Will Wilkinson:

If, like [Peter] Singer, we are utilitarians, we need not be too vexed by the problem of identifying the best morality. The best morality–the one that produces the largest sum of happiness–is the morality of liberal market societies.

I find Wilkinson’s argument compelling, because liberal market society is the main source of moral progress in the modern world (some people disagree, but I think this is pretty obvious). As Peter Singer and many others have convincingly argued, global poverty is one of the most important ethical issues of our time. Innocent people (including children) suffer and day everyday from preventable causes, such as hunger, disease, and lack of clean water. Singer, being a utilitarian, argues that we all must give substantially more money to charity than we currently do. This seems right. But consider the historical evidence on people escaping severe poverty. How many lives have been saved by the kinds of charitable donations that Singer advocates? Relatively few. How many lives have been saved by societies transitioning toward market liberalism? An astronomical amount. In China alone, virtually the entire population (at the time just under one billion) was in severe poverty at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Thirty-five years later, according to Singer, just over 200 million Chinese (out of a population of about 1.3 billion) are living on less than $1.25 per day. In China alone, a shift toward market liberalism has brought many hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty in just a few decades. So if you care about poor people, spreading market liberalism seems like the way to go more so than donating to charity (although the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive).

However, there’s good reason to think that consequentialism and the  morality that serves as the foundation of market liberal societies are mutually exclusive, because the morality of market liberalism is not consequentialist. As David Schmidtz points out, the utility-promoting institutions of market liberal societies depend in large part on their ability to create “conditions under which people can trust each other not to operate in an act-utilitarian way.” Effectively promoting utility depends largely on not acting on the motivation to promote utility.

When debating the permissibility of abortion, conservatives tend to argue that killing innocent humans is wrong, fetuses are innocent human beings, and therefore killing fetuses is wrong.  In response, liberals tend to attack the premise that fetuses are human beings.  The focus of the abortion debate thus tends to be on the location of the line between a fetus as a bundle of cells and a fetus as an unborn human child.

I’ve been reading through Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, and he offers an interesting take on the abortion debate that sidesteps the usual abortion debate sticking point.  Singer’s position on abortion follows fairly straightforwardly from his well known argument about the ethical treatment of animals.  There is no intelligible distinction, Singer claims, that justifies allowing a being’s species to determine the being’s moral standing.  Most attempts to draw this distinction run into trouble when it comes to children and the mentally disabled.  For example, Aristotle argued that what distinguishes humans from animals is the unique human capacity to reason.  However, children and some mentally disabled people have reasoning abilities that are similar to those of some animals.  Therefore, this distinction, and others like it, fail, because they judge that (counter to our intuitions) some children and mentally disabled people do not qualify as fully human.

So if there is no intelligible morally significant distinction between human and non-human, then the dividing line between a fetus as a bundle of cells versus a fetus as a full human in the abortion debate loses its importance.  Instead, Singer proposes giving fetuses, depending on how developed they are, the same moral standing that we would give to animals with similar capacities to experience pain.

This seems closer to being right to me than any other stance on abortion that I’m aware of.