BLUF: The moral weight of counterfactual people is a massive, yet neglected, variable in the abortion debate. In my opinion, accounting for this variable virtually solves the abortion debate at the societal, should-it-be-legal level.
When looking at the morality or desirability of abortions, many people claim, “if my sibling with X-serious-disability were aborted, then they wouldn’t be alive today with their net-positive life, and I wouldn’t know them.” This statement is true and is evidence against the desirability of abortion, but I have never heard a pro-lifer take into consideration the moral weight of the counterfactual people that could have been born should an abortion have taken place. This is an extremely important factor in deciding the desirability of abortions, and in population ethics in general.
The valuation of counterfactual people is very similar to that of potential future people. It is based on some expected-utility estimation of the person’s total expected subjective experience, the person’s expected net-impact on ethically relevant phenomena, and the probability of them coming into existence, minus a cost function. For counterfactual people, that cost-function is the moral weight of a person who is expected to exist otherwise. Let’s look at a thought experiment to highlight the need to look at counterfactual people:
Suppose it was a phenomenon of nature that every women’s first embryo implanted in her womb was destined to live a life barely worth living and would be expected to only barely give back more to society than the societal resources used to raise it. A woman could raise this child to term and get pregnant with a typical child several months after that, or she could have an abortion and end the pregnancy within a couple of weeks of it starting, and then get pregnant with a typical child, with much greater expected well-being and societal impact, within a month or two of that. The latter choice, if rationally taken, would require considering marginal cost—that is, the weight of counterfactual people.
I think it’s clear that society would be worse off if we didn’t make the latter choice at least a majority of the time.
Considering the marginal cost between having different children doesn’t mean that we must be harsh to our children with less expected impact on society and less well-being. It’s just as morally relevant to be kind to people that could be affected by our words and actions. However, let’s not pretend we are angels when we do a good and ignore the counterfactual better good that could have taken place.