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Hierarchical Consequentialism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2010

The Hebrew University of


The article considers a hierarchical theory that combines concern for two values: individual well-being – as a fundamental, first-order value – and (distributive) fairness – as a high-order value whose exclusive function is to complete the value of individual well-being by resolving internal clashes within it that occur in interpersonal conflicts. The argument for this unique conception of high-order fairness is that fairness is morally significant in itself only regarding what matters – individual well-being – and when it matters – in interpersonal conflicts in which constitutive aspects of individual well-being clash. Consequently, the proposed theory is not exposed to the claim that fairness comes at the expense of welfare. This theory is considered within a consequential framework, based on the standard version and, alternatively, on a novel interpretation of consequentialism. Thus, it refutes the claim that consequentialism does not take the distinction between persons seriously.

Research Article
Utilitas , Volume 22 , Issue 3 , September 2010 , pp. 309 - 330
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 If there is a conceptual distinction that is morally significant in some respect between promotion of individual well-being and prevention of a setback to individual well-being, I believe that it is not morally significant regarding this consideration.

2 For a similar distinction see Tungodden, Bertil, ‘The Value of Equality’, Economics & Philosophy 19 (2003), pp. 144CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 18. A plausible extension of the Well-Being Principle is the Pareto Principle, according to which if one state of affairs is better than another for at least one person and the latter state of affairs is not better than the first for another person, then the first state of affairs is better overall. I consider the Pareto Principle as a consideration of well-being rather than as a consideration of fairness. For the latter interpretation see Arneson, Richard J., ‘Against “Complex” Equality’, Pluralism, Justice and Equality, ed. Miller, David and Walzer, Michael (Oxford, 1995), pp. 226–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 249, 251–2.

3 See Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism (1861) (Kitchener, 2001), p. 3Google Scholar; Williams, Bernard, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 97–8Google Scholar; Kagan, Shelly, The Limits of Morality (Oxford, 1989), p. 7Google Scholar; Kagan, Shelly, Normative Ethics (Boulder, 1998), p. 30Google Scholar. See also the claim that everyone should accept the Pareto Principle: Tungodden, ‘The Value of Equality’, p. 19.

4 If there is a conceptual distinction that is morally significant in some respect between a benefit and a burden, I believe that it is not morally significant in this context.

5 Compare Roberts, M. A., ‘A New Way of Doing the Best That We Can: Person-Based Consequentialism and the Equality Problem’, Ethics 112 (2002), pp. 315–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 325–31, 341; Christiano, Thomas, ‘A Foundation for Egalitarianism’, Egalitarianism: New Essays on the Nature and Value of Equality, ed. Holtug, Nils and Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper (Oxford, 2007), pp. 4182Google Scholar, at p. 53.

6 I argue for this principle in Segev, Re'em, ‘Second-Order Equality and Levelling Down’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87 (2009), pp. 425–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Compare Hooker, Brad, ‘Fairness’, Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 8 (2005), pp. 329–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 331. But see Meyer, Kristen, ‘How to be Consistent without Saving the Greater Number’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 34 (2006), pp. 136–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 140, 143–5.

8 This distinction is noted by Stark, Andrew, ‘Benefit versus Numbers versus Helping the Worst-off: An Alternative to the Prevalent Approach to the Just Distribution of Resources’, Utilitas 20 (2008), pp. 356–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 357–8.

9 I consider the Priority for the Greater Benefit Principle as a consideration of fairness rather than a consideration of ‘efficiency’ (as it is commonly understood). For the latter interpretation, see, for example, Nagel, Thomas, Equality and Partiality (Oxford, 1991), p. 66Google Scholar.

10 For such a principle, although one that is not necessarily presented as a high-order principle, see Montague, Phillip, ‘Self-Defense and Choosing between Lives’, Philosophical Studies 40 (1981), pp. 207–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Montague, Phillip, Punishment as Societal-Defense (Lanham, 1995), chs. 2 and 5Google Scholar; Draper, George, ‘Fairness and Self-Defense’, Social Theory & Practice 19 (1993), pp. 7292CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 77; McMahan, Jeff, ‘Self-Defense and the Problem of the Innocent Attacker’, Ethics 104 (1994), pp. 252–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 259–63; Coleman, Jules and Ripstein, Arthur, ‘Mischief and Misfortune’, McGill Law Journal 41 (1995), pp. 91130Google Scholar, at p. 94; Segev, Re'em, ‘Well-Being and Fairness in the Distribution of Scarce Health Resources’, Journal of Medicine & Philosophy 30 (2005), pp. 231–60CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, at pp. 252–5; Segev, Re'em, ‘Fairness, Responsibility and Self-Defense’, Santa Clara Law Review 45 (2005), pp. 383460Google Scholar, at pp. 392–404; Kraut, Richard, What is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-Being (Cambridge, 2007), p. 231CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See, for example, Raz, Joseph, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, 1986), pp. 218–21Google Scholar; Parfit, Derek, ‘Equality and Priority’, Ratio 10 (1997), pp. 202–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 212–17.

