Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

3. A Utilitarian View

3.1 Meta-Ethical Preliminaries

Many of the views expressed on the abortion question prove unsatisfactory because of their shallowness. They neglect to indicate the source and nature of the principles used in formulating a moral view on abortion; they fail to ground the abortion question in an overall ethical theory. So, for example, much is heard of the conceptus' 'right to life' and the woman's 'right to control her own body'. But little is heard of the origin of these rights and how such rights are related to other rights and obligations. What I am saying is that a view on abortion and related moral questions will stand or fall on the meta-ethical and normative theories that it presupposes. With this in mind, I will begin with the essential task of outlining my presuppositions.

I shall adopt a form of non-cognitivism[16] known as sophisticated emotivism. This view of ethical discourse was propounded by C. L. Stevenson in his two major works, Ethics and Language [1944] and Facts and Values [1963]. I further articulated and defended this approach in my Allan [2015a].[17] On this view, moral judgements (as opposed to non-moral judgements) are fundamentally descriptions of objects, people and events inextricably coupled with the speaker's expression of his/her highest-level attitudes to the thing described. An essential aspect of such judgements is the speaker's invitation-so-to-speak to the hearer to share the speaker's attitude. These highest-level attitudes, or ideals, that are involved in moral discourse concern the type of person that the speaker desires to be and the kind of world that he would like to see. In this respect, our moral judgements are independent of our day to day lowest-order wants. So, we may often want that which we judge to be bad and voluntarily do that which we judge to be wrong.

Book cover: Introduction to Ethics by Fred Feldman

What of cognitivist alternatives? Intuitionist, divine command, naturalist and natural law theories (both theistic and naturalist versions), in my view, do not succeed in giving an adequate account of moral discourse. One key reason for this failure is that their proponents cannot give us a convincing reason for acting in what each of them stipulates to be the 'morally right' way and for desiring what each of them considers to be 'good'. Why should we be attracted to certain non-natural supervenient qualities and be motivated to act in accordance with certain necessary synthetic a priori constraints on our behaviour (intuitionism)? Why should we act in accordance with some deity's commands (divine command theory) or act in accordance with some natural law (natural law theory)? Any answer offered by the cognitivist is, at bottom, either arbitrary ('just because, and that's the end of the matter'), a simple appeal to authority ('because God commands it'), which itself is arbitrary, or a relapse into egoism.

Consider one such answer. Here, the cognitivist responds to the challenge by saying that most of us think and act morally because we are naturally so predisposed to think and act. Cognitivists who argue this way are faced with the difficulty of explaining why we should compel others to think and act the way we do and punish those who happen to think and act differently. Any solution is bound to provide an arbitrary or question-begging answer ('because it is wrong') or lapse into some type of interest theory ('because punishment is in his interest' or 'because it is in the community's interest'). Some solutions are a synthesis of both, especially in those cases in which the cognitivist divides the moral sphere into moral rules that satisfy someone or some group's interests and those that do not. Answers based on the interests of people other than the person to whom the appeal is made will simply beg the further question of why we should satisfy the interests of these others.

In many cases, arguments for the social utility of specific divine commands or natural laws are accompanied by rather trite social analyses. These include public appeals for absolute prohibitions on voluntary euthanasia, divorce and marriage between homosexuals. In any case, if the deity's commands or his natural laws did align with social utility, this would be a contingent fact that could have been otherwise. The link to communal benefit and the attendant reason for choosing to obey once again appears arbitrarily imposed.

Some proponents of divine command and theistic natural law theories contend that one must obey the commands of their deity, or act in accordance with his natural law, for it is in one's own interests to do so. These kinds of answer still fail to escape the charge of arbitrariness: Why did the deity command just these commands, or institute just this natural law, and not any other?

Book cover: The Language of Morals by R. M. Hare

This move also comes at the expense of a regression to a de facto egoism. To abide by a command, or to act in accordance with a natural law, even when one knows that to do so will involve allowing avoidable suffering, for the sake of one's own future welfare, is simply selfishness in the guise of religious piety. For these kinds of moral dilemmas, we are right to question the beneficence and motives of such a deity who commands his followers to opt for the 'ethical' egoistic option even in the face of the needless suffering that will ensue.

All of these unconvincing answers mask the real, but veiled, motivations of the cognitivist. Through the use of ethical language and moral discourse, they are doing no more than urging us to adopt the same pro-attitude as they are to their perceived necessary synthetic a priori constraints, their deity's commands, etc. Their appeal to 'moral facts' about divine commands and supervenient properties, etc., serve as the (mistaken) motivational bridge for getting their audience to act in accord with the interests of the individual and the community. As commendable as their feelings for the welfare of the individual and the community are, the central place they give to supposed intervening divine commands, natural law and supervenient properties in their meta-ethical theories put them at risk of giving voice to sectional interests and socially conditioned prejudices. Arguments for or against abortion founded on such religious sanctions or supposed self-evident moral truths are, on my view, based on mistaken metaphysical assumptions and unsupported action-guiding principles.

