Abortion has long been a topic of debate and controversy. In today’s ethical landscape, the dominant teleological theory is utilitarianism, which considers the consequences of actions, including abortion. Utilitarianism determines that an action is morally right if it maximizes overall happiness or “the greatest good for the greatest number.” To assess the morality of abortion, utilitarianism employs the hedonic calculus developed by Bentham. This calculus weighs the pleasure and pain caused by various moral actions, with a focus on maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain. Utilitarianism also prioritizes the outcomes of abortion rather than the methods employed, basing the moral assessment on the potential pleasure it can generate. The perspectives of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill offer valuable insights into the implications of adopting a utilitarian approach to abortion.
Bentham’s Act utilitarianism is the most relevant theory to consider when examining abortion. This teleological theory evaluates the consequences of an action to determine its moral value. Act utilitarianism is particularly suitable for abortion because it considers individual circumstances and weighs them against each other. This allows women who have been raped, for instance, to decide whether to proceed with the birth based on potential consequences and their ability to cope with them. By doing so, it aims to increase the mother’s overall happiness by eliminating a constant reminder of a traumatic event attached to the child. Additionally, following Bentham’s principle of utility, this decision could also reduce stress on her family, potentially making abortion the choice that brings the most pleasure to the greatest number of individuals.
However, act utilitarianism has flaws as it can be used to justify morally questionable actions solely in order to maximize overall happiness. In relation to abortion, this could happen if a fetus is terminated because prospective parents do not see having a child as compatible with their current lifestyle. While some argue that this decision is immoral, act utilitarianism would argue that such a choice is justified if it leads to the greatest overall good. This example shows that the theory does not protect minority interests effectively.
Bentham’s approach to abortion involves the use of his hedonic calculus, which evaluates the pain and pleasure resulting from different moral actions in order to determine the best choice. This is particularly crucial when considering abortion, as it assesses whether it is inherently right or wrong based on seven factors outlined below:
1. Intensity of pleasure: The level of joy experienced, like hearing a child’s first word.
2. Duration of pleasure: The lasting highs or lows associated with having a child.
3. Certainty or uncertainty: Whether the act brings guilt and sorrow for not having the child or freedom from not having the child.
4. Remoteness or propinquity: Immediate relief or relief in the distant future.
5. Richness of pleasure: The happiness brought by welcoming a baby, impacting numerous individuals.
6. Purity of pleasure: Whether the action causes more harm (e.g., jeopardizing education or career due to young parenthood) or less harm overall.
7. Extent of pleasure: How many people are affected by it; for instance, how a newborn can influence an entire family.
The effectiveness of this decision-making method lies in its ability to make calculations over an extended period of time while considering these factors within each scenario involving abortion.Despite the potential justifications for abortion based on financial pressures, other family members’ needs, education, or work, Bentham’s ethical stance emphasizes that the morally right decision is the one that yields the most favorable outcomes. Nevertheless, despite its seemingly suitable application to abortion cases, the disadvantages of adopting a quantitative approach outweigh its benefits.
Mill built upon Bentham’s theory by asserting that the quality, not just the quantity, of happiness is crucial in utilitarianism and in the context of abortion. He criticized Bentham’s hedonic calculus as unreasonable because qualities cannot be measured. Mill acknowledged a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. He endorsed the notion of childbirth, as it brings about a child that would bring considerable joy to the parents, elevating it to a higher pleasure while preserving the parents’ liberty to choose. As a rule utilitarian, Mill focused on actions that have the potential to generate pleasure in order to determine their moral status. He also deemed utilitarianism a theory rooted in moral idealism, positing that there exists an ultimate morality for humans. In his book “Utilitarianism,” Mill noted that it is considered unjust to impede someone’s personal liberty or ownership of property. This implies that restraining the individuality of others, aside from oneself, is viewed as unjust. Mill would perceive abortion as unethical based on his principles concerning the attainment of moral idealism advocated by utilitarianism. Additionally, he contended that certain abilities such as speaking, reasoning, constructing cities, and cultivating land are inherent to humans despite them being acquired faculties.The text suggests that the world needs humans to have increasingly more experiences in order to attain the ultimate morals. In this perspective, terminating a life would be deemed immoral as each life contributes to the advancement toward the ideal morals of Utilitarianism.
Peter Singer, an advocate of preference utilitarianism, promotes a form of utilitarianism that assesses the moral rightness of actions like abortion by analyzing their consequences for all parties involved. This approach determines the best outcomes in terms of fulfilling individual preferences or desires, defining “good” as satisfying these preferences. Singer argues that one’s own interests should not be prioritized over the interests of others and proposes this utility principle based on interests. In his book “Practical Ethics,” he asserts that abortion is morally acceptable in any circumstance because a fetus is not considered a person and lacks the same right to life. The termination is justified as the fetus’s existence has no inherent value, and a woman’s significant interests typically outweigh those of the fetus at its early stage. However, Singer does express concern about abortion procedures causing fetal pain and recommends avoiding them. Comparatively, when compared to an act utilitarian approach, preference utilitarianism falls short in adequately considering the pain or pleasure experienced by the fetus in overall calculations.
In general, act utilitarianism is a reasonable and more suitable method for addressing the emotional matter of abortion. It suggests employing the hedonic calculus to determine if an abortion is the appropriate course of action, regardless of pregnancy duration. This approach supports the well-being and empathy of all those involved, including the mother, father, and fetus.
However, critics argue that this theory may disregard the happiness of the fetus. In addition, by not distinguishing between “good” or “bad” motives for abortion, it allows for personal convenience as a reason for undergoing the procedure. Furthermore, it is difficult to anticipate the long-term consequences of abortion and what accomplishments the fetus might have achieved in their future life.