Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

6. A Utilitarian Population Policy

A utilitarian is committed to maximizing utility. The practices of contraception and abortion vary population numbers and, hence, the sum of utility within a population. Without an unambiguous and acceptable maximizing principle, it is unclear what a utilitarian's obligations are with respect to contraception and abortion. In the previous section, I developed a 'mixed' view form of utilitarianism that is now up to the task of guiding how we should manage population size.

It may be thought that the conservative and the liberal are immune to considerations of population size. This, I think, is a mistake. In terms of personhood and biological development, the zygote is very similar to the spermatozoa and ova from which it results. If the conservative is to insist that we have the same moral obligations to a zygote as we do an adult because they are both 'human', for the sake of consistency, he is obligated to prevent as many spermatozoa and ova from dying as possible.

Book cover: Abortion and Social Responsibility by Laurie Shrage

Likewise for the liberal. The feminist view that we have the right to control our own bodies cuts both ways. The right to abort is complemented by the woman's right to conceive and give birth to as many babies as she desires. The consequence of both views for population size and a community's right to regulate it in its medium- and long-term interests is often overlooked by the conservative and the liberal. This short-sighted oversimplification of the issues is made all the more stark considering many countries' concerted efforts to bring their rapid population growth under control.

In considering how a population policy ought to be shaped within a utilitarian framework, I will begin by outlining what is involved in formulating such a policy. As I've argued, an optimum population size for a human society[23] is one that enables mixed utility to be maximized. The optimum population size for a particular country will depend on such variables as availability of natural resources, efficiency of food production techniques, maturity of social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, and so on.

Consider my own country, Australia. Let us assume, for the moment, that the citizens of Australia are solely responsible for maximizing the mixed utility of its inhabitants and for no other communal groups. It is possible that the mixed utility of Australia's population may be maximized by radically expanding its population level to, say, 50 million inhabitants. On the other hand, it is also possible that it may be maximized by maintaining a relatively steady increase, as it has done over recent decades. With this steady increase, Australians have also witnessed a reasonably even improvement in their standard of living.

Just what our optimum population size is, I am not competent to judge. However, if it is a much larger number than exists at present, there is a further complicating factor that must be taken into consideration. We have been assuming that the Australian community is morally independent, responsible only for the welfare of its own inhabitants. But this is not the case. We share a global responsibility for the welfare of other nations. I doubt, though, that the best way to help developing nations is for all Australians to pack their bags and head for these countries in a philanthropic frame of mind. It seems that Australians can best offer aid in the short term through provisioning food, clothing, medical supplies, and so on, and in the long term through sharing expertise and technical assistance. This does not mean that we are presently fulfilling our international moral obligations. Far from it. Australia's foreign aid budget is paltry compared with what it ought to be.

So, even though our responsibility to other nations will not require us to alter our basic social structure, it may cause us to revise an expansionist population policy. Considering the mixed utility of the world's population as a whole, the resources required for us to increase our population size in order to maximize our own mixed utility may be better spent in directly improving the welfare of poor nations. Maintaining a relatively stable population level while increasing our aid to other countries may turn out to be a more morally defensible way of increasing mixed utility on a global level. These are complex questions requiring expertise in a number of areas if they are to be answered with confidence.

Whatever Australia's optimum population size may be, taking into consideration our part in maximizing the mixed utility of the global population, our population growth rate should remain steady. This is because rapid changes in population level dramatically alter demographic age distribution, resulting in severe economic dislocation as the number of people producing goods is no longer balanced by the number of consumers.[24] It is in our local interest and in the global interest, then, for developed nations such as ours to maintain either a stable or nearly stable population size. Our optimum growth rate cannot be radically different from our present growth rate.


  1. [23] I will not consider here optimum population sizes for non-human populations, although I think that my maximizing principle can be applied to these cases as well.
  2. [24] For a brief discussion, see the editor's introduction in Bayles [1976: xxi].

Copyright © 2015

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