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a) Explain how Utilitarianism might be applied to the issues surrounding the right to a child. (25)
There are a number of issues surrounding the subject of `the right to a child'. Is the right to a child something that
should be a universal right or are some people unsuitable to have children? If couples cannot naturally have children
of their own, is IVF an ethical means for them to have their own biological children? Should all people have the right
to adopt? The right to a child could also involve discussion on the issue of whether some people should be
compulsorily sterilised because it is deemed morally wrong for them to have children. In assessing how Utilitarianism
might be applied to these issues it is necessary to note that there are different forms of Utilitarianism and not all
would apply exactly the same methodology to reach an ethical judgement.
All forms of Utilitarianism are teleological, or consequentialist, and so have in common the principle of utility
This states that actions are not good in themselves but must be evaluated according to whether they produce the
greatest good for the greatest number. It is the results, or consequences, of actions that are important in
Utilitarianism, not the actions themselves. How the greatest good is defined varies in different forms of Utilitarianism
The Act Utilitarianism associated with Jeremy Bentham sees the greatest good as the maximisation of pleasure, the
Rule Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill aims at maximising happiness and the more modern day Preference
Utilitarianism of Peter Singer seeks to maximise the satisfaction of preferences.
The Act Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham would argue against a universal right to a child for all people. Act
Utilitarianism tends to be antinomian it does not necessarily see universal laws as good. Instead Act Utilitarianism
argues that each action must be assessed individually to see if it would produce the greatest good. For example,
Bentham would have argued that the Hedonic Calculus should be applied to a situation to assess if the greatest
pleasure would result from a couple having IVF. This could be useful with regard to the right to a child because it
would allow the suitability of parents to be assessed. If it would produce more suffering than pleasure to allow some
people to have a child, for example allowing violent individuals or paedophiles to adopt or have IVF, then Act
Utilitarianism would be against it. However, Act Utilitarianism would have no objection in principle to something lik
IVF, or indeed sterilisation of `unsuitable' parents. If these things could produce the greatest amount of good or
pleasure then Act Utilitarianism would see them as acceptable. However, Act Utilitarianism would not say there
should be a universal right to a child, IVF, or adoption.
Rule Utilitarianism would adopt a somewhat different approach to the right to a child. However, it would
probably not argue for a universal right to a child either. Rule Utilitarianism differs from Act Utilitarianism in that it
sees laws and rules as the most important means to maximise the good. John Stuart Mill saw rules as very important
and argued that there needed to be good rules and laws governing society with the aim of benefitting all individuals.
For example, a law that allowed a universal right to a child would not benefit those children who ended up with
abusive parents and so would not be advocated by Rule Utilitarianism. Mill's emphasis on qualitative happiness may
lead him to argue that it would be good for the greater good of society if some people were sterilised. Rule
Utilitarianism would therefore seek to create laws that would give the right to a child to parents where the end result
would be the greatest good for society as a whole. With regard to the right to a child this might mean that Rule
Utilitarianism would argue for carefully defined laws that would give the right to a child to some people but deny the
right to a child to other people.
Preference Utilitarianism argues that the aim of all actions should be to satisfy the preferences of the
maximum number of people. It seems fair to suggest that most people would prefer to have the right to a child. Also,
Preference Utilitarianism would have no problem with IVF. Peter Singer would actually argue that a human embryo
has no right to life as it is not capable of conscious suffering, so the discarding of human embryos should not stand in
the way of those who would prefer a child that was biologically their own. However, most people would also prefer
the best interests and preferences of the child to be taken into consideration. This would seem to mean that
Preference Utilitarianism would find itself concluding, along with Act and Rule Utilitarianism, that there should be n
universal right to a child as most people would prefer that some who are `unsuitable' to be parents be denied this
Overall, different strands of Utilitarianism seem to reach the same kind of conclusion about the right to a child, which
is that it should not be a universal right but should only be a right where it would bring about the best results for all
those involved, including the children.
b) `Religious ethics have a better approach to the `right to a child' than utilitarianism.' Discuss. (10)
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It is important to note at the start of this discussion that both the term `religious ethics' and `utilitarianism' are quite
broad and each incorporates a number of different ethical theories. In this debate `religious ethics' will be taken to
refer to Christian ethics, which in itself is not simple as there are many different forms of Christian ethics.
In Christianity there is no notion of `the right to a child'. Christianity does not see children as a right but as a