Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

3. A Utilitarian View

3.2 Normative Ethical Preliminaries

The upshot of the meta-ethical considerations canvassed in the previous section is that for a position to be counted as ethical, it must, of necessity, take an objective viewpoint. Whether a decision concerns who should be punished, how material wealth should be distributed or what rules should govern marriage, decision-makers need to treat the various interests of the parties involved impartially. To be objective in an ethical sense, the interests of each party should be considered equally, irrespective of the identity of the interest holder. Applying the principle of impartiality means giving no greater weight to the interests of one being simply because of its membership of a particular group. Giving preference on the basis of race, gender or species simpliciter, for example, contravenes the requirement for objectivity. This requirement for impartiality, coupled with a naturalistic view of the world devoid of religious concepts and other cognitivist baggage, seems naturally to lead to some form of utilitarianism. On this view, interest satisfaction is good in itself and all else is good or bad, right or wrong, commensurate with the amount of interest satisfaction that it produces.

Utilitarian normative theories vary according to what is to be regarded as interest satisfaction (what is the good) and what is to be appraised (what is right). On the first question, classical (or mental state) utilitarians view happiness or pleasure as the good while preference utilitarians regard the satisfaction of preferences to be the good. With due recognition of the challenges faced in defining and measuring the mental states of pleasure, happiness, pain and suffering, I do think that the classical view gets to the core of what it is we value and disvalue intrinsically. For the purposes of this essay, I will assume the mental state view. Whether we choose the mental state view or the preference view, however, will not impact how the problem of abortion is to be decided. I shall have no more to say on this here.

Book cover: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

On the question of what is to be appraised, act utilitarians apply the utilitarian calculus to the individual acts of moral agents (such as an act of promise breaking). For rule utilitarians, on the other hand, what should be judged for utility is the general rule (such as 'never break a promise'). No normative theory is without its problems; however, I consider the best answer to this question is provided by a third option. This view is defended by J. Rawls [1967] in his seminal essay, 'Two Concepts of Rules'.[20] This third option, rules in practice utilitarianism, can be viewed as a variant of rule utilitarianism. Whereas the early rule utilitarians saw moral rules as simply generalizations of individual acts, rules in practice utilitarians argued that moral rules logically precede the acts they describe.

Rules in practice utilitarianism arises from an initial consideration of what is in the interests of rational, adult human beings. A little reflection reveals that our interests are best served by social cohabitation with other rational adult human beings. (I exclude from consideration here rare cases, such as extreme religious ascetics, who desire the barest minimum of social contact.) By participating in a mutually dependent social community, we are able to satisfy many important interests that would not otherwise have been satisfied. For example, we can cultivate and enjoy long lasting personal relationships, reward ourselves in intellectual pursuits, such as philosophy and the sciences, and find pleasure in the arts, such as music and painting. Most notably, we have rid ourselves of the fear of the elements through our remarkable improvement in our material condition brought about by the specialization and the division of labour.

The maximization of utility, therefore, requires the formation and continuance of social life. However, social existence is not possible unless the members of a society are able to co-ordinate their activities in order to achieve their social and individual goals. To achieve such goals, each member must reasonably be able to predict and depend on the actions of others. Specific roles and duties in a number of areas of human behaviour must be set up for this purpose, along with a system of penalties for infringements of duties and a specification of allowable defences against punishment.

What results from these considerations is a set of social practices or institutions. Each practice will be specified by the rules defining the particular roles, duties, penalties and defences. Social institutions here include private ownership, marriage, punishment, public education, money, parliament, and so on. The rules governing private ownership, for example, define moves within the practice, such as 'buying', 'contracting', 'title transfer' and 'stealing'. What rules in practice utilitarianism contributes uniquely to this analysis is the observation that the descriptions of such acts within a practice have no meaning except in terms of the rules that define the particular practice. The rules, in this sense, are logically prior to the acts.[21]

The upshot of this is that because it is certain social practices that are of great social utility, and because act-descriptions subsumed by a practice can only be defined by the rules governing the practice, utilitarianism is best thought of as principally justifying the practice and not the single acts falling under the practice. Singular acts subsumed under a practice are justified or unjustified in a derivative sense; in terms of the justification or criticism of the practice that defines it.

