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Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

5. A Utilitarian Maximizing Principle

Book cover: Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit

Governments and informal social groups, in deciding how to maximize net utility, are immediately faced with a theoretical problem when dealing with variable populations. Moral issues concerning contraception and abortion bring this problem into sharp focus. These issues strain utilitarian theory because the classical utilitarian principle of producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number leaves unspecified how this is to be done for populations in which the numbers are not fixed. For such populations, net utility may be increased in one of two ways. It may be increased by either increasing the happiness of the existing population or by the production of extra happy beings.

This lack of specificity of the classical principle has led to the formulation of three different utilitarian principles of maximization. The 'total' view specifies that the aggregate of utility ought to be maximized, the 'average' view countenances the maximization of average utility, while the 'prior existence' view stipulates that the only obligation is to maximize the aggregate utility[22] of beings that exist, or will exist, independently of the act or rule under consideration. To help us determine the adequacy of each of these three utilitarian theories of maximization, consider the obligations of a hypothetical deity in creating one world from a number of possible worlds. Judging the competing theories in this manner will allow us to judge them in principle, free from any personal biases that might arise if we considered how they will in fact apply to the real world of human beings, scarce natural resources, and so on. Prematurely dealing with these real world variables creates very complex problems in itself.

Consider, firstly, the 'total' view by imagining a deity with limited power faced with a choice of creating ex nihilo either a world with a very small number of extremely happy beings or a world with a large number of beings whose lives are only just worth living. Let us say that the beings in the first option number 1,000 and that each of them has, on an arbitrary scale of happiness, a happiness value of 10 units. The second possible world, let us say, contains 20,000 beings, each with a happiness level of one unit. Let us further stipulate that the creation of either possible world will neither increase nor lessen the happiness of our supposed deity.

For this scenario, the 'total' view entails that the deity is under a moral obligation to actualize the second possible world in preference to the first. (The first possible world has a total utility of 10,000 units while the second totals 20,000 units.) Like many utilitarians, I find such a solution unpalatable. We choke on this solution because it seems that the existence of many beings whose lives are only just bearable is not sufficient compensation for the non-instantiation of an extremely happy being.

The 'average' view is similarly faced with unacceptable consequences. Consider the same deity, but now faced with the choice of either creating a world in which 1,000 extremely happy beings exist, each with a happiness value of 10 units, or a world with 1,000 beings, each with a happiness value of 10 units, plus 1,000 beings, each with a happiness value of 8 units. For this scenario, the 'average' view entails that the deity is morally bound to actualize the first possible world, in which the average utility is 10 units, in preference to the second with an average utility of 9 units. But the only difference between the two possible worlds is that the second has an additional number of happy beings. Anyone who regards happiness as intrinsically valuable must agree that the existence of the second possible world is more valuable than the existence of the first.

Alternatively, consider a choice between the creation of a world in which 1,000 extremely happy beings with a happiness value of 10 units exist and a world in which there are 5,000 beings only slightly less happy, each with a happiness value of 9 units. In this case, the 'average' view entails that the deity is obligated to create the first possible world. This result seems counterintuitive. The slightly lower level of average happiness in the second possible world compared to the first possible world is more than compensated by its much greater aggregate utility (45,000 units compared with 10,000 units in the first possible world).

The 'prior existence' view was designed as a solution to the problems encountered by the 'total' and 'average' views. However, I find it similarly unconvincing. Consider once again our deity with limited power whose utility is unaffected by the decisions he makes. Let us say that this time he has the power to either create a world in which 1,000 extremely happy beings exist or create no world at all. Let us further stipulate that no sentient being could exist or come into existence except for the fiat of our deity. On this scenario, the 'prior existence' view entails that the deity is under no moral obligation to create a world of extremely happy beings under these circumstances. It entails that he has done nothing wrong in abstaining from creating anything at all. But this judgement seems to be in sharp contrast to the motivating spirit behind utilitarianism. The core of utilitarianism is that happiness is intrinsically good, and the more of it there is the better, other things being equal. We must also reject the 'prior existence' view, then, since it is inconsistent with that which is central to utilitarianism.

Book cover: Utilitarianism: For and Against by J. J. C. Smart and B. Williams

Without too much effort, we can see why we need to put aside the three utilitarian maximizing theories advocated so far. What is much more difficult to do is to propose an adequate replacement. I cannot pretend to be able to supply such a theory complete in all details and free from problems. What I will do instead is outline what I think is the most promising approach to take in developing a complete theory of maximization. I propose that the 'total' and 'average' theories both contain valuable insights and that in isolating the reasons for their failure, we will have at our disposal the tools necessary for constructing a more viable replacement.

