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Utilitarianism and Abortion
EDIT (20/10/22): After publishing this I got some negative feedback on the title from people who thought it was needlessly provocative, and other feedback that makes me think the arguments in the piece were a bit sloppy. I basically agree with all concerns and have changed the title. The post will remain on the site.
Note: I haven’t really thought that much about abortion, so I’m sure most of what I say has been covered elsewhere or is for one reason or another foolish. But at least by writing my thoughts down, someone will (hopefully) tell me the reasons that what I’m saying is foolish.
I got sent a review copy of Will MacAskill’s What We Owe The Future, but never got round to actually writing the review. Sorry about that! I hope it doesn’t mean I don’t get sent review copies of books in future. I read the book, and enjoyed it a lot. You can read a nice review here by Richard Y Chappell and a fantastic critical review here by Eli Lifland.
You probably know the main arguments of the book already, but the summary can be done in a few sentences: “Future people matter. There could be a lot of them. We could make their lives better.” The first of these sentences created an interesting spin-off debate, which I think was either prompted by Stephen Bush (see his review here) or Tyler Cowen, but it could’ve been someone else. The debate revolved around this question: ‘if future people matter so much, shouldn’t we care more about abortion?’.
The answer that MacAskill arrives at is ‘no, probably not’. His reasoning, in my view, is slightly suspect. In the episode of Conversations with Tyler in which they discuss abortion, he says that abortion is so insignificant in the grand scheme of things that we don’t need to think very much about it. After all, there could be trillions and trillions and trillions of people, so why should we care about a measly billion or so lives? Well, okay, fine. It’s true that abortion probably isn’t as big of a deal as climate change or global pandemics, but we can use this sort of reasoning against anything that doesn’t directly threaten human extinction.
And to be fair, a lot of people basically do say that we should only focus on those things. But MacAskill doesn’t. He wrote a whole book that made the case that you should donate to AMF to make sure that people don’t die of malaria! And even if he’s changed his mind and now does take the ‘x-risks are basically all that matter’ view, shouldn’t his position be more like ‘yeah, it would probably be good if there were way fewer abortions, but we don’t really have the time or resources to focus on that, so let’s ignore it for now’?
He gives another reason for not caring about reducing the number of abortions, which is that coercing people into not having abortions seems like it could have a lot of bad side-effects. He gives an analogy here - donating money to charity is good, but forcing people to donate money to charity would probably be bad. A useful point - but if we take the analogy seriously, doesn’t it imply that choosing not to have an abortion is good, even if locking women up and making them get back-alley abortions is bad?
I think there’s a pretty intuitive case here that we should take seriously. Why do utilitarians think it’s wrong to kill a baby? Well, some of them don’t. Or at least, they don’t think it’s always wrong. I don’t really know when exactly Peter Singer got so famous, but I think it was in part due to one comment in Practical Ethics: “killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all”. The antiquated term ‘defective infant’ refers here to babies with serious health conditions that will likely result in lives of suffering. But when thinking about healthy babies, most utilitarians do think it’s wrong to kill a baby. Why?
The reasons that most people have for thinking ‘killing babies is wrong, actually’ don’t always apply to utilitarians. Sanctity of life arguments are mostly out the window. But there are a few arguments that make utilitarians pay attention. One is that killing a baby will make their family sad, which is bad.
Of course, killing a child doesn’t always result in their family being worse off. Suppose, for instance, that a Chinese mother decides to painlessly kill her young daughter, as many women did when the one-child policy was in place between 1980 and 2021. And maybe we can assume she’s right in thinking that her family will be better off if she has a baby boy rather than a girl. Let’s put aside arguments about bad precedents or weird stuff that happens when there are more boys than girls. Why is this wrong? Utilitarians might appeal to the fact that the baby is likely to have a life worth living in the future if they want to claim that what these women did was wrong.
But if they use this argument, we’re back to asking why abortion isn’t also wrong if the baby is likely to live a worthwhile life! If you think that killing a baby is bad because of future happiness, you should probably think that killing a foetus is bad for the same reason. Why should being born make a difference? It’s odd to take the view that there is one particular moment when killing a foetus/baby goes from being okay to being wrong, whether that point is viability or birth. Is there really such a difference between killing a baby just before birth and just after birth?
It seems like the legal arguments are getting muddled with the moral ones. Obviously, there does have to be a point where abortion/infanticide becomes illegal, but there doesn’t have to be a clear point where it becomes immoral. A more reasonable model is probably that killing a foetus/baby/child becomes worse as time goes on and plateaus after a certain age. But why should we even take the view that killing a young child is worse than using contraception? After all, if we’re resorting to arguments about the potential to have a worthwhile life, any form of birth control seems like just as much of a problem as infanticide. This is the point made by Richard Y Chappell here (as well as others elsewhere):
“There’s nothing morally special about early abortion; it’s just one way, among many, of not bringing a conscious person into existence. It's just like any other form of family planning—any other moment when you refrain from having a child but could have done otherwise. So the real question is whether the value of future lives means that people in general should be forced to procreate right now?”
I think the obvious reply is that all other things being equal, it is better to have more children. Bringing someone new into the world is good! Their happiness is real and valuable. Sperm donation is also good, as someone on the EA Forum pointed out recently (although this post seems to have been hastily deleted, and it’s unclear if it was deleted by the author or someone else).
But we shouldn’t think that it’s as bad to use contraception as it is to kill a small child. A world where you can have a post-birth abortion when your child is three years old is likely to have way fewer people in it (bad!) but also have a load of weird views about when it’s okay to kill someone (worse!). I would guess that there are also probably other bad side effects I haven’t thought of.
I don’t really know what I think about the abortion stuff in the end. I suspect that even if MacAskill did think that it would be good if there were fewer abortions, he wouldn’t say so. It does seem like people who think that future people matter and think that it’s better if there are more people should be a bit unhappy about anything that leads to fewer children, all else being equal. One tempting point here is that all else may not be equal! If they had been born, children who are aborted may have had (on average) net negative lives.
My reaction to this is kind of a shrug of the shoulders - it could be true, I guess. But it kind of seems like motivated reasoning. Most people probably have good lives - MacAskill claims that we should probably think that about 12% of people have lives that aren’t worth living given the best evidence. So even if we assume that these would-be aborted children are twice as likely to have lives that aren’t worth living as average, we should still guess that most of them would have lives that are worth living. There would need to be extremely strong evidence that these children are much more likely to be depressed than average or something like that, and I haven’t seen that evidence (to be fair, I haven’t looked very hard).