Rules in practice utilitarianism has the distinct advantage over act-utilitarianism in that it recognizes that social practices are not built up by the application of act-utilitarian considerations to many singular acts, but that the singular acts themselves are defined in terms of the practice. This allows the utilitarian to avoid the intractable difficulties confronting act-utilitarianism from well-known counterexamples. In the past, act-utilitarian attempts at dealing with such cases have proved, I think, unsatisfactory.

Such scenarios include breaking desert island promises, stealing money from rich people to give to charity, using scarce resources in times of rationing, punishing innocent people and avoiding compulsory voting in safe seats. In each of these counterexamples, the act-utilitarian is committed to approving the action of the moral agent as the agent's action ensures a slight increase in utility while there is virtually no chance of the act being discovered. In contrast, the rules in practice utilitarian is in agreement with the considered moral view that condemns the agent's act in each of these cases.

Book cover: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham

The rules in practice utilitarian is now able to account satisfactorily for the (mostly) deontic status of our moral acts. When we adopt a practice on utilitarian grounds, such as rationing, promising, private ownership, and so on, we do not allow defences of ration-breaking, promise-breaking, stealing, and so on, based on act-utilitarian considerations. We necessarily abdicate our role as act-utilitarians in order to maximize our communal interests. This deference is written into the rules of the practice.

Importantly, though, the practice should allow exceptions in extreme circumstances. We allow, for example (on utilitarian grounds), for private citizens to disregard a ration in order to save a life. Such considerations are either explicitly written into the rules of the practice or are part of the discretionary ambit allowed judges hearing such cases. Acts subsumed by general rules, such as 'Do not disregard a ration', 'Do not steal', then, are largely deontic, but not absolutely.

A weaker form of rules in practice utilitarianism can be applied to less formal and less structured social practices, such as truth-telling and respect for privacy. A social rule that allowed act-utilitarian defences for, say, lying and phone-tapping would engender widespread feelings of uncertainty and anxiety amongst its citizens. Once again, utilitarianism justifies the establishment and maintenance of such practices. These practices have the usual specification of duties, roles, penalties and defences. The respect for privacy practice, for example, specifies which role-players are at liberty to listen in to another person's phone conversation (for example, parent, spouse) and specifies the social penalty for infringement (for example, social rejection and public criticism).

The only difference between this weaker form of rules in practice utilitarianism and the stronger form that identifies some rules as logically prior to acts is that the particular acts to which the weaker form applies do not, in our own language, have any descriptions that are of necessity at least partly specifiable in terms of the rules of the practice. Lying, for example, can be described as saying a falsehood with the intention of deceiving, without any reference to social conventions. I think, though, this lack of logical dependence in these cases is immaterial. Semantic differences based on the contingencies of the English language do not obscure the fact that the weaker rules in practice version shares the essential insights of the stronger version. And they are that our most important moral rules are not built up piecemeal through a continuous application of the act-utilitarian calculus. Our moral rules are justified in the more direct manner of considering their social utility.

The act of abortion may be considered as being subsumed under an informal social practice; the practice of refraining from killing human beings. (Hence the popularity in the abortion debate over the question of whether the conceptus is a human being.) The social practice against the killing of human beings has obvious utilitarian advantages. However, before considering the issue of killing, I wish to discuss briefly a related matter. Abortion is subject to legal restrictions in many countries. So, it is pertinent to this discussion to consider the utilitarian attitude to the relationship between law and morality.


  1. [20] Rawls' essay was first published in 1955 in Philosophical Review 64: 3–32.
  2. [21] This version of utilitarianism is not only applicable to state institutions. It likewise applies to small social groupings, such as bowling clubs, and to large international organizations, such as the United Nations.

Copyright © 2015

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