To begin with, the 'total' view recognizes the idea that is central to utilitarian ethics. This axiom is that given any two possible worlds, or states of affairs, with identical average utilities, the state of affairs that contains the greater aggregate utility is morally preferable. What the 'total' view ignores to its detriment is that the loss of a high average utility in one state of affairs cannot be adequately compensated by a simple multiplication of beings with a lower utility, even where the result is the same aggregate utility. In other words, the 'total' view fails because it does not recognize that quality of life, as well as quantity, is important. It falls short in not acknowledging that each individual's aggregate utility, as well as that of the population as a whole, is morally significant. This observation leads me to state my first postulate:

Postulate 1:
For any given variable population with fixed total utility x, if the average utility decreases (with a corresponding increase in population level), then the moral desirability of the population level will diminish.

To illustrate, consider a population of 1,000 beings with an average happiness level of 10 units (total utility is 10,000 units) which expands to a population level of 2,000 beings with an average happiness level of 5 units (total utility remains constant). For this scenario, the first postulate simply entails that the original population level is more morally desirable than the latter population level.

Consider now the 'average' view. This view recognizes the deficiency of the 'total' view; that is, it recognizes that the aggregate utility of an individual is important. However, it completely ignores the part that the 'total' view got right. The 'average' view fails to grant that in those cases in which average utility is maintained but total utility is reduced, there is a loss of moral desirability. My second postulate, here stated, redresses this shortcoming of the 'average' view:

Postulate 2:
For any given variable population with fixed average utility y, if the total utility decreases (with a corresponding decrease in population level), then the moral desirability of the population level will diminish.

To illustrate, consider a population of 1,000 beings with an average happiness level of 10 units (total utility is 10,000 units) which contracts to a population level of 500 beings with the average utility remaining constant at 10 units (total utility is now 5,000 units). For this scenario, the second postulate simply entails that the original population level is more morally desirable than the latter.

What can be learned from the foregoing discussion is that the moral desirability of a shift in population level is a function of both total utility and average utility. Here, I introduce the term, 'mixed utility', to signify what we should be aiming to maximize in a utilitarian maximizing theory. To illustrate what I mean, let's start with the simplest kind of population; a population in which each member has the same utility as all other members. In this case, the 'mixed utility' of the population is a product of its total and average utilities and can be expressed by the simple equation:

m = t.a     where 'm' ='mixed utility'
        't'  = 'total utility'
        'a' = 'average utility'

Where one of the variables t or a is unknown and the number of individuals in the population n is known, mixed utility m can be calculated using the following considerations.

Since t = n.a and a = t/n    
then m = a2.n and m = t2/n  where 'n' = 'number of individuals in population'

I have termed that which I think ought to be maximized 'mixed utility' because the utility so named is a 'mixture' of total and average utilities. In fact, the theory that I propose here is simply a synthesis of the 'total' and 'average' views. Furthermore, the first postulate (where total utility is fixed, decreasing average utility is morally undesirable) can be derived from the equation m = t.a by simply keeping t constant. The second postulate (where average utility is fixed, decreasing total utility is morally undesirable), likewise, can be derived by keeping a constant. In order to decide upon which population level ought to be instantiated in a given problem situation, simply calculate the mixed utilities for all of the population levels under consideration. The population level that ought to be instantiated is that which has the highest mixed utility.

Consider now a more complex population; a population in which its members have different utilities. Here, calculating its mixed utility is slightly more difficult. To accomplish this, first segment the population into sections consisting of members with equal utilities. Then calculate the mixed utility of each segment separately using the formula given above. Finally, simply add the mixed utilities of the separate segments to give the mixed utility of the whole population.

As an example, take the case of a population consisting of 1,000 beings, each with a happiness level of 10 units, and, in addition, 500 beings, each with a happiness level of 5 units. Begin by calculating the mixed utility of each of the two segments of the population, m1 and m2.

m1 = a12.n
  m2 = a22.n
  = 102.1,000
 = 52.500
  = 100,000
  = 12,500

Then calculate the mixed utility of the whole population by summing the mixed utilities of the two segments.

mTOTAL =  m1 + m2
    = 100,000 + 12,500
    = 112,500

It is important to note that the maximizing theory advocated here is intended solely for application to problems involving a variable population base. The classical theory stipulating the maximizing of total utility (or what is an extensionally equivalent consideration in this case, average utility) must still be used for fixed populations.

The theory advocated here will now successfully generate all of the moral conclusions arrived at intuitively in my criticisms above of the 'total', 'average' and 'prior existence' views. None of the three theories considered were able to achieve this. In the next section, I will argue that this maximizing principle is able to solve the problem of abortion and, simultaneously, provide a conceptually neat and satisfying solution to the related problem of contraception.

Footnotes

  1. [22] Or what amounts to the same thing under the 'prior existence' principle of maximization; the average utility.

Copyright © 2015

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