Where Are the Pro-Life Utilitarians?
By Bryan Caplan
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?
A bundle of empirical regularities reinforce this prima facie case.
1. Almost everyone is glad to be alive. The unwanted infant may have a below-average quality of life, but below-average is usually excellent nonetheless.
2. There is a long waiting list – hence excess demand – to adopt healthy infants, so birth mothers need not raise their unwanted children.
3. Due to the endowment effect, unwanted children often become wanted by their birth mother once they’re born – as many would-be adoptive parents discover to their sorrow.
4. Women who just miss the legal cutoff for abortion seem to quickly recover emotionally. Pregnant women who think “A baby will ruin my life” are, on average, factually mistaken.
How could a utilitarian avoid the pro-life conclusion? There are two tempting routes:
1. Argue that the utility of the unborn counts for nothing – at least until the fetus starts feeling pleasure and pain. Convenient. But once you accept the core utilitarian intuition – that the existence of pleasure is good, and the existence of pain is bad – the creation of creatures who will feel a lot more pleasure than pain seems like a great good. Picture an uninhabited world capable of supporting happy lives. How could a utilitarian not want to populate it?
2. Argue that each unwanted child has large negative social effects, even though people are eager to adopt. Most obviously, utilitarians could embrace an extreme Malthusian story where the birth of one human statistically dooms another. Once you accept this story, of course, saving any life becomes morally suspect.
When I present the utilitarian case against abortion, people normally reply, “But that implies a further moral duty to have tons of babies.” They’re right. From my perspective, that’s yet another convincing argument against utilitarianism. Creating life is a prime example of what utilitarians conceptually reject: actions that are morally good but not morally obligatory. But given utilitarians’ notorious willingness to bite bullets, why should they demur here?
P.S. If you do know of any pro-life utilitarians, please share URLs in the comments.