Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Being a Utilitarian, Part 1

I've written a series of posts about the different types of utilitarianism arguing for aggregate, classical, act, one-level utilitarianism.  I haven't, however, talked at all about what it would mean to be a utilitarian in the real world.

In the real world, obviously, you aren't faced with a series of trolley problems or utility monsters.  If you don't think about it very much, you might conclude that utilitarianism isn't actually useful because you can't calculate the total utility of each possible action.

However, as it turns out, utilitarianism can be useful even if you don't know the exact state of the universe.

In future posts I'll examine thornier, more wide-reaching issues, but for now I'll just talk about one issue--the first issue that I actually thought about in utilitarian terms.  For people familiar with utilitarianism it probably won't be that interesting or revolutionary, but it's a good way to remind yourself that just because a theory is complicated doesn't mean approximations can't be useful.  (It also parallels an argument Peter Singer has made on the subject.)

When I was about 12 years old I was first becoming politically aware and starting to think through social issues.  Gay marriage was a no-brainer--you don't have to be a hardcore utilitarian to see that making people's lives miserable because they're completely harmlessly a little bit different than you is stupid.  But abortion was nagging me a bit.

I grew up in a liberal, pro-choice household with liberal, pro-choice friends.  And I really did see the benefit of abortion: raising a kid you don't want to have is a really shitty experience for everyone involved.  But I also saw the pro-life side of the argument: there isn't really any discontinuous difference as a fetus becomes a baby, and you were killing a fetus--was that murder?

I was pretty conflicted for a while: having unwanted kids was bad, but so was murder--until I thought about the scenario as a utilitarian.  A rights-based theorist might ask whether freedom to choose was more important than fetus' rights, but a utilitarian would ask: what are the actual consequences of the two options?

And after thinking about it for a while it became clear to me that there weren't really any grave moral downsides to abortion.  There are lots and lots of good reasons why murder is usually a really bad thing: you cause distress to the friends and family of the murdered, you cause society to lose a potentially valuable member in which it had already invested a lot of food and education and resources, and you take away the life of a person who had already invested a lot into it.  But none of those apply to abortion.  In fact, if you think about the actual consequences of an abortion, except for distress caused to the parents (which they're in the best position to evaluate), there are few differences from if the fetus had never been conceived in the first place.  In other words, to a utilitarian abortion looks a lot like birth control.  In the end murder is just a word and what's important isn't whether you try to apply the word to a situation but the facts of the situation that caused you to describe it as murder in the first place.  And in the case of abortion few of the things that make murder so bad apply.

If a mother were to have an unwanted child it would cause all sorts of harms: distress, loss of resources, and loss of time of the mother; likely a shitty childhood for the kid; and possibly an increase in crime rates.  Having an abortion would be as if the fetus never existed in the first place.

And so utilitarianism helped me solve my first societal moral dilemma, and made me comfortable being pro-choice.


  1. > you cause society to lose a potentially valuable member in which it had already invested a lot of food and education and resources, and you take away the life of a person who had already invested a lot into it

    Isn't that a sunk-cost fallacy?

    Furthermore, why does it make more sense to compare aborted-fetus to unconceived-fetus, rather than living-fetus? While I agree with your conclusion, and admit I haven't thought through the reasoning as well as you, it seems like you're picking arguments to support the conclusion you already believed, rather than vice versa.

    1. Re: sunk cost: the costs aren't sunk if you don't murder the person, because then the amount you invested will allow them to live a happy, productive life, whereas it will be totally sunk if you kill them. (Investing lots of resources into a person while they're young is a prerequisite for making them live to become productive members of society.)

      The reasons not to compare an aborted fetus to a living fetus are that if someone who wants an abortion doesn't get one the kid is likely to grow up in a home that doesn't want them and can't support them, leading to shitty lives for the parents, for the child, and for society. Contingent on the parents wanting an abortion and deciding it won't cause them too much distress, an aborted fetus is a whole lot like an unconceived one.

    2. Ah, so you can assume that any given unaborted fetus will have a miserable life, but any given person once born will have a happy wonderful life, as long as you don't kill them.

      But the choice to abort is being made after conception. The two possible universes are aborted and unaborted, not aborted and unconceived.

    3. No, of course you can't assume that an unaborted fetus would have a miserable life but a person once born would have a happy wonderful life--but as a statistical matter fetuses that parents want to abort are on the whole going to have shittier lives than the average person. (Note that I'm not arguing for forced abortion, just abortion when it's wanted.)

      It's true that the choice is between aborted and unaborted but what I'm arguing is that aborted is roughly the same universe as unconceived, and so the choice really should be viewed as the same as conceived vs. unconceived--i.e. abortion should be treated similar to a more expensive and time consuming form of birth control. Which, of course, isn't always an easy choice--sometimes it's not clear whether or not choosing to have kids is the right decision--but it's a decision which is pretty clearly something that parents should decide. (And if society decides birth rates on the whole should be higher or lower than can be accomplished much more efficiently by economic incentives than by forcing parents who want abortions to follow through with their pregnancies.)