identity Problem causes trouble for us in practical situations, often without us thinking about the NonIdentity-Problem in the first place. These are commonly discussed examples in the discussion of the Non Identity-Problem. These examples will also help to show how something can be seemingly abstract, but have very real implications on how we make decisions in everyday life. Also, the examples are aimed to problematize the Dependence Claim, by questioning when we in fact can be said to come into existence.

The first example is usually termed “The 14 year old girl”. This is an example sheds light on an argument that is used on many occasions in our society today. The example introduces a 14 year- old- girl who has become pregnant. The discussion around whether she should keep the child or not is centered around one main argument: That if she waits until she is older, she will give the child a better start in life, and it will be easier for herself. Perhaps she would be a better mother when she is older, but this argument ignores the Dependence Claim. For if she waits with having the child, the child will in fact be a different child altogether. They are talking about bringing different identities into existence altogether. Will the child with the 14year- old mother be worse off being born into these difficult circumstances, rather than not being born at all? The second example is called “the slave child”. If we were to imagine a scenario in which, in exchange for a large amount of money, a couple agrees to conceive and bear  a child which they will, when it is born, deliver over to the wealthy man to be used as a slave. Obviously, as a slave this child will suffer greatly, but if not as a slave, this child would never exist in the first place. Of course, there are options: The family could conceive the child and change their minds, so that the child never was sold as a slave. They could also have not agreed to the contract in the first place. If we are assuming that existence is worth having, then the first of these two options would be preferable. But given that the child was produced simply for the purpose of fulfilling a contract, we can assume that this was never a realistic option for the child in the first place. For the sake of the example, let us imagine that there is no way out of the contract, and that was very clear from the beginning. What life is worth living is, needless to say, extremely difficult to determine. “The slave child” who only holds a future of pain and suffering was created for this purpose, and had it not been for this painful future, then the person would never exist. Though we intuitively imagine a better life for the slave child, the fact is that it was either this, or nothing.  If we accept the fact that the child could have not been any better off than being a slave, it is more difficult to see what harm the parents have done to the child, or how this child is “worse off”.

The third example is the case of historical injustices. In certain scenarios, it is possible for a person to gain reimbursement for past injustices. An example would be African Americans in the USA gaining financial compensation for what their forefathers had been put through in the times of slavery. Though such a thing would seem appropriate at times, when enough time has passed, it is hard to avoid the Dependence Claim again. For had these individuals’ forefathers not been in the circumstances they found themselves, these specific individuals claiming compensation, would never have existed in the first place. Does this then mean that they have to be grateful for what happened to their forefathers, because otherwise they would never had existed? Had their forefathers been treated better, they would in fact never have been born. This refers back  to the main question in this article, do we owe gratitude for our existence?


Like I mentioned earlier, there seems to exist an intuition where we are to be grateful for our coming into existence. The gratitude that many believe we are supposed to have for our overcoming of non-existence, is usually directed towards our parents. Do we owe our parents any gratitude for our lives? If it were not for our parents’ decision to conceive us, or decision not to prevent us being conceived, we would never have had existed in the first place. But a parent never conceive a child for that  specific individual’s sake. This can’t possibly be done because the identity of the child is not controlled by the parents in the moment of conception, and therefore it cannot have been specifically you that a parent decided they wanted to supplement the world with. Also, most of the time parents conceive a child is because they want a child (with an unspecified identity) themselves. It seems very peculiar to ask gratitude for a gift that someone wishes to gift themselves.

I would like to discuss what it means to owe someone gratitude.  In her article “What do grown children owe their parents?», Jane English determines gratitude to be something you owe if someone goes above and beyond for you. When someone exceeds your expectations you may owe them gratitude for this. For example, if two individuals sign a contract that specifies a job that needs to be done, both parties have obligations to meet. When the contract is fulfilled and all the obligations are met, neither parties owe the other any gratitude for the job that has been done. They have just done that which has been expected, or agreed upon. In “What Do Grown Children Owe Their Parents?”, English addresses the idea of owing gratitude for one’s life. She claims that when a stranger does a favor for us, we usually feel obligated towards them to return the favor. However, when we are doing favors within a friendship, the rules of the game change. There exists no score, or debt in a love-friendship relationship, because a friendship is based on mutuality rather than reciprocity. Though never clearly defining specifically what a love-friendship relationship is, from her article it would seem that she means a relationship that surpasses acquaintances, and favors are done for the joy of helping someone you love, not for the returning favor. The difference between strangers and friends regarding favors is that if the friendship ends, so do the duties of a friendship. English goes on to argue that parent-and-child-relationships follow the same rules as a friendship, since they also are characterized by mutuality (for grown children) rather than reciprocal favors. Though English is describing relationships regarding grown children and cases that regard events happening in one’s upbringing, it is still relevant to this discussion. If a parent claims that a child owes gratitude because he or she gave it life, the child can just as easily answer “I never asked to be born”.

The previous examples of owing favors may seem slightly trivial. However, they go to show exactly how we are to understand the concept of “owing gratitude”. No choice, and thus no possibility for acceptance, is involved in the process of coming into existence. The idea that children owe their parents gratitude when they had nothing to say in the decision is difficult to accept, and I will therefore conclude that children do not owe their parents gratitude for coming into existence. Therefore we must ask, If we do not owe our parents gratitude for existence, do we perhaps owe it to someone (or something) else? There is no other thing or person (if we keep the secular tone that colours this discussion) who   is more responsible for our existence than our own parents, so who could we then owe gratitude for our existence if not our parents? The answer here appears to be: No one.

Are we benefitted with existence?

Given that there is no consent involved in the process of coming into existence, there is only one thing that we can discuss, and that is whether if by bringing a life into existence, we are also benefitting or harming this person.

We usually take death, but not the non-existence that precedes life, to be a loss. Whether it is a loss for the next of kin to the deceased or to the deceased individual himself, is a separate discussion. However, our understanding of what is lost in a pre-life non-existence is less clear. There exists an existentialist discussion on whether existence in itself is a good  or a bad thing. Some philosophers believe that we have received “the gift of life”, and that we have been benefitted by coming into existence, so long as it is a life worth living. Other philosophers argue that although life is worth living (in many cases), we cannot be said to have been benefitted by coming into existence. Some philosophers even argue that  not only are we not benefitted by coming into existence, we are actually also being harmed.

I should clarify what it means to both cause benefit or to cause harm. If one individual has become better off because of the action taken by a second individual, we can say that this second individual has caused a benefit to the first. Likewise, if someone is worse off because of the action that have been taken, then the action, and therefore also the person acting, have caused harm. If we can understand an individual as being better off now that they have a life, there must exist a hypothetical counterpart that is worse off for not receiving life. But there will never exist an actual individual  who’s worse off for not gaining life in the first place. What makes this discussion so difficult is that there exists no true comparison. We are comparing something to nothing, and something can be good or bad, but nothing is always just nothing. If there is no existence that can be lost, then nothingness holds no threat towards them, since they are already in that state. Nothing versus something is the imaginary versus the factual, or the possible versus the actual. The only true comparisons we have are a good life and a bad life. Now, if it is only about a particularly bad life we would say that coming into existence is harmful, would that mean that all mediocre lives are beneficial to the person who lives them? There is no normality, or neutral ground, that either existence is a gift, or that for the very, very few, it is a curse. I disagree with this claim, and to strengthen my point I will discuss what it means to exist, and when we actually begin to exist.

When do we being to exist?

The discussion on when we begin to exist is one that still hasn’t been settled. This is unfortunate given that the discussion is highly relevant when talking about, for instance, bioethics. Empirical evidence is always changing via updates and advanced technology, giving us new insights into how we should understand when some cells gain independent existence and when our cognitive functions begin. When we discuss whether abortion is morally acceptable or not, it usually boils down to whether we think that there is an individual present that will lose its life in the case of an abortion. Some philosophers believe that there is a significant difference between the embryo and a person, and that we can indeed say that a person has come into existence, and that this difference begins around the three-month mark. Given this, in the case of an early miscarriage we cannot claim that it is a tragedy (for the embryo itself that is lost). Other people would disagree and claim that existence of a person begins with conception, and therefore that abortion should never be morally permissible (insofar as killing other people is impermissible). Others again believe that the child’s identity begins 9 months later, at birth.

When we discuss non-identities, what we really are talking about are potential human beings, that perhaps only currently exist as an idea in their parents’ imaginations. If we were to agree that the existence of an identity begins at three months, we should agree that the embryo is only the potential identity of what could develop. But is there not a significant difference between a couple dreaming about having a child in the future, and a child that has actually been conceived? Can something be more potentially human than something else? It would seem that a distinction needs to be made here. There are two reasons for this: the difference between idea and action, and the Dependence Claim. If a potential child is being imagined, there still remains action for this child to come into existence. If a child has already been conceived however, the action has been taken, and all that remains is time. In fact, if we disregard the exception of miscarriages, in most cases one must take action to actually stop the embryo from developing into an identity. And much like a 9-year old is a potential 10-year-old, time is the most salient factor, and action is the only thing that could stop it from being so.

But if we believe that existence begins at conception, this has major implications for how we understand abortions. Also, miscarriages would be devastating not only for the parent but presumably also for the identity that loses its existence. The second reason for we need a distinction to be made between potential persons and even more potential persons is the Dependence Claim; the instant conception takes place, an identity is mapped out. The genetic coding of who it will become has been created, and, arguably, until the child is born, this genetic map is really everything that makes up our identity, given that we have not been (at least significantly) cognitively influenced past our genetic coding yet. Therefore, whilst an imagined child is still potential, a conceived child has been mapped out; it has begun to take form. The only thing that makes a difference is how far it has developed. That child could only become that specific child, unless the child is stopped from coming into existence altogether. The potential therefore moves from the idea of billions of genetic combinations, to one single identity that is either coming into existence or not coming into existence. It has become a specific child. I propose a solution that can be helpful in order to understand this problem, and that to avoid the problem we use a different way of differentiating between things. Prior to conception, when we are discussing a potential identity, we are talking about an identity that can be put together by billions of different combinations. There are potentially billions of different identities that on conception turns into an actual physical manifestation, in which the embryo only needs time to turn into an actual identity, regardless of if we believe that happens at three months or at birth. However, in the moment of conception, we have been given a specific genetic mapping that decides our future, and now the potentiality is not “a potential life out of billions”, but rather an “either/or”-question: Either this specific identity lives until birth, or it does not. This idea of an “either/or” potentiality is important to note, because it is the same potentiality human beings live with every day: Either we live until tomorrow, or we don’t. If we differentiate between existence as a potentiality within the parents’ minds and a reality within the mother’s womb, we can better move on in the discussion. It seems that immediately after conception is when we leave potential of many different identities, to one specific identity waiting to be born. This is because we have turned an idea of our imaginations into a manifested physical thing, and we have turned an (non)identity from nothing into something.

We now need to consider whether there is a difference between owing gratitude for a physical potential existence of identity, and for an actualized identity. By this I mean whether there is a difference between the gratitude we may owe our parents for our conception and what we may owe them for our upbringing.

Gratefulness for upbringing and gratefulness for existence

We begin with the premise that even though an embryo may not count as a fully-fledged individual yet, there is a significant difference between an embryo and the idea of a potential combination of sperm cells and eggs. If we agree on this premise, we can agree to some extent that a certain, yet significant form of existence begins on conception. Following this, the rest of the article will be written on the assumption that the instant an egg is fertilized, we have moved on to a different phase. We have come into existence, and we have begun a life. Therefore, I would claim that there is a difference between gratitude for existence and gratitude for all the life that comes after conception.

However, this changes when we are discussing the life the parents provide for their children after birth. Here, I believe, we can claim that a child can either owe gratitude, or they can justly be disappointed if they are not given a right life. Of course, their upbringing can also be considered neutral if the parent does neither more or less than what is expected of them. Whichever way, elements of gratitude can come into play in this discussion.  Not only intuitively, but by law, there is a regulated bottom line that represents the bare minimum of what a parent must provide for their children. These include both positive and negative rights. A positive right is, for example, the right to food and shelter, whilst a negative right would include the right to not be harmed either physically or emotionally. Common sense agrees that if any of these rights are violated, one does not owe one’s parents any gratitude for the way in which they were raised. Legally, the government will step in and either help, correct, remove the child, or imprison the parent(s), all depending on which right is violated and to what extent. But the legal requirements, one can safely say, lie slightly below what we intuitively agree should be the bare minimum. In cases where parents have gone above and beyond and done more than what is expected of them, perhaps then we owe them gratitude. This distinction means that asking ones children to be grateful for conceiving them doesn’t quite make sense.

It can be useful to set up some examples to see if there would be any change in this depending on the different circumstances. Here we will be able to determine whether parents’ intent and decisions matter when we are discussing whether the child owes them gratitude.

Like I pointed out earlier, a couple that decides that they are going to conceive a child on the basis of wanting a child, cannot demand gratitude from their child for their existence. The decision is made on the grounds of their own desires, and therefore the specific individual that comes into being is not relevant as much as any child conceived by the couple.

Let us instead imagine a scenario in which a couple has decided on not wanting children in the first place. They have no desire, and they do their best to make sure they never conceive. Unfortunately, they end up conceiving a child against their wishes. However, contrary to their own decision, they decide to keep the child, and they do this only for the sake of the individual that they have conceived. Would this child, who was an accident, so to speak, owe his or her parents any gratitude? In this case, we have removed the prospect of the child being created by the parents’ sake. Also, they have specified that they wish to bring this specific individual that has now come into existence a chance at life. Initially it would seem that this child was at a higher risk of never coming into existence than a child that was planned to be conceived, so it should perhaps be more grateful for his continued existence after conception, than the planned child. However, there still remains the fact that was mentioned earlier – no contract was made, no agreement or disagreement was not only not given, but not possible to be given either. Also, the only decision they have made is that they decided to not interfere with the development of the child, rather than not conceive the child in the first place. In the case of the unplanned child, I believe that the child still owes no gratitude to its parents for bringing it into existence.

Let us go back to the slave child example I mentioned earlier. The child that has been conceived was conceived with the parents’ specific intent of it leading a bad life, perhaps even a life not worth living. Here we might intuitively accept that this child has, not only no obligation to feel grateful, but maybe a reason to claim that his parents did something wrong in creating him in the first place. The Dependence Claim states that had it not been the case that this awful contract was signed, points to this specific individual never being created. However, given the circumstances, the child was not born with a painful genetic disorder. The parents could have decided to keep the child and suffer the consequences securing their child from a lifetime of slavery. My point here is that though the contract was necessary for there to be any child in the first place, it is the circumstances the child falls into that makes his life bad, not any inherent property in that child that was inevitable on conception. Therefore, the “coming into existence” did not force the child to lead a bad life. This child’s “coming into existence” is then not a morally bad thing, even though the intent could have been questionable.

It seems that conceiving does not warrant gratitude from a child to their parent. But at what point would the child owe gratitude to their parents?  Perhaps after birth? Let us consider the example of the very ill mother. A couple has conceived a child, but only two months into the pregnancy, the doctors discover that the mother hascancer. They recommend aborting the child, so that they can proceed with chemotherapy. The cancer is treatable, as it isn’t too aggressive, but the child will not survive the treatments. They suggest she tries for a child again when she is cancer-free. However, the mother decides that she would rather let her child live, and denies any treatment, instead brining the baby to term. She argues that this specific individual is who she wants to live, not just “any child”.  She dies shortly after the child is born. Does this child, brought to term against all odds, at the sacrifice of her mother, owe her mother any gratitude? For even if the child begins life in very dire circumstances with a grieving father, there were no other circumstances in which this child could live in the first place This example tries to show the difficulty in determining if and when children owe their parents any gratitude. Perhaps one can argue that the instant after conception has taken place, a woman has become a mother, and in this case a child/parent bond is formed. Everything that takes place after this relationship has begun (whether consciously or not) goes in under “upbringing” and not just “bringing into existence”.

This brings me to the distinction I pointed out earlier, that there are perhaps instances when a child does owe its parents gratitude for the life that was built for them after their coming into existence. Let us go back to the example of the 14-year-old girl, who made the decision to keep the child, even though everyone around her advised her not to do so. Just like the couple that decided not to have children, the same argument applies, and we still cannot claim that the child owes her young mother any gratitude for bringing her into existence. However, the struggles this young mother goes through in order to give this child a good life (leaving behind her own childhood, settling for a life with less accomplishments than she perhaps had hoped and dreamed for) still count for something when determining effort and care in the raising of her child. Some might make the claim that the child of a 14 year old mother has a “ruined life”, or an unfair disadvantage. To this I would point out that this is claiming that no life is better than a rough life. What defines a life worth living is something I have set outside of this article, but it is important to note that in making this argument, one is claiming that a hard beginning, or difficult circumstances, conclude in a life not worth living. Should trials and tribulations be the main factor in this discussion, we quickly realize that a very few lives can be said to be worth living.

If this mother is able to produce a life that can be considered to be above the bare minimum of what we can demand of a parent, this may very well have cost more for the 14-year old girl than a normal adult couple. Should we make distinctions between how good a life a child has, measured up against the effort it took for the parents to provide that life? As we concluded earlier, gratitude boils down to the idea of going above and beyond what is expected of you. The opportunities available will be necessary to factor in, when discussing whether one owes gratitude. Accomplishing the bare minimum of what is required will be more difficult for some parents than for others. Most people would probably agree that the bare minimum would in fact be different depending on the different circumstances. Therefore, if a parent has gone above and beyond that which could be expected of them in the certain circumstances, their children can be said to owe them gratitude. However, as English proposes, maybe one cannot owe one’s parents gratitude for this in the first place, given that the nature of the relationship inherently not having a debt that demands gratitude.

Existence as morally neutral

Given these examples, it would seem that one is neither benefiting nor harming someone when one is conceiving a child. As I mentioned earlier, non-existence after life implies a loss, but potential human beings that never came into existence never received something to lose in the first place. Once there exists an identity, we have moral obligations towards it, and we wish to prolong their existence (within a certain framework). But non-existence that never followed from an existence in the first place is not a vice. Therefore, I would like to propose that we view the “gift of life” as morally neutral. Unless a parent knowingly brings to term a child whose life will beyond doubt be filled with pain and suffering (a life not worth living), we can neither be said to be benefitting or harming that individual that has come into existence. If we understand conception, i.e. coming into life, as morally neutral, I would still suggest that everything that happens in any given time after conception could potentially warrant gratitude. If parents go above and beyond what is expected for their children, they do deserve a certain thankfulness for this.

This distinction does not necessarily mean that once conceived, all the same moral obligations apply that apply to a foetus or someone who is born. I am merely suggesting that we regard them as stages to achieving this moral status, the most important stage being when we transfer from a potential human being into an actual manifested specific, human being. I would therefore claim that, whilst there are many things parents do to and for their children that warrant gratitude or condemnation, conception, and thereby existence, isn’t one of them. It is neither a gift nor a curse to exist, because there is no non-existent being (that never had life) that is worse off for never have existing – because it doesn’t exist, concepts such as good or bad belong to the realm of existence in the first place.

If we also take into account English’s proposal of how we should understand parent’s and children’s relationships with one another, it would seem that it is even harder to defend an obligation to feel gratitude for our existence. English argues that we cannot owe gratitude because of the nature of the relationship that is between a parent and a child. This problematizes not only the idea of children owing thanks for parents going “above and beyond” for their children when raising them, but seems to be the last nail in the coffin for determining that we do owe our parents gratitude for our existence.


In this paper I have discussed whether we should be grateful for our existence. From the arguments I have presented above, the short answer is “No”. I have argued that we do not owe our parents any gratitude for our conception, and made a distinction between the more and the less actualized potential beings to further clarify the issue. Even though some of the examples show problematic aspects of a parent’s bad intentions and reasons for conceiving a child, I would still hold that coming into existence is morally neutral. This is based on two ideas. First, and the one I have discussed at length here, is the idea that one cannot be said to be benefitted for receiving life. Secondly, comparing something with nothing is obscure and difficult, particularly when discussing a nothingness that does not follow from loss. If the only thing lost is the idea of a potential human being, it is not morally relevant. That being said, it is possible that there may exist reasons for gratitude in the cases where parents have gone above and beyond that which is expected of them during raising a child (i.e. after the child has been brought into existence). The idea of “above and beyond” is of course a relative term depending on resources and personal potential on the parent’s part. However, there is a foundation here for further discussion. In regards to coming into existence alone, it does not seem to make sense to claim that we owe gratitude for existence. We could, however, owe a general gratitude for our further continued existence, depending on obstacles that might show up along the way, like, e.g., illness or traumatic incidences. But this is more a gratitude of the postponing of our inevitable return to a non-existence: We do not owe gratitude for gaining existence in the first place.


English, J. (2014). “What Do Grown Children Owe Their Parents?”. In: Ethics in Practice: An Anthology, 4th ed. Edited by Hugh LaFollette. UK: Wiley Blackwell.
Parfit, D. (1986). Reasons and Persons. New York: Oxford University Press.