12 See Temkin, Larry, ‘Equality, Priority, and the Levelling Down Objection’, The Ideal of Equality, ed. Clayton, Matthew & Williams, Andrew (Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 126–61Google Scholar, at pp. 128–30; Temkin, Larry S., ‘Egalitarianism Defended’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 764–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 769 n. 9.

13 Compare Casal, Paula, ‘Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough’, Ethics 117 (2007), pp. 296326CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 309.

14 See Segev, ‘Second-Order Equality’, pp. 440–1; Re'em Segev, ‘Equality, Not Priority’ (unpublished manuscript).

15 I elaborate concerning this clash in Segev, Re'em, ‘Well-Being and Fairness’, Philosophical Studies 131 (2006), pp. 369–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 378–82.

16 I elaborate concerning this clash in Re'em Segev, ‘Taking Equality and Responsibility Seriously: An Egalitarian Alternative to Luck Egalitarianism’ (unpublished manuscript).

17 A general variable, which affects the importance of all the second-order principles of fairness, is the importance of the benefit: the more important it is, the more important is fairness with regard to its allocation. For example, it is more important to ensure fairness with regard to a matter of life and death than concerning a trivial benefit. Accordingly, if there are two interpersonal conflicts and it is possible to affect – to ensure the fairness of – only one, then the more important conflict should be preferred. This consideration is not practicably important with regard to the clash between these principles since it affects the force of every principle of fairness to the same degree. Compare, regarding the considerations of equality and priority for the worse-off: Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough’, pp. 311–12.

18 Determining the degree of inequality is a complex task, especially in situations that involve more than two persons. See Temkin, Larry S., Inequality (New York, 1993), ch. 5Google Scholar. In order to avoid this question, I focus on situations involving only two persons.

19 I argue for this principle in Segev, ‘Well-Being and Fairness’, pp. 382–6.

20 This seems to me a more persuasive account for the last judgment than the claim that otherwise there is a high chance of saving no one. For this claim, see Rivera-Lopez, Eduardo, ‘Probabilities in Tragic Choices’, Utilitas 20 (2008), pp. 323–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 327.

21 I argue for this principle in Segev, ‘Taking Equality and Responsibility Seriously’.

22 For this principle, although not as in the framework of high-order fairness, see Broome, John, ‘Selecting People Randomly’, Ethics 95 (1984), pp. 3855CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, at p. 55.

23 See Broome, ‘Selecting People Randomly’, pp. 44–5; Timmermann, Jens, ‘The Individualist Lottery: How People Count, But Not Their Number’, Analysis 64 (2004), pp. 106–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 110–12; Hirose, Iwao, ‘Weighted Lotteries in Life and Death Cases’, Ratio 20 (2007), pp. 4556CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cureton, Adam, ‘Degrees of Fairness and Proportional Chances’, Utilitas 21 (2009), pp. 217–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 See Segev, ‘Well-Being and Fairness’, pp. 385–6; Hooker, ‘Fairness’, p. 349.

25 For the distinction between full and comparative fairness see Vallentyne, Peter, ‘Distributive Justice’, A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, 2nd edn., ed. Goodin, Robert E., Pettit, Philip and Pogge, Thomas (Oxford, 2007), vol. 2, p. 1Google Scholar.

26 Compare Markovits, Daniel, ‘Luck Egalitarianism and Political Solidarity’, Theoretical Inquiries in Law 9 (2008), pp. 271308Google Scholar, at p. 293 n. 62.

27 See Rescher, Nicolas, Distributive Justice: A Constructive Critique of the Utilitarian Theory of Distribution (Indianapolis, 1966), pp. 2930 n. 8Google Scholar; Christiano, ‘A Foundation for Egalitarianism’, pp. 61, 72–3; Raz, Joseph, ‘On the Value of Distributional Equality’, Hillel Steiner and the Anatomy of Justice, ed. Wijze, Stephen de, Kramer, Matthew H. and Carter, Ian (New York, 2009), pp. 2233Google Scholar; Christiano, Thomas and Braynen, Will, ‘Inequality, Injustice and Levelling Down’, Ratio 21 (2008), pp. 392420, at p. 397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28 See, with respect to equality, Raz, ‘On the Value of Distributional Equality’.