We have seen that the cognitivists' answers to the question of why we should act morally are fraught with problems. What is accounted for with difficulty and artificially within a cognitivist's scheme, however, is explained easily and naturally on a sophisticated emotivist's rendering of moral language. Sophisticated emotivism draws a direct link between moral judgements and practical action. For a sophisticated emotivist, a person is motivated to act in accord with what they deem moral because such deeming is the expression of their highest-level motivations.

In addition to the problem of motivation, the intuitionist, divine command theorist and theistic natural law theorist are faced with another problem not faced by the naturalist. This is a problem of ontology. The historical and scientific evidence to date makes the existence of a supernatural deity, either immanent in the cosmos or as its transcendent creator, guiding the lives of men and women, highly improbable. Meta-ethical theories dependent on the existence of such a being, therefore, rest on shaky foundations.

Similarly, I think the view that there are supervenient non-natural properties and synthetic a priori truths is encumbered with insuperable psychological and epistemological difficulties, and, therefore, also untenable. Our intuitions are partly the result of our social conditioning (and partly the result of our genetic constitution), and so should not be relied upon in an unreflective and uncritical manner. By appealing to supposed unmediated and immediately experienced intuitions, we are more likely to be resistant to moral reasoning and remain content with our own personal biases and narrow preconceptions.

Arguments about the morality of abortion typically appeal to a general principle of the form that it is wrong to kill an innocent human being. Returning to the question of motivation, an adequate meta-ethical theory should explain why a moral agent would want to act in accord with such a moral principle.

Book cover: Ethical Theory by Richard B. Brandt

Cognitivist theories of the subjectivist and relativist type appear to explain moral reasoning and motivation quite naturally. Meta-ethical subjectivists and relativists render moral injunctions, such as 'x is the right thing to do' as 'I prefer doing x' or 'My social group prefers doing x'. When asked about a morally obligatory act, 'Why do x?', the subjectivist's and relativist's answer that they or their social group prefers to do x flows seamlessly from their analysis. However, their answer seems entirely misguided. To support an ethical stance with the reason that the speaker or the speaker's social group supports it is not to give an ethical reason at all. A reason in support of an ethical view must, of necessity, transcend the individual moral agent and his parochial allegiances.

When we reflect on what it is to give a moral reason for acting, we can easily contrast it with what it is to give an immoral reason. An immoral reason is one that takes one's own interests or the interests of one's own favoured group into account while discounting or ignoring the interests of others. To think and act morally, on the other hand, is to be free of bias and prejudice; to be impartial in one's treatment of others.

We rightly feel meta-ethical subjectivists and relativists have missed entirely the central importance of impartiality in ethical discourse.[18] This notion of objectivity delineates moral discourse from other discussions about human decision-making, such as planning your next holiday with your spouse and deciding which train to catch. It is in this sense that 'objectivity' is central to ethics and not in the elusive but mistaken idea of acting in accord with some realm of 'moral facts'. Here, 'objectivity' in ethics is contrasted with 'subjectivity'; where 'subjectivity' is the placing of one's interests and that of one's social group above the interests of others. I will further develop this notion of impartiality in the next section on normative ethics.

I will end this meta-ethical preliminary with a short note on 'rights' talk. Some cognitivist meta-ethical theories employ 'rights' as a primitive moral concept. The general criticisms of cognitivist theories that I have offered above also cover such 'God-given rights' and 'natural rights' theories. Many of these so called 'rights' seem to appear from nowhere and, conveniently enough, at precisely the time that they are required. For example, the Catholic Church, on the issue of state aid to private schools, proclaims that 'Every child, simply because it is a human being, is entitled to expect a state-assisted education where the assistance is expressed in terms of a "base grant" which can be topped up according to the "needs" principle'.[19] It is left as an inexplicable mystery how such a 'right', presupposing as it does such complex social and monetary concepts as 'the state' and 'base grant', can be 'simply' derived from the mere fact that a being belongs to a particular biological species.

My own view is that a utilitarian theory is the most able for providing an adequate grounding for the attribution of rights, and, furthermore, is the only theory that can provide a satisfactory and non-arbitrary method of arbitration between conflicting rights. (Although, I must admit, a social contract theory almost succeeds in providing such a grounding and method of dispute resolution.) None the less, for a utilitarian, the notion of a 'right' is a derivative concept, and so is not essential to the determining of the moral status of abortion and related acts. The primitive moral concepts of the 'good' and 'duty' or 'obligation' are all that is required for a utilitarian analysis.


  1. [16] I take non-cognitivism to be the view that the primary function of moral utterances is to express the speaker's attitudes or preferences. Cognitivism, on the other hand, is the view that moral utterances express a special class of moral facts that are essentially independent of the speaker's attitudes and preferences.
  2. [17] 'Non-cognitivism' and 'emotivism' are somewhat misnomers for C. L. Stevenson's meta-ethical theory. He had stressed the special function of factual reasoning in ethical discourse, moreso than any 'cognitivist' could. Secondly, on his theory, moral judgements are not ejaculations of emotion, but expressions of the more psychologically stable, and cognitively dependent, attitudes.
  3. [18] This notion of the centrality of impartiality to ethical discourse is a dominant theme in other major meta-ethical views, such as R. M. Hare's prescriptivism and Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative.
  4. [19] Reported in The Age, 10th February, 1983: 1.

Copyright © 2015

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