Abortion, the deliberate termination of a pregnancy, has been the subject of discussion and controversy for many decades. Utilitarianism is the chief teleological ethical theory today which considers the consequences of an action; such as abortion. This ethical approach to abortion is useful because it determines that “an action is right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number”. It considers the hedonic calculus, designed by Bentham, which weighs up the pleasure and pain generated by the available moral actions; the theory mainly focuses on both pleasure and pain and the ability to maximize pleasure over pain.
It also emphasises the ends of abortion over its means; so it judges the rightness of abortion by the end result, possible pleasure, it produces. The views of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are significant in illustrating the effects of a Utilitarian approach to abortion.
Firstly, Bentham’s version of utilitarianism, known as Act utilitarianism, is the most relevant theory to the issue of abortion.
His theory remains teleological, using the outcome of an action to determine whether it is good or bad. With abortion being a personal issue, it seems that act utilitarianism is the most adequate theory because it looks at the consequences of an abortion, taking each situation into separate account of all others. This would then enable women who have been raped, for example, to choose whether they go ahead with the birth because they may not be able to live with the consequences of their situation and bring the child up with the history of the conception attached to the child, thus in theory giving the mother a more pleasurable life, without the constant reminder of what happened to her. In reference to Bentham’s principle of utility, this decision could also ease the stress on her family, so in this case an abortion would be seen to bring the greatest pleasure to the greatest number. However, act utilitarianism, is considered a flawed theory because it can be seen as a tool to justify potentially evil actions purely because it fulfils the principle of bringing the greatest good to the greatest number. In relation to abortion, this could happen if a foetus is aborted simply because the family do not see a child as fitting with their current lifestyle, which some people would argue is an immoral choice, but it is justified by the theory; this illustrates that the theory doesn’t protect the interests of the minority.
In his utilitarian approach to abortion, Bentham would use the hedonic calculus which he designed to weigh up the pain and pleasure generated by the available moral actions to find the best option. It is potentially essential in relation to abortion because it determines whether it is intrinsically right or wrong, based on seven factors. Firstly the intensity of the pleasure, for example hearing your child’s first word. Secondly, the duration of the pleasure caused, might refer to the lifelong highs or lows from your child. An abortion demonstrates the certainty/uncertainty of the act because the mother may experience guilt and sorrow without the child or may experience freedom from not having the child. The remoteness/propinquity of the pleasure relates to whether the relief is immediate or a long way away. The richness of the pleasure may refer to the birth of a baby, which will bring happiness to many. The purity of the pleasure means whether the action will bring more or less harm, for example, by having a child at a young age could jeopardise an education or a career. Finally, the extent of the pleasure amounts to the number of people affected by it, such as the effect a newborn can have on a whole family. This method is effective in decision making because the calculations can be made over a longer period of time. However, having an abortion because of financial pressures, other family members’ needs, education, work, may be justified by the calculus. Bentham concluded that the action that produces the best consequences is the morally correct option to follow. Although the hedonic calculus seems to have been purpose built for abortion, the negatives of the quantative method outweigh the positives by far.
Mill developed Bentham’s theory by emphasising that it is not the quantity of pleasure, but the quality of happiness that is central to utilitarianism and the issue of abortion. He argued that Bentham’s hedonic calculus is unreasonable because qualities cannot be quantified. Mill believed that there is a distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. He accepted the idea of a woman giving birth because the outcome of that would be a child so it would be a higher pleasure for the parents and as a consequence the child would cause much pleasure for the parents, whose individual liberty to choose to have a child is maintained. As a rule utilitarian, Mill was concerned with which certain actions have tendencies to produce pleasure, in order to determine its rightness or wrongness. He also believed that utilitarianism was a moral idealist theory, meaning that there is an ultimate morality for humans. Mill said in his book “Utilitarianism” that it “is mostly considered unjust to deprive any one of his personal liberty, his property, or any other thing which belongs to him by law”. This means that it is considered unjust to hinder the individuality of someone other than you. Mill would consider abortion immoral because of his principles about how we achieve this moral idealism that Utilitarianism holds. Also Mill argued that “it is natural to man to speak, to reason, to build cities, to cultivate the round, though these are acquired faculties”; suggesting that we need humans to experience more and more, until we reach the ultimate morals of our world. Therefore aborting a life would not be moral in his eyes because a life helps get closer and closer to the ideal morals of Utilitarianism.
Preference Utilitarianism is another form of utilitarianism, advocated by Peter Singer, to determine that an action, like abortion, is morally right if it produces the most favourable consequences for everyone involved. It interprets the best consequences in terms of “preference satisfaction”. Each person has individual preferences or desires; “good” is described as the satisfaction of these. A right action is what leads to this satisfaction. Singer proposes this principle of utility based on interests because he believes that our “own interests cannot, simply because they are my interests, count more than the interests of anyone else”. He argued in his book “Practical Ethics” that abortion is morally permissible in any situation because “since no foetus is a person, no foetus has the same claim to life as a person”. A termination is acceptable because the foetus’s “existence… is of no intrinsic value at all” and the “woman’s serious interests would normally override the rudimentary interests of the foetus”. However, Singer expresses concern about the methods of abortion which cause a foetus to feel pain; he says that they should be avoided. A preference utilitarian approach to abortion, when compared to an act utilitarian approach, is unfavourable considering that the hedonic calculus at least accommodates the pain/pleasure of the foetus in the overall calculations.
In conclusion, act utilitarianism in particular, is a logical and more suitable approach to an emotive issue like abortion. It aims to solve individual situations on whether an abortion would be the right action by enabling the hedonic calculus to be used for any length of time. This approach promotes pleasure and compassion for all involved; considering the feelings of the mother and father as well as the foetus. However, it can be argued that the theory possibly overlooks the happiness of the foetus. Motives for abortion are not distinguished as “good” or “bad” therefore it encourages abortion to be used at peoples own convenience. Also it is very difficult to predict the consequences of abortion. You never know what the foetus will or would have actually achieved in his/her life anyway.
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