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Can Consequentialists Honour the Special Moral Status of Persons?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 November 2010

Eindhoven University of


It is widely believed that consequentialists are committed to the claim that persons are mere containers for well-being. In this article I challenge this view by proposing a new version of consequentialism, according to which the identities of persons matter. The new theory, two-dimensional prioritarianism, is a natural extension of traditional prioritarianism. Two-dimensional prioritarianism holds that well-being matters more for persons who are at a low absolute level than for persons who are at a higher level and that it is worse to be deprived of a given number of units than it is good to gain the same number of units, even if the new distribution is a permutation of the original one. If a fixed amount of well-being is transferred from one person to another and then transferred back again, two-dimensional prioritarianism implies that it would have been better to preserve the status quo.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 This objection is primarily raised against versions of consequentialism that assign intrinsic value to mental states or preferences. I shall refrain from taking a stand on whether there might perhaps be some reasonable version of an objective-list theory of well-being that avoids the objection.

2 Rawls, J., ‘The Independence of Moral Theory’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 48 (1974), pp. 522, at p. 17CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Similar views have been raised by several others. For example, in a discussion of utilitarianism, Sen and Williams note that: ‘Essentially, utilitarianism sees persons as locations of their respective utilities – as the site at which such activities as desiring and having pleasure and pain take place. Once note has been taken of the person's utility, utilitarianism has no further direct interest in any information about him’ (Sen, A. K. and Williams, B., Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge, 1982), p. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

3 Regan, T., ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, Ethics in Practice, ed. LaFollete, H. (Oxford, 1983), p. 143Google Scholar.

4 In the present context, well-being is taken to denote some more or less vaguely characterized mental state, which is assumed to be of intrinsic value.

5 The Gini-index is explained in section III. See also Champernowne, D. G. and Cowen, F. A., Economic Inequality and Income Distribution (Cambridge, 1998)Google Scholar.

6 Parfit, D., ‘Equality or Priority?’, Ratio 10 (1997), pp. 202–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 202.

7 The present exposition of two-dimensional prioritarianism assumes that states are static, and that an act is the bringing about of a new state of affairs (i.e. the transition from one static state to another). A theory that takes more dynamic aspects into account would require more in-depth mathematics than is appropriate here.

8 Hirose, I., ‘Saving the Greater Number Without Combining Claims’, Analysis 61 (2001), pp. 341–2, at p. 341CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Singer, P., ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 (1972), pp. 229–43, at p. 234Google Scholar.

10 I wish to thank Barbro Fröding for drawing my attention to this example.

11 I. Parker, ‘The Gift: Zell Kravinsky Gave Away Millions’, The New Yorker, 2 August 2004.

12 Transcript from an interview broadcast by CNN, 13 October 2002. Available on-line:

13 D. Majors, ‘The Gifted Who Keeps on Giving’, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 23 July 2003.