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Response from a Pro-Life Utilitarian (Sort of)

Summary:
Six years ago, I asked, “Where are the pro-life utilitarians?” Recently I received this response, reproduced anonymously at the author’s request. Hey Bryan, You wanted to ask “where are the pro-life utilitarians”. Well, I think I’d say I’m one of them. Why you’ve not heard of them is simple in my opinion: it’s kind of progressive to talk about non-human animal rights, say, but it is seen as very regressive to be pro-life. Let me start by saying that I am not totally sure I am a utilitarian, it’s just what makes the most sense to me, and I agree that being full utilitarian would probably mean having lots of children. I think both that that’s probably the case, but also a weird conclusion. But even if I have some moral uncertainty, I think utilitarianism is the most

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Six years ago, I asked, “Where are the pro-life utilitarians?” Recently I received this response, reproduced anonymously at the author’s request.


Hey Bryan,

You wanted to ask “where are the pro-life utilitarians”. Well, I think I’d say I’m one of them. Why you’ve not heard of them is simple in my opinion: it’s kind of progressive to talk about non-human animal rights, say, but it is seen as very regressive to be pro-life.

Let me start by saying that I am not totally sure I am a utilitarian, it’s just what makes the most sense to me, and I agree that being full utilitarian would probably mean having lots of children. I think both that that’s probably the case, but also a weird conclusion. But even if I have some moral uncertainty, I think utilitarianism is the most correct moral theory. The historical reason for me being pro-life is that I was born in a Catholic family, even if Catholics in Europe are not as conservative as in the US, I think. In any case, I am not totally sure that abortion is super bad, it just makes me very uncomfortable, especially knowing that it’s mostly a social construct on the basis that “people will look at you as deeply irresponsible if you have an unwanted baby” and they feel ashamed. That is, when we discuss this issue we’re talking not about 9 months or physical discomfort: we are talking about the social cost in your personal and professional life of this decision. I’m male and have not gone through it, but I’m still young enough to be able to understand it feels deeply terrifying, even from the male side, and I think that societal pressure is the most important factor here (“now you have to tell your entire family, friends and perhaps even peers at the job/university that you were very irresponsible, and be heavily judged accordingly”). I don’t know, I would really like to have society change here and stop seeing getting pregnant as something bad even if unexpected (in the same way I’d like them to stop eating animals that suffer). From my point of view, there are alternatives that are much better than abortion.

But you know, it’s even seen as reactionary to speak in this way (“you’re taking away basic women’s rights!”). This is not the way I see it though: I think every woman has the right to have a happy, free, and fulfilling life, but I don’t think abortion is the only or best way to get freedom from that criticism, and the 9-month freedom seems much smaller than the 75-year freedom of the baby.

I’ve seen other utilitarians in the comments in your blog post but some of the comments, especially those mentioning animal welfare or climate change, seem motivated reasoning. Let me clarify: I think it is unfair to kill someone because statistically speaking he would cause a lot of animal suffering. I do not subscribe to this way of thinking, humans have agency, and if they eat meat that’s a totally different subject and something they (not you) are responsible for. It is exactly the same as when some people argue that if we help poor people they will pollute more: it’s deeply unfair, and I think deep inside everyone, they know it.

With respect to your stronger objection: a pure utilitarian would not mind much if you kill someone and then compensate it having a baby, but feels wrong, so probably being a pure utilitarian is not perfect: that’s why I have moral uncertainty, and I acknowledge this feels in the limit of validity of utilitarianism. As such, I prefer to add some additional restrictions on what the ideal is: you should maximize total welfare, but it is bad to take away significant welfare from someone to give it to another person. Some may argue that you’re taking away a lot of welfare out of the woman, but to me, it seems much larger the future welfare from the concrete baby. In other words, I prefer to put the line further down: the baby is a very specific one, not just an abstract project. This feels a bit shaky, but I prefer to default to a more strict ethical theory when it comes to things as important as human life, instead of ignoring it altogether because you cannot articulate a bullet-proof theory, especially when the alternative is mostly “societal shame” (plus some pain and discomfort, but I think this is not the main reason). I think the stakes are high enough to do so.

The takeaway from all of this is that I hoped society would be much more understanding and supportive of these women, instead of just handing them out quick patches and judging them. I also agree that my solution is not 100% perfect, but it’s the best I can think of. Also, I’m not claiming that my moral theory is the best possible, but rather the one that feels the most correct one I can think of.

I write you here because I don’t want to get identified on the internet saying these things, but perhaps it helps you see what I believe and also why you will have a hard time finding people who say the same in public.

Does this help?

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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