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Right to Life?

In response to:

Death and Utility from the May 15, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Professor H.L.A. Hart’s review of my Practical Ethics [NYR, May 15] is so generous that I fear I am being niggardly in replying to it, yet one of his criticisms is, as Hart says, on a “major point quite central to [my] outlook,” so I shall reply anyway.

Hart asserts that I seem to provide no argument for my claim that according to Preference Utilitarianism, “the creation of a new person with preferences which may be satisfied or thwarted cannot compensate for the death of a person killed against his will.”

I did provide an argument—inadequately developed, I grant—on pp. 101-103 of my book. In this passage I urged that there is a difference between killing living self-conscious beings who desire to go on living, and failing to bring into existence a being which, since it is unborn, can have no desire to come into existence.

Hart’s view that Preference Utilitarianism cannot support this distinction rests on a misconception of Preference Utilitarianism, or at least of my version of it. Hart says that Preference Utilitarianism is a form of maximizing utilitarianism. This is true in the sense that Preference Utilitarianism directs us to maximize the satisfaction of existing preferences, but not in the sense that it directs us to create more beings with preferences that we can satisfy. The creation of preferences which we then satisfy gains us nothing. We can think of the creation of the unsatisfied preferences as putting a debit in the moral ledger which satisfying them merely cancels out. That is why Preference Utilitarianism can hold that it would be bad deliberately to create a being most of whose preferences would be thwarted, and yet hold that it is not a good thing to create a being most of whose preferences will be satisfied.

Preference Utilitarianism, thus construed, is admittedly a somber doctrine. It can find no positive value in the existence of our species, or any other species. Given that people exist and wish to go on existing, Preference Utilitarians have grounds for seeking to satisfy their wishes, but they cannot say that the universe would have been a worse place if we had never come into existence at all. On the other hand Classical Utilitarians can say this, if they believe our existence has on the whole been happy rather than miserable. That, perhaps, is a reason for seeking to combine the two views. I readily accept that the details of this proposed combination need to be filled out in much more detail than I give in Practical Ethics.

This deals with the central point to which Hart objects. Two of his comments on the application of my views can be replied to more briefly. First, he is broadly correct when he says that in my view the secret killing of a normal happy infant by parents unwilling to be burdened with its upbringing would be no greater a moral wrong than that done by parents who abstain from conceiving a child for the same reasons. I say “broadly” because one should also take into account the fact that a normal infant can be given up for adoption. Hence there is a better option available to the parents of the infant, one which is not available to the parents who refrain from conceiving, unless the woman is willing to go through pregnancy and labor in order to give the child up for adoption. That requires a moral sacrifice which it is difficult to blame a woman for refusing to make. No such sacrifice is required of the parents who are imagined to be contemplating killing their infant.

Even with this caveat, my view will appear shocking to most readers, as it apparently does to Hart. But is it wrong? I still have not seen a good reason for differentiating morally between the two cases (other than “side-effects” like the factor just mentioned) and in the absence of a good reason for taking a different view, I persist in my belief that the morality of the two acts is not intrinsically different.

Finally, Hart thinks my treatment of abortion is inconsistent with what I have said elsewhere in my book. He argues that I fail to consider the expectation of happiness that a fetus has, and to weigh this against the interests of the mother. But I do consider the relevance of the potential of the fetus, and I do not entirely reject the argument against abortion based on this potential. What I say is that this argument “does not provide any reason for thinking abortion worse than any other means of population control” (p. 121). That conclusion is, I hope Hart will agree, consistent with what I have said elsewhere. It means that a final decision on the desirability of abortion must depend on our judgment of whether population control is or is not desirable.

Peter Singer

Monash University

Victoria, Australia

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