29 Compare the suggestion that well-being and justice do not compete but rather the latter determines the good of who should be promoted, see Kraut, What is Good and Why, pp. 14–15, 209.

30 See Kaplow, Louis and Shavell, Steven, ‘Fairness Versus Welfare’, Harvard Law Review 114 (2001), pp. 9611388CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 1012.

31 I elaborate regarding this difference between standard and second-order equality in Segev, ‘Second-Order Equality’.

32 I elaborate regarding this difference between retribution and second-order responsibility in Segev, ‘Fairness, Responsibility and Self-Defense’, pp. 399–400.

33 For this principle, see Parfit, ‘Equality and Priority’, p. 219; Roberts, ‘Person-Based Consequentialism’, pp. 315–50.

34 See Temkin, ‘Egalitarianism Defended’, p. 767.

35 See Williams, Andrew D., ‘The Revisionist Difference Principle’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 25 (1995), pp. 257–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 259; Tungodden, Bertil and Vallentyne, Peter, ‘On the Possibility of Paretian Egalitarianism’, Journal of Philosophy 102 (2005), pp. 126–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Christiano, ‘A Foundation for Egalitarianism’, pp. 42, 76–8; Christiano and Braynen, ‘Inequality, Injustice and Leveling Down’; Temkin, ‘Equality, Priority, and the Leveling Down Objection’, pp. 156–7; Mason, Andrew, ‘Egalitarianism and the Leveling Down Objection’, Analysis 61 (2001), pp. 246–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 248–9; Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough’, pp. 309, 319; Hirose, Iwao, ‘Reconsidering the Value of Equality’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87 (2009), pp. 112CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 1–8, 3.

36 See Holtug, Nils, ‘A Note on Conditional Egalitarianism’, Economics & Philosophy 23 (2007), pp. 4563CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 56–61; Nils Holtug and Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, ‘An Introduction to Contemporary Egalitarianism’, Egalitarianism, pp. 1–37, at p. 24.

37 See generally Kagan, Shelly, ‘The Additive Fallacy’, Ethics 99 (1988), pp. 531CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kamm, F. M., Morality, Mortality II: Rights, Duties, and Status (New York, 1996)Google Scholar, ch. 2. In the context of equality, see Tungodden, ‘The Value of Equality’, p. 9.

38 See, for example, Shaw, William, ‘The Consequentialist Perspective’, Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory, ed. Dreier, James (Malden, 2006), pp. 520, at p. 5.Google Scholar

39 See Segev, ‘Second-Order Equality’, p. 426.

40 See, for example, Scanlon, T. M., ‘Rights, Goals, and Fairness’, Public and Private Morality, ed. Hampshire, Stuart (Cambridge, 1978), pp. 93112CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Scanlon, T. M., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 80–1Google Scholar; Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 3–4; Scheffler, Samuel, The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions (Oxford, 1982), pp. 1013Google Scholar, 25–36, 70–9; Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984), p. 25Google Scholar; Brink, David O., Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 213–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Broome, John, Weighing Goods: Equality, Uncertainty and Time (Oxford, 1991), pp. 1415Google Scholar; Temkin, Inequality, p. 19; Feldman, Fred, ‘Adjusting Utility for Justice: A Consequential Reply to the Objections from Justice’, Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert: Essays in Moral Philosophy (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 154–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kagan, Normative Ethics, pp. 48, 54, 59, 216–18; Shaw, ‘The Consequentialist Perspective’, p. 11; Arneson, Richard J., ‘Egalitarianism and Responsibility’, Journal of Ethics 3 (1999), pp. 225–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar But compare Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (1971) (Cambridge, 1999), p. 22.Google Scholar

41 For the last element of ranking, see, for example, Vallentyne, Peter, ‘Consequentialism’, Ethics in Practice, 3rd edn., ed. Lafollette, Hugh (Malden, 2006), p. 3Google Scholar; Kagan, Normative Ethics, p. 60.

42 See, for example, Kagan, Normative Ethics, p. 61.

43 See, for example, Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 21–2; Freeman, ‘Utilitarianism, Deontology, and the Priority of the Right’, pp. 313–14.

44 See, in this spirit, Mill, Utilitarianism, p. 60; Kymlicka, Will, Liberalism, Community, and Culture (Oxford, 1989), pp. 25, 32–3Google Scholar; McKie, John, Richardson, Jeff, Singer, Peter and Kushse, Helga, The Allocation of Health Care Resources: An Ethical Evaluation of the ‘QALY’ Approach (Aldershot, 1998), pp. 40–1Google Scholar; Shaw, William H., Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism (Malden, 1999), p. 100.Google Scholar

45 I thank David Enoch for helpful comments.

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