Utilitarian abortion

By Eric Crampton 09/05/2015 4


Pro-life utilitarians are very scarce.  A philosophy professor recently told me that he knows of zero pro-life utilitarians in the entire philosophy profession.  

This is deeply puzzling.  While I’m not a utilitarian, the utilitarian case against abortion seems very strong.  Consider: Even if a pregnant woman deeply resents her pregnancy, she is only pregnant for nine months.  How could this outweigh the lifetime‘s worth of utility the unwanted child gets to enjoy if he’s carried to term?  

I expect it hinges on your model of whether abortion simply changes the identity of which children a woman bears or the number of children that would be born.

I don’t have any strong priors on which is true on average, but in some cases it would simply be a shifting in timing of births where a woman intends on having a family of fixed size and isn’t ready yet to start it. In those cases, and where the woman has reasonable expectations that a child later would be happier than a child now, pro-choice utilitarianism makes a lot of sense.

If instead we’re considering options where the number of children isn’t fixed and where abortion reduces the number of kids who get to be born, then Bryan’s puzzle holds – but doesn’t utilitarianism run into trouble where n isn’t fixed?


4 Responses to “Utilitarian abortion”

  • Even if a pregnant woman deeply resents her pregnancy, she is only pregnant for nine months.

    Apart from the fact that I find this statement quite distasteful, in terms of its easy dismissal of the woman’s concerns, the post is also glossing over the reasons someone might have for not wishing to continue with a pregnancy. It’s not all about planning family size, you know. I’m not convinced that economic theory has a bearing on this issue.

    • It isn’t economic theory; it’s moral philosophy.

      Utilitarianism (again philosophy, not economics) holds that what is good is that which maximises utility, whether it’s total utility, average utility, or some weighted average. Within the confines of utilitarianism, IF a child enjoys being able to exist more than the mother dislikes having to have the child, then it is better that the child is born.

      That’s Caplan’s case.

      BUT: any time that population size is a decision variable in utilitarian calculus, you wind up with conclusions that nobody likes. Like Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion that a world with a near infinite number of people each enjoying a tiny amount of utility is a better than a world with half as many people but each of them much happier – if the goal is maximising total utility. If the goal is maximizing average utility instead, then you want to execute miserable people. There’s also the fun case of utility monsters. All of it just points to problems with utilitarianism as a standard. Caplan’s piece, I think, hits one of the usual problems with utilitarianism – it has issues when the number of people isn’t fixed.

  • I totally agree with Alison – abortion is not about family size and the idea that resentment of the pregnancy stops when the baby is born is laughable. Or would be if it wasn’t so sad. Seque to domestic violence.

    However I can also relate to a wider vision: if utilitarianism is about the greatest good for the greatest number, and if we equate the greatest number with the burgeoning population on this planet, then the greatest good for the human population is a reduction in birth rate. Perhaps utilitarian philosophers think there are too many rats in